Journal of Cellular Biotechnology 5 (2019) 43–54
Spirulina platensis, a super food?
uger-Gengeb, P. Waldeckcand J.-H. K¨
aInstitute of Clinical Haemostasiology and Transfusion Medicine, University of Saarland,
bDepartment of Biomaterials and Healthcare, Fraunhofer Institute Applied Polymer Research (IAP),
Division of Life Science and Bioprocesses, Potsdam-Golm, Germany
cInstitute of Biotechnology, Brandenburgische Technische Universit¨at Cottbus-Senftenberg,
dCarbon Biotech Social Enterprise Stiftungs AG, Senftenberg, Germany
Abstract. Spirulina platensis, a multicelluar, photosynthetic prokaryote (algae) contains a high amount of proteins, vitamins
and minerals superior to many foods as e.g. soybeans. Thus, Spirulina platensis was recognized as nutritious food by the
United Nations World Food Conference. Due to the high amount of nutritive ingredients Spirulina has a long history as
dietary supplement. In addition, spirulina platensis is also efﬁciently used as forage with known effects on ﬂesh, egg and
plumage color, milk yield and fertility. The versatile utilization of the alga can be explained on the one hand with the nutrient
levels and on the other hand with recognized effects as anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer and
anti-inﬂammatory substance. Therefore, this alga is named as “superfood”. Beyond, these algae convert carbon dioxide into
organic substances and produce oxygen during their growth in alkaline and saline water thereby not wasting fresh water
allowing the production in barren areas.
Despite this diverse use of Spirulina platensis due to its beneﬁcial properties, many basic mechanisms on a molecular and
cellular level are not well understood and should be explored in future studies.
Keywords: Spirulina, health effects, dietary supplements, liver protection, virus infection, HIV, nutrition, animal feeding
Compared to other foods or by weight, Spirulina is recognized as one of the most nutritious foods
on the planet: high in proteins, containing all essential amino acids, also high in B vitamins, iron,
magnesium, potassium and many other vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants. Therefore,
spirulina was declared by the United Nations World Food Conference already in 1974 as the best food
for the future.
Spirulina platensis is a multicellular blue-green microalga (prokaryote) (length: 50–500 m, width:
3–4 m) belonging to the phylum Cyanophyta (Cyanobacteria). Its name derives from the nature of its
ﬁlaments, characterized by cylindrical, multicellular trichomes in an open left-handed helix. Taxonomi-
cally, “Spirulina” describes mainly two species of Cyanobacteria, Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira
maxima. Both have been used as food, dietary supplement, and feed supplement . These and other
Arthrospira species forming helical trichomes were once classiﬁed into a single genus, Spirulina .
Before this classiﬁcation by Geitler et al., depending on the presence of septa, the two genera were
placed separately: The Spirulina species being without septa and the Arthrospira species with septa.
∗Corresponding author: Prof. Dr. F. Jung, Institute of Clinical Haemostasiology and Transfusion Medicine, University of
Saarland, Homburg, Germany. E-mail: Friedrich.Jung@hzg.de.
