Research by scientists at Cambridge University has discovered that algae is a crucial component for a healthy vegan diet. Here's why...
Superfood algae has been one of the most popular items in the health industry for some time and while other trends may appear and disappear, it seems to be here to stay.
In fact, recent research by scientists at Cambridge University has discovered that algae is actually a crucial component for a healthy vegan diet.
Not only is it a sustainable and environmentally friendly food source, but these new studies suggest that it could provide a valuable source of vitamin B12 in plant-based diets.
Microalgae, such as spirulina and chlorella, have emerged as an essential source of nutrients for vegans, offering abundant protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins (B12, C, E), and minerals (iron, calcium, and magnesium).
These tiny aquatic organisms are rich in antioxidants, which aid in combating oxidative stress and inflammation, ultimately promoting overall well-being.
Additionally, microalgae have been found to bolster immune function, support cardiovascular health, and aid in detoxification.
Algae offers vegans a wide range of essential nutrients including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins (B12, C, E), and minerals (iron, calcium, and magnesium). Photo © boommaval via Adobe Stock
What is algae?
Algae or microalgae are tiny photosynthetic plants that are able to turn energy from the sun into sugars and proteins, absorbing and converting carbon dioxide in the process and expelling oxygen. In actual fact, marine microalgae are thought to produce half of the world’s oxygen supply!
They have been able to go through millions of years of evolution and survive vastly different environmental conditions, which has made them extremely resistant, high in antioxidant compounds and nutrient dense.
The most widely known algae are spirulina, chlorella and blue-green algae AFA (its most common strain, E3 blue-majik is the one used to make the beautiful blue colour in drinks).
Marine microalgae are thought to produce half of the world’s oxygen supply. Photo © damedias via Adobe Stock
Health benefits of algae
Algae and microalgae are essential for a vegan diet due to their numerous health benefits. These aquatic wonders are packed with essential nutrients and offer a rich source of protein, vitamins (B12, C, E), and minerals (iron, calcium, and magnesium), and omega-3 fatty acids supporting heart and brain health.
As a complete protein source, also aids in muscle maintenance and weight management, while Algal fiber promotes a healthy digestive system, and antioxidants boost the immune system and combat oxidative stress.
Algae has been found to be particularly beneficial to those on a vegan diet because it contains high levels of vitamins such as vitamin B12 which cannot be obtained by plants. With a B12 deficiency leading to issues such as increased risk to a range of neuro, vascular, immune, and inflammatory disorders, it is essential that vegans take a supplement that provides them with the adequate recommend intake <sup>1</sup>.
According to Professor Alison Smith, head of the plant metabolism group at Cambridge University: “Many vegans would prefer not to have chemical supplements and they would like to get their B12 as a natural part of their diet. You cannot get it from plants but we have found that certain algae are rich sources of the vitamin.”
Additionally, certain compounds, like phycocyanin, in algae show promise in potential anti-cancer effects.
Taking algae supplements could help vegans stave off vitamin B12 deficiency as scientists have discovered some types of algae are able to accumulate vitamin B12. Photo © Santje09 via Getty Images
What foods have microalgae?
Microalgae, such as spirulina and chlorella, have been shown to enhance immune function, support cardiovascular health, and aid in detoxification processes.
Spirulina is rich in B complex vitamins, vitamin E, iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc, copper and selenium. It is also composed of 60/70% protein and contains essential amino acids, making it a great plant-based protein source.
Spirulina is extremely high in several antioxidant compounds such as polyphenols, phycocyanins, tocopherols and beta-carotene. These contribute to lower inflammation levels in the body and decrease oxidation, which could be beneficial for cardiovascular health, keeping cholesterol and triglycerides levels balanced and lowering blood pressure.
Plus, it seems to reduce muscle fatigue, helping to recover from exercise-induced oxidative stress.
Spirulina is rich in vitamins and contains several antioxidant compounds that are beneficial for cardiovascular health, cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. Photo © pilipphoto via Adobe Stock
Chlorella is rich in many antioxidants as well, such as vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene and lutein, along with being a source of essential amino acids and minerals such as magnesium, iron and zinc. It is especially well known to contain more chlorophyll per gram than any other plant, a substance that is associated with properties that can assist the cleansing and elimination systems, in particular the gut, liver and blood.
Chlorella is often used as a heavy metals detoxifier since it is thought to be able to bind to toxins residing in our cells such as mercury, lead and cadmium and inhibit their re-absorption, as well as decreasing the damage from UV exposure and eliminating radioactive particles from the body. Not only that, but it can stimulate immune cells activity too.
