Spirulina contains some anti-viral and immune stimulating compounds that we're just learning about.
Mike: Can you talk more about that? Do you have some clinical trials on that yet, or what's the science behind that so far?
Gerry: We don't have any specific clinical trials. There's been some research out of Japan showing that a sulfonated polysaccharide which they've named calcium spirolan inhibits many viruses from invading cells, and this includes herpes and actually the HIV virus. And there's also been some work out of the University of Mississippi where they have extracted a compound, again a polysaccharide from spirulina, which greatly stimulates the immune system.
Mike: Interesting. It also reminds me of a study I've mentioned in the past -- I think this was out of Japan as well, where they took the cyan pigmentation from spirulina and injected it into breast cancer tumors and were amazed that those tumors vanished. They were destroyed by this pigment phytochemical.
Gerry: Yes, and there's also been a study in India with a group of people that chewed tobacco quite a bit and eventually developed mouth cancer, and they gave the group spirulina, and I think the remission rate was something like 80% of those folks with pre-cancerous lesions in their mouth if they took spirulina.
Mike: Very interesting.
Gerry: Yes. The other interesting compound in spirulina that really isn't found anywhere else in the plant kingdom or animal foods is something called phycocyanin. This is a blue pigment. That's why spirulina is actually called blue-green algae, because of the phycocyanin blue pigment. And it's a phycobiliprotein and research has shown that it really provides a great deal of protection to both the liver and the kidneys. It's actually an antioxidant pigment or protein pigment.
Mike: I find it so fascinating -- there are so many health-enhancing attributes of these phytonutrients, and yet they are largely unstudied. There's a whole universe waiting to be explored there. And I'm curious, are there any institutions that are really doing hard research on the health benefits of consuming spirulina?
Gerry: Well, certainly there's a lot of work being done in Japan. The Japanese have been doing work with another microalgae, chlorella, and I think they are certainly now discovering some of the health benefits and the superior health benefits of spirulina. And the University of Mississippi has a very good program. It's the National Center for Natural Products Research, and it's in the School of Pharmacy and they actually are looking at some of the natural health benefits of spirulina.
Mike: It does seem like the good research on this always comes out of the universities.
Mike: Obviously, the pharmaceutical companies don't have much interest in looking at the health benefits of spirulina, since that would typically compete with many of their drugs.
Gerry: Well, it certainly would, and they wouldn't have a great deal of patent protection to move forward.
Mike: Indeed. Well, that's an interesting point -- what about your own cultures? Is there any intellectual property involved here, or can competitors grow the same thing you're growing?
Gerry: Well, they certainly can grow spirulina platensis, but our drying process, the Ocean Chill drying process, is a patented process, so they would not be allowed to use that, and also the strain that we have really developed here in Kona after 20-some years of culturing spirulina is unique. We haven't really determined scientifically if it's a new strain, but we do know that it does contain higher levels of carotenoids than original, it's a little bit larger strain, and so it would take quite some time for somebody to reproduce the type of strain we have developed now here in Kona.
Mike: Now here's an interesting question -- is spirulina something that an individual could somehow grow or harvest in their backyard, and if not, why not?
Gerry: Well, it is something somebody could grow in their backyard, but it would be, first of all, very difficult to get the type of product quality that we can get out here in a large commercial production system. The reason for that is that one of the major ingredients to grow spirulina is baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate. It requires a lot of baking soda, as well as some sources of nitrogen, phosphate and trace minerals. It has to be very carefully balanced and maintained almost on a daily basis. And when it's harvested, it's harvested rather easily through a fine mesh screen, washed extensively, but when you come to the drying system, it's very hard for an individual to have an efficient low-temperature drying system that does not destroy the phytonutrients. Putting spirulina in an oven for instance, even at a low temperature, the amount of time that it takes and the exposure to oxygen during that time really would destroy a lot of the phytonutrients.
Mike: So a person could end up with a powder that looks like spirulina, but nutritionally it's not the same thing at all.
Gerry: That's correct. Now it certainly would have the protein content, which is over 50%, but you wouldn't get some of the subtle phytonutrients which are so very important, like beta carotene, zeaxanthin and alpha carotene.
Mike: Indeed, and I want to emphasize too, to readers, that those nutrients are what I think are the essential benefits of consuming spirulina.
Gerry: I certainly agree.
This article is part of an exclusive interview with Dr. Gerry Cysewski, CEO and founder of Cyanotech Corporation http://www.cyanotech.com, located in Kona, Hawaii. Cyanotech's spirulina and astaxanthin products are available in retail stores (look for products made with "Hawaiian spirulina") or through Nutrex-Hawaii at http://www.nutrex-hawaii.com.
The aerial photo on the left shows Cyanotech's farms. The dark green culture ponds contain spirulina, while the reddish ponds contain astaxanthin in various stages of growth. The dark land mass on the right is a lava field.
Editors note: Spirulina is one of the superfoods I consume on a daily basis. Due to my passion about superfoods nutrition, I traveled to Kona, Hawaii to conduct a series of interviews with Cyanotech personnel. To find all available articles on Cyanotech, just type "Cyanotech" in the search box below. New articles are being added regularly.