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Spirulina in Human Nutrition and Health

Spirulina in Human Nutrition and Health by M.E. Gershwin and Amha Belay (eds). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group; 2008. Hardcover; 312 pages. ISBN–13: 978-1-4200-5256-5. $93.95.

Due to tremendous consumer interest, the market for natural health products (dietary supplements, nutraceuticals, etc.) and functional foods has grown remarkably in the last decade. Numerous types of structure-function claims are being made for many products. Unfortunately, as the authors of this book point out, too often the proposed uses and the claims made for such products come without rigorous scientific research and substantiation—in particular human clinical studies. In addition, there is insufficient research data on the potential adverse interactions of natural products with other natural products/foods, or with prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs.

Spirulina, a photosynthetic cyanobacterium, is an exception to the challenges mentioned above. Spirulina in Human Nutrition and Health provides a review and detailed assessment on the existing basic and clinical studies of the health benefits of spirulina. Often considered a plant (blue-green algae), spirulina is the common name for the dried biomass of the genus Arthrospira; the 2 main species are A. platensis (Oscillatoriaceae) and A. maxima.

Spirulina has been consumed as a food in some parts of the world for centuries. Its use as food by the Aztec civilization was recorded in 1521. Arthrospira maxima was harvested from Lake Texcoco and dried and sold for human consumption in what is now Mexico City. The use of spirulina as food (cake called dihe) by the Kanembu tribe near Lake Chad in Africa was recorded by a phycologist in 1940 and reconfirmed by others in 2000. It is not clear how long they have been using it, but it has probably been for centuries. In the last 30 years, it has been commercially produced in many parts of the world and its benefits as a dietary supplement, human food, and animal feed have been studied extensively. In the last decade, research on the health benefits of spirulina has accelerated dramatically.

Despite the abundance of spirulina data in numerous published papers (in many languages), until now the wealth of knowledge has not been combined into one comprehensive book that would serve as the major reference tool for academic scientists, physicians, food and natural products industry professionals (including R&D and product development scientists), natural health practitioners, physicians, and consumers. The 14 chapters cover spirulina production, quality assurance, toxicological studies, antitoxic properties, therapeutic uses, antioxidant effects, hepatoprotective effects, protection against drug-induced nephrotoxicity, effects on immunity, antiviral effects, antibacterial effects, protection of brain and neurons against aging, and interactions with drugs. The chapters clearly demonstrate just how much this alga has been studied. This book excels at meeting its purpose and is whole-heartedly recommended as a reference guide.

The editors, Eric Gershwin, MD, and Amha Belay, PhD, have made a remarkable effort to coordinate the work of 39 spirulina researchers from 7 countries. Gershwin, an expert in immunology and nutrition, is a distinguished professor of medicine and also the chief of the division of allergy and clinical immunology at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine (Sacramento, CA). He has published more than 20 books and 600 experimental papers. Belay, a highly respected and leading expert in microalgal biotechnology, has extensive experience in the commercial production of spirulina, quality assurance, regulation, and its use in health management. He is currently senior vice president and chief technology officer of Earthrise Nutritionals, the largest spirulina-producing company in the world.

Drawing examples from Earthrise, Belay provides a comprehensive review of spirulina production and quality assurance. He covers the evolutionary history of human use as food and large-scale commercial production since the 1970s. He provides detailed information on the nutritional profile, product stability, and safety aspects. He also mentions the self-affirmed GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status of Americangrown spirulina through scientific procedures and FDA review, as well as other regulatory aspects. The environmental advantages of growing spirulina and various functional food applications are reviewed.

The chapter on toxicological studies provides evidence for the safety of spirulina based on animal studies. As the authors point out, in the published literature there are no systematic studies on clinical toxicology of spirulina in humans. However, spirulina has been consumed for centuries without any reports of significant adverse effects. In addition, indirect safety studies have been conducted in humans. For instance, in a small double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study, a supplemental dietary intake of 8.4 g of spirulina per day by 16 adults over a period of 4 weeks did not lead to any adverse effects. In fact, the authors state that spirulina has antitoxic effects: it has a protective effect against toxic damage by heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and radiation.

Spirulina’s hepatoprotective effects, antiviral effects, and anticancer effects are reviewed in the book, as well as its effects on diabetes mellitus, asthma, neprotic syndrome and iron-deficiency anemia, drug-induced nephrotoxicity, and protection of the brain against oxidative stress. The incorporation of spirulina in food (22 Indian recipes have been provided), which is used for supportive therapy of hyperglycemia and hyperlipidemia, have also been reviewed.

The authors call for further research on the potential applications of spirulina as a nutritional and therapeutic supplement in health management. The pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of spirulina deserve further investigation. In conclusion, this excellent book is expected to stimulate more basic and clinical research on this nutrient-rich green “superfood.”

—Mohammed (Mo) YoussefiProduct Development & Information ManagerEarthrise Nutritionals, Calipatria, CA