2352-3689/19/$35.00 © 2019 – IOS Press and the authors. All rights reserved
44 F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food?
Recent morphological, physiological, and biochemical studies have shown that these two genera are
distinctively different and that the edible forms commonly referred to as Spirulina platensis have little
in common with other much smaller species. This distinction has been also based on results from the
complete sequence of the 16S ribosomal RNA gene and the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) between
the 16S and 23S rRNA genes determined for two Arthrospira strains and one Spirulina strain  show-
ing that the two Arthrospira strains formed a close cluster distant from the Spirulina strain. Habitats for
Spirulina include the Paciﬁc Ocean near Japan and Hawaii, and large freshwater lakes, including Lake
Chad in Africa, Klamath Lake in North America, Lake Texcoco in Mexico, and Lake Titikaka in South
Spirulina has long been used as a dietary supplement by people living close to alkaline lakes where it
is naturally found. It was used as food in Mexico by the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans until the 16th
century. One of Hernan Cort´
es’ soldiers described the harvest of algae at the lake Texcoco and the sale as
cakes called “tecuitlatl” [4–6]. It has and is still being used as food by the ethnic group of Kanembu at the
lake Chad area of the Republic of Chad where it is sold as dried bread called “dihe” . This traditional
food was rediscovered in Chad by a European scientiﬁc mission and is now widely cultured throughout
the world with gained popularity in the human health food industry. In many African countries it is
collected from natural water, dried and eaten, as a major source of protein and in many countries of Asia
it is used as protein supplement and as health food. Spirulina has been used as a complementary dietary
ingredient of feed for ﬁsh, shrimp and poultry, and increasingly as a protein and vitamin supplement to
2. Biochemical composition
Spirulina has high quality protein content (55–70 percent of the dry weight), which is more than
other commonly used plant sources such as dry soybeans (35 percent), peanuts (25 percent) or grains
(8–10%). The biochemical composition of Spirulina can be summarized as follows :
Spirulina contains unusually high amounts of protein, between 55 and 70 percent by dry weight,
depending upon the source . It is a complete protein, containing all essential amino acids, though
with reduced amounts of methionine, cystine, and lysine, as compared to standard proteins such as
that from meat, eggs, or milk; it is, however, superior to all standard plant protein, such as that from
2.2. Essential fatty acids
Spirulina has a high amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), 1.5–2.0 percent of5-6
percent total lipid. In particular, Spirulina is rich in ␥-linolenic acid (36 percent of total PUFAs),
and also provides ␣-linolenic acid (ALA), linoleic acid (LA, 36 percent of total PUFAs), steari-
donic acid (SDA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic
F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food? 45
Spirulina contains vitamin B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboﬂavin), B3 (nicotinamide), B6 (pyridoxine), B9
(folic acid), B12 (cyanocobalamin), vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E.
Spirulina is a rich source of potassium, and also contains calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magne-
sium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sodium and zinc.
2.5. Photosynthetic pigments
Spirulina contains many pigments including chlorophyll a, xanthophyll, beta-carotene,
echinenone, myxoxanthophyll, zeaxanthin, canthaxanthin, diatoxanthin, 3-hydroxyechinenone, beta-
cryptoxanthin, oscillaxanthin, plus the phycobiliproteins c-phycocyanin and allophycocyanin.
The detailed biochemical composition of Spirulina may vary according to the growing conditions
especially in response to the salinity of the growing medium; it grows in fresh water (pH 7) but also in
highly alkaline environments (pH 9–11) of tropical and subtropical areas [9, 10]. Vonshak et al. 
reported that salt-adapted cells had a modiﬁed biochemical composition with a reduced protein and
chlorophyll content, and increased carbohydrate content. In addition, algae produced under laboratory
conditions differ from those collected in natural environment or in mass culture systems using different
agro-industrial waste efﬂuent.
Nowadays, Spirulina is produced in at least 22 countries: Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chad, Chile,
China, Costa Rica, Cˆ
ote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, France, India, Madagascar, Mexico, Myanmar, Peru,
Israel, Spain, Thailand, Togo, United States of America, Taiwan and Vietnam . About 1000 tons are
produced in algae farms in the USA, Hawaii, Mexico, South America. However, production in China
was ﬁrst recorded at 19,080 tons in 2003 and rose sharply to 41,570 tons in 2004. Unfortunately, a full
monitoring of worldwide production is lacking [5, 12].
The production mostly takes place under controlled conditions, so that toxic components (from other
blue-green algae), pesticides or heavy metal pollution are largely excluded. However, there is an unmet
role for national governments — as well as intergovernmental organizations like UN or FAO — to
evaluate the potential of spirulina to fulﬁll food security needs.
The general composition of spirulina varies by location and type of production, but is approximately
Humidity (dried algae) 3–7%
Dietary ﬁbers 8–10%
Remarkable on the one hand is the high proportion of proteins and on the other hand of essential fatty
acids (especially the polyunsaturated fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid) of 1.3% . The high protein
content consists of eight essential amino acids (isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine,
threonine, tryptophan, valine) as well as the non-essential amino acids (alanine, arginine, aspartate
acid, cystine, glycine, histidine, proline, serine, tyrosine, and glutamic acid) .
46 F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food?
In addition, spirulina contains almost all the essential vitamins. The following table indicates the
vitamin content in 10 g spirulina.
Vitamin A 23000 IU Vitamin B1 0.35 mg
␤-Carotene 14 mg Vitamin B2 0.40 mg
Vitamin C 0.8 mg Vitamin B3 1.4 mg
Vitamin D 1200IU Vitamin B6 60g
Vitamin E 1.0 mg Folic acid 1.0 g
Vitamin K 200 g Vitamin B12 20.0 g
Biotin 0.5 g Pantothenic acid 10.0 g
Inositol 6.4 mg
10 g Spirulina contain the following amount of minerals :
Calcium 70 mg Manganese 0.5 mg
Iron 15 mg Chrome 25 g
Phosphorus 60 mg Molybdenum –
Iodine 55 g Chloride –
Magnesium 40 mg Sodium 90 mg
Zinc 0.3 mg Potassium 140 mg
Selenium 10g Germanium 60 g
Copper 120 g Boron –
The amount of natural pigments in Spirulina is extremely high. Spirulina consists of 14% phy-
cocyanin (blue pigment), 1% chlorophyll (green pigment) and 0.5% carotenoids (yellow, orange, or
red pigments). All vital substances in Spirulina have a high bioavailability; that is, they can absorb
optimally and without much loss. On the one hand, all nutrients are balanced and, on the other
hand, these microalgae species are - in contrast to other algae - only enclosed by a typical Gram-
negative cell wall consisting mainly of peptidoglycan which can easily be absorbed by the human body
(digestibility of 86% ) and does not require chemical or physical processing in order to become
The current use of this resource has four precedents: tradition, scientiﬁc and technological develop-
ment, and the so-called, “green tendency” . From 1970, the nutritional and medicinal studies on
Spirulina have steadily increased . From the last 20 years, there are a number of studies that make
it suitable for use as a feed, or even as a drug in veterinary medicine [20, 21]. This was already indi-
cated by the analysis of the ingredients: chlorophyll, phycobiliproteins (phycocyanin, allophycocyanin,
phycoerythin), carotenoids like ␤-carotene and various xanthophylls (zeaxanthin, echinenone, canthax-
anthin, cryptoxanthin, myxoxanthophyll), cyanophycin and starch-like compounds (cyanophycean
Aware of theses aspects, the World Health Organization predicts that spirulina will become one of
the most curative and prophylactic foods in the twenty-ﬁrst century.
3. Health effects of spirulina
A lot of studies on spirulina have been performed as an alternative feed for animals (see review
in ). Spirulina can be fed up to 10% for poultry . An increase in the spirulina content up to
40 g/kg for 16 days in 21-day-old broiler male chicks, resulted in yellow and red coloration of ﬂesh
may be due to the accumulation of the yellow pigment, zeaxanthin . Similar to poultry, pigs and
rabbits can also receive up to 10% of the feed [25, 26]. In cattle, an increase of the spirulina content
F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food? 47
Fig. 1. Reported biological and health effects of Spirulina.
resulted in an increased milk yield and weight [26, 27]. Spirulina as an alternative feedstock and
immune booster for big-mouth buffalo , milk ﬁsh, cultured striped jack , carp , red sea
bream , tilapia , catﬁsh , yellow tail , zebraﬁsh , shrimp [36, 37], and abalone
 was established with a safely recommendation of up to 2% spirulina per day in aquaculture
In basic studies different biological and health effects have been described (see Fig. 1).
3.1. Anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity of Spirulina
Spirulina exhibits potent anti-bacterial activities against pathogenic bacteria [39–42]. Administra-
tion of 0.1% Spirulina resulted in heightened bacterial clearance (E. coli &S. aureus) 30 minutes
post-injection with almost negligible bacterial counts in the blood. This heightened bacterial clearance
was attributed to the immune-potentiating effects of Spirulina . The methanol extract of S. platen-
sis showed more potent anti-microbial activity than dichloromethane, petroleum ether, ethyl acetate
extracts and volatile anti-bacterial components .
In lower concentrations Spirulina reduced viral replication while blocking the replication of viruses
at higher concentration. In addition, it could be shown that water soluble extract of Spirulina inhibited
viral cell-penetration and replication of the Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1) in cultured HeLa cells
in a dose dependent manner. At just 1mg/ml, the extract is shown to inhibit viral protein synthesis
without suppressing host cell functions. Spirulina fed hamsters had prolonged survival times and
higher survival rates when challenged with the HSV-1 . The anti-viral activity was attributed
to sulphated polysaccharide termed “Calcium Spirulan” (Ca-Sp), which has been shown to inhibit
replication of many enveloped viruses by inhibition of viral penetration into target cells without host
toxicity. Presently, Ca-SP has been shown to exhibit activity against human cytomegalovirus, measles
virus, mumps virus, inﬂuenza A virus, human immunodeﬁciency virus (HIV-1) as well as HSV-1 .