Chlorella contains more chlorophyll per gram than any other plant and can assist the cleansing and elimination systems, in particular the gut, liver and blood. Photo © sinhyu via Adobe Stock
Blue-green algae is a source of B vitamins, antioxidant compounds and amino acids too, along with omega-3 fatty acids and trace minerals. One of its unique nutrients is phenethylamine, synthesised from phenylalanine and tyrosine in the body that is referred to as the ‘molecule of love’ for its ability to improve mood.
So it’s often suggested to alleviate depressive states as well as to improve memory, concentration and cognitive function. By the way, the same molecule can be found in raw cacao.
Almost 50% of this algae’s lipid content is composed of omega-3 fatty acids, primarily alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which can be converted in DHA, which is essential for proper functioning of the nervous system, brain, heart and hormonal health.
Blue-green algae is a source of B vitamins, antioxidant compounds and amino acids too, along with omega-3 fatty acids and trace minerals. Photo © Sergii via Adobe Stock
Is algae safe to consume?
Even though microalgae is an amazing source of important nutrients and can definitely have benefits and support your health, it’s important to use some caution with it, just like with all the concentrated forms of ‘superfoods’.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a doctor before using them and people with autoimmune diseases or a compromised immune system should be careful, since all of them have stimulating effects on the immune function and may worsen these conditions.
Also, those with iodine sensitive thyroid conditions or iodine allergies should avoid them, as well as those with blood or clotting disorders as their high vitamin K content can cause an increase in clotting. It’s also possible that they may interact with certain medications, so it’s always best to check with a medical practitioner.
Microalgae is an amazing source of important nutrients and can definitely have benefits and support your health, but it’s important to use some caution with it. Photo © Diana Vyshniakova
A few things to look out for in people that can and want to use them, is choosing a product from a reputable seller, as contamination is a serious concern.
Pick a company that is certified non-GMO and organic and check out that it discloses where their algae is sourced from and whether any testing has been done to verify that it’s clean, as many micro algae can be contaminated with different types of metals.
In addition, since they can be sold in powder, capsule or tablet form, pay attention to the added ingredients as they can be bulked up with fillers, additives and some common allergens such as soy, gluten or corn.
If you’re asking yourself how to incorporate these green powders into your diet, it’s pretty easy and a good way to not only bring some gorgeous colour to your dishes, but also to sneak in an extra dose of beneficial nutrients.
Blend some powder into your favourite smoothie or ice cream recipe, chia puddings, energy bars or even decadent chocolate truffles.
Blend some powder into smoothies or ice cream, chia puddings, energy bars or even decadent chocolate truffles. Photo © Africa Studio
How to add algae to a vegan diet
Incorporating algae into your vegan diet can be a great way to add valuable nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Here are some delicious ideas to incorporate algae in your meals to boost your nutrient intake:
- Seaweed snacks: Look for roasted or dehydrated seaweed snacks at your local supermarket. They come in various flavours and can be enjoyed as a healthy, crunchy snack.
- Nori wraps: Use nori sheets (the type used for sushi) to make delicious wraps filled with your favourite veggies, tofu, avocado, and a tasty dipping sauce.
- Spirulina smoothies: Add a teaspoon of spirulina powder to your favorite smoothie recipe. Spirulina not only adds a vibrant green colour but also provides a protein and nutrient boost.
- Dulse bacon: Crumble some dulse seaweed and pan-fry it with a bit of oil and soy sauce to create a delicious plant-based bacon alternative for sandwiches and salads.
You can even algae for savoury creations such as green hummus and salad dressings, pestos and sauces. Just add a pinch to homemade pasta and bread doughs or simply sprinkle a bit into soups or tofu scramble and frittatas.
And of course, don’t forget about unicorn lattes, one of prettiest ways to use blue-majik powder, along with adding a pinch to pancakes, chia pudding or yoghurt bowls to have a delicious breakfast that looks like it came straight out of a fairytale!
It’s delicious, nutritious and super sustainable, but what are the health benefits of seaweed?
Featured image © greenleaf123 via Getty Images
- Niklewicz, A., Smith, A.D., Smith, A., Holzer, A., Klein, A., McCaddon, A., Molloy, A.M., Wolffenbuttel, B.H.R., Nexo, E., McNulty, H., Refsum, H., Gueant, J.-L., Dib, M.-J., Ward, M., Murphy, M., Green, R., Ahmadi, K.R., Hannibal, L., Warren, M.J., Owen, P.J., on behalf of CluB-12 (2023) The importance of vitamin B12 for individuals choosing plant-based diets. European Journal of Nutrition. Volume 62, Issue 3, April 2023, Pages 1551-1559