Now that matcha has invaded everything from Starbucks frappuccinos to protein shakes, and we’ve become accustomed to seeing its striking green color across the most influential Instagram pages, another superfood is taking over town: spirulina.
Spirulina—a type of blue-green algae—has been made famous by wellness brands like Moon Juice, Sakara, and The End Brooklyn (though its ‘superfood’ status actually dates back to the ancient Aztecs and Mayans). The spiral-shaped organism (it’s technically a bacteria) grows in warm alkaline waters in mild climates, and is found in the largest concentrations in Mexico and Africa’s Great Rift Valley. As it grows, it absorbs a myriad of nutrients from its environment.
“From what we know, spirulina is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin K1, vitamin K2, and vitamin B12, as well as iron, manganese, chromium, and a host of phytonutrients,” says chiropractic physician and certified nutrition specialist Scott Schreiber, M.S., R.D. “Not only is it a powerful antioxidant, but spirulina has also shown promise in protecting the liver, kidney, nerves and brain, helping detox heavy metals, supporting health blood pressure and cholesterol, and boosting energy.”
It’s not just spirulina’s impressive nutrition stats that have made it so trendy, however, suggests Abbey Sharp, R.D., of Abbey’s Kitchen. The algae’s beautiful blue color is otherwise pretty impossible to find in nature, and, frankly, it just looks lovely in a latte. “Given today’s rainbow and unicorn food trends, spirulina has become a popular additive to smoothies and other Instagram-worthy dishes,” she says. (Seriously, check out this delightful birthday cake latte The End Brooklyn made The Vitamin Shoppe for its 40th birthday…)
Most nutrition experts have been long-time fans of spirulina, and research suggests its health benefits are legit. For example, one small study published in the Journal of Applied Phycology found that five grams of spirulina a day may support the immune response of people with compromised immune systems.
Just a couple things to keep in mind before turning all of your favorite recipes blue: First, make sure you buy your spirulina from a reputable manufacturer that tests for contaminants, since this water-dwelling organism can absorb potentially-harmful metals, like mercury, from its environment, and produce toxins, warns dietitian and chef Julie Andrews, M.S., R.D.N. This is especially important if a supplement lists ‘blue-green algae’ or ‘AFA’ (which are harvested from the wild, and not commercially, like spirulina) as ingredients.
Once you’ve got the blue-green light, you can add spirulina—which you’ll typically find in powder form—to pretty much everything. If you want to keep things basic, just mix the powder straight into water or juice. If you’re feeling creative, stir your spirulina into salad dressings, mix it into homemade energy bites, or blend it into smoothies—like this colorful recipe from dietitian Gillean Barkyoumb, M.S., R.D.
Don’t worry, if you’re not a fan of spirulina’s flavor (some find it a little too ‘earthy’) you can still reap its benefits by popping a tablet supplement, like The Vitamin Shoppe brand’s California-Grown Spirulina tablets.