We’ve all seen it. An “it” product is lauded and applauded—and finds itself in everything, from cleansing bars to craft cocktails. This year? That food is microalgae.
It’s popping up in juices and supplements. Top chefs are using it in haute cuisine. You’ve probably even seen "unicorn" foods on Instagram that are tinted a magical aqua color thanks to the algae.
So what is this strange food? Is it like turmeric—a sensationalized herb without much scientific backing? Will smearing it on toast be like eating green ketchup—cool in theory but very weird in practice? And, really, the question on everyone’s minds boils down to this: Should we really be eating . . . pond scum?
It may seem like an overnight sensation, but microalgae have been around far longer than us Homo sapiens (and, no, they’re not exactly scum). “Consuming algae in food and for medicinal purposes goes back centuries,” says Marra St. Clair, co-founder of Project Juice and a board-certified nutritional consultant. “The Aztecs knew of their health benefits.” While they have laid low the past few centuries, microalgae are back—and bigger than ever (figuratively speaking).
To get a closer look at this microorganism, we’ve asked the experts to explain the two most popular forms of edible microalgae: chlorella and spirulina.
01. They are full of vitamins and minerals.
“The hype behind chlorella and spirulina is definitely well deserved,” renowned functional medicine practitioner Dr. Will Cole, tells me. “Chlorella and spirulina are both algae that pack a mean punch of nutrients.” These include chlorophyll, beta-carotene, and a potent blend of vitamins and minerals (the good stuff like antioxidants, calcium, and vitamin C)—which “many people eating the standard American diet are lacking,” notes McKel Hill, dietician nutritionist of Nutrition Stripped.
02. They’re excellent sources of protein.
Spirulina health benefits include a serious protein punch—and chlorella isn’t far behind. Vegetarian and vegan friends, if you haven’t already met, spirulina and chlorella might be your new protein-rich ingredients. Both contain more protein per ounce than a serving of steak! “Spirulina, in particular, is high in amino acids and is a complete protein,” explains Hill, meaning it contains all 9 amino acids necessary for a human's dietary needs. “It's a great protein to incorporate into your diet, especially if you are plant-based and looking to add more quality and easy-to-digest protein.”
03. Chlorella absorbs heavy metals.
From the lead in fossil fuels to the mercury in our fish and shellfish, we’re constantly exposed to heavy metals—which can interfere with the functioning of our organs, causing anxiety and even a serious bout of brain fog. Good news, “Chlorella acts like a sponge and soaks up bad pathogens that reside in your body,” says Alex Caspero, MA, RD, the head registered dietician at HUM Nutrition. Like a powerful body magnet, “Chlorella absorbs heavy metals, prevents them from being reabsorbed by your body, then gently whisks them out of your system. And if you take chlorella regularly, it can even prevent heavy metals from building up in the first place.”
04. Spirulina is great for gut health.
Unlike chlorella, spirulina doesn't contain cellulose walls, which makes it easy on your gut, the bodyguards of your immune system. This is great if your digestive system needs a break but could use nutrients. “It is absorbed by the body immediately when ingested,” explains Dr. Cole. “Since spirulina is easier on the digestive system, it is beneficial for people suffering from health problems such as leaky gut syndrome or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.”
05. They’re beautiful and versatile ingredients.
With its gorgeous greenish-blue color, these microalgae can make nearly any treat eye-catching. “I love adding a spoonful to my smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt or blend them into homemade nut milks and drinks, raw desserts or homemade ice creams,” says Sophie Bourdon, Recipe Developer and Holistic Nutritionist of The Green Life. “You can also use them as a natural food dye for a vibrant green/blue color.”
06. They’re best eaten cold or at room temperature.
Bourdon warns: Avoid heating or cooking the powders to keep the nutrients intact. Instead, store them in the refrigerator or freezer to retain their freshness.
Hill from Nutrition Stripped shares some fantastic smoothie recipes, as well as some incredibly sweet (and healthy) truffles, which she says are “a great way to first introduce spirulina to most people . . . an uncommon food wrapped into something very common and delicious!" Spirulina has a seaweed taste, while chlorella tastes like green veggies, so start with half a teaspoon and work your way up to adjust your taste buds to the flavors.
07. Organically and responsibly grown products are crucial.
Every nutrition expert I asked were all very consistent on this point: it's imperative that they're organically grown. If ignored, the impact goes beyond the “Dirty Dozen” and even into the “danger zone.” Caspero explains, “ Because chlorella is such a superstar at absorbing toxins, it’s especially important to know the source of your chlorella. St. Clair, suggests looking for products that are labeled “contaminant free.” And to “stick with reputable companies who will stick to the best practices,” like testing for heavy metals and harmful bacteria. If the source of your chlorella or spirulina isn't listed, that's a bad sign. Finally, ensure it is filler-free. “Don’t buy an algae product that contains flour, soy protein isolates, or other compounds. This can increase the chance of contamination.”
Interested in giving this green superfood a try? We’ve rounded up five of the experts’ favorite microalgae supplements below.
Only time will tell if chlorella and spirulina endure as healthy food staples, but with responsibly certified brands, it’s certainly worth the old college try. Add a scoop to a smoothie or a healthy truffle, and you’ll be quite on trend and healthier to boot.
Photo Credit: Nutrition Stripped