The active Ca-Sp could be a good candidate for therapeutic intervention against HIV-1 and other viruses
because of its low anticoagulant activity, long half-life in the blood, and dose-dependent bioactivity
48 F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food?
3.2. Detoxiﬁcation of toxic minerals
Spirulina has a unique quality to detoxify (neutralize) or to chelate toxic minerals, a character-
istic that is not yet conﬁrmed in any other microalgae [49, 50]. Spirulina can be used to detoxify
arsenic from water and food. At the Beijing University bioactive molecules from spirulina have
been extracted which could neutralize or detoxify toxic and poisonous effect of heavy metals, and
which showed anti-tumor activity. Therefore, spirulina could also be used to chelate or detoxify
the poisonous effect of heavy metals (minerals) from water, food and environment. Fukino could
show that Spirulina successfully counteracted poisoning of the kidneys by heavy metals assisting the
3.3. Anti-inﬂammatory activity
In experimental models the phycocyanin extract of Spirulina exhibited anti-inﬂammatory activity
[52–54]. The anti-inﬂammatory effect seemed to be a result of phycocyanin which inhibited the for-
mation of leukotriene B4, an inﬂammatory metabolite of arachidonic acid . C-phycocyanin is a
free radical scavenger  and has signiﬁcant hepatoprotective effects . In mouse and in chicken
an increased phagocytic activity could be proved [57, 43]. This was conﬁrmed by two further studies,
showing a reduction of chronic diffuse liver disease  or a selective inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2
by C-phycocyanin . It also prevented inﬂammatory stomach and intestinal diseases , a condition
for a complete absorption of nutrients.
3.4. Immuno-modulatory effects
Spirulina is described to be a powerful tonic for the immune system . In studies on mice,
hamsters, chickens, turkeys, cats and ﬁsh, Spirulina consistently improved immune system func-
tion. Spirulina stimulated the immune system and actually enhanced the body’s ability to generate
new blood cells. The spleen and thymus glands showed enhanced function. Macrophages, T-cells
and Natural killer (NK) cells exhibited enhanced activity following Spirulina administration. Feed-
ing of even small amounts of Spirulina to mice resulted in following immuno-modulatory functions
– Mice fed Spirulina showed increased numbers of splenic antibody-producing cells in the primary
immune response to sheep red blood cells,
– The percentage of phagocytic cells in peritoneal macrophages from mice fed a Spirulina diet was
– The proliferation of spleen cells by either Concanavalin A (Con A) or phytohemagglutinin (PHA)
was signiﬁcantly increased,
– Addition of a hot water extract of Spirulina (SHW) to an in vitro culture of spleen cells signiﬁcantly
increased proliferation of these cells with no effect on thymus cells,
– The hot water extract of Spirulina also signiﬁcantly enhanced interleukin-1 production from
peritoneal macrophages, and
– Addition of the hot water extract of Spirulina to an in vitro spleen culture and the supernatant of
macrophages resulted in enhancement of antibody production.
Food supplementation with polysaccharides/phycocyanin (ingredients of Spirulina) stimulated T-
lymphocytes  and also Natural Killer cells , so that bacteria and viruses could much more
actively be combated . Blinkova reported that Spirulina was able to improve the function of spleen
and thymus gland, supporting the killing of invading pathogens . In line with these observations,
F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food? 49
Hayashi’s group reported that Spirulina prevented the penetration of viruses into the membrane of
the host cells [44, 45]. This was discussed to make spirulina-fed birds and poultry more resistant to
In addition, the humoral immune system is also strengthened by increasing the production of
antibodies and cytokines [62, 69, 70].
Overall, the number of possible pathogens such as Escherichia coli and Candida, was reduced while
the growth of beneﬁcial species of the intestinal ﬂora (especially lactobacilli and biﬁdus bacteria)was
stimulated [67, 71].
3.5. Anti-oxidant activity
Several studies have demonstrated that Spirulina possesses signiