In a shallow wadi near Lake Chad, women in colorful clothes skim bowls across the surface of the water, collecting the green soup of algae which grows there. They pour the algae paste into depressions in the sand, where it dries quickly in the sun to produce a crumbly green cake called dihe. These cakes will be cut into pieces and sold at the market, then later added to traditional sauces and foods for nutrition and flavor.
Nearly 8,000 miles away in California, more than 100 miles of man-made raceway ponds wind back and forth under the hot sun. Green algae gathered from the acidic waters is taken into a large building where metal vats churn and fans whirr loudly. Some of the spirulina is dried into a nutritious green powder for use in supplements, while the remaining spirulina experiences a more radical transformation. From a humble green slime comes a pure and vibrant blue, destined to color a variety of foods from candies to yogurt.
From its roots as a nutritious food to its new position as a highly desirable food colorant, here are five key moments in the history of spirulina.
1. The Food of the Aztecs
Spirulina has been used as a food and nutritional staple for centuries. According to Algae Industry Magazine, early Spanish writings document the Aztecs harvesting green algae from lakes by boat, then drying it in the sun to produce a green cake. These cakes were mixed with food and cooked into bread, or simply consumed with water by marathon runners to keep up their strength on long treks. After the 16th century, the great lakes in the Valley of Mexico were drained as part of the Spanish conquest and spirulina vanished from the historical record.
2. Spirulina the Superfood
Once a forgotten remnant of history, spirulina has reemerged to become a worldwide phenomenon. Spirulina has been hailed as a superfood due to its high concentration of protein, vitamins, minerals, nutrients, cartenoids, and antioxidants. It is commonly used as a natural dietary supplement. Spirulina has the ability to be grown as a pure culture in highly alkaline water, since other bacteria and microalgae cannot survive in such a hostile environment. This allows it to be cultivated without worry of contamination from other microorganisms, making it ideal for both large-scale cultivation and inexpensive small-scale operations.
3. A Weapon Against Hunger
The United Nations has proposed spirulina as a food source for malnourished communities, such as the Lake Chad region, where arable land is difficult to cultivate. According to MicrOrganics UK, spirulina is far more water-efficient than other crops and takes up far less space:
As Lake Chad shrinks from lack of rain and tensions in the region rise, malnutrition and famine are becoming more prevalent. The ladies of the Kanembu tribe have traditionally harvested spirulina on the shores of Lake Chad for hundreds of years, and in this video (Courtesy of the Conseil National de Concertation des Producteurs Ruraux Tchad) are shown using new techniques that allow them to produce purified spirulina with enhanced nutritional content. Spirulina not only provides a good source of food for malnourished children and adults, but also allows women to be self-supporting producers.
To find out more about the situation around Lake Chad and to see how you can help, visit USAID.
4. The First True Blue
Spirulina’s powerful nutrition is not the sole cause of its newfound fame. In 2013, spirulina was approved by the United States FDA as a food colorant. The European Union also approved the color, making it one of the first natural blue colors available. As the market for natural colors increased and companies like MARS, Kellogg, and General Mills pledged to switch to natural colors, the demand for the natural pure blue of spirulina skyrocketed.
The blue color of spirulina comes from the pigment phycocyanin. Spirulina contains between ten and twenty percent phycocyanin, making it an extremely efficient source of the pigment. Processing extracts the pigment from the algae before removing the marshy smell and flavor of spirulina from the color.
Spirulina blue can be used on its own, or mixed with other colors to create unique greens, purples, or black. Spirulina has poor heat stability above 110 degrees fahrenheit, and fades after prolonged exposure to light. The color has been known to be unstable in highly acidic environments and fades in solutions with high water activity. As a result, spirulina blue can be difficult to use in boiled candies, but works well in panned candy or chewing gum, and in uses with low water activity. To add the spark of fun natural color to your product, try natural glitter from Watson Inc.
5. A Growing Market
Historically the majority of commercial spirulina has been grown in Asia, but since spirulina was approved as a food colorant it has begun to be cultivated more in Europe and the United States. According to Persistence Market Research the global market for spirulina is estimated to grow from $719 million in 2016 to $1,855.8 million in 2026, with an impressive CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 10%. As consumers become more and more interested in natural products, the prominence of spirulina in the supplement and growing natural color industries will continue to increase dramatically. The story of spirulina is only just beginning.
To find out more about spirulina and other natural colors, download our free Guide to Natural Colors.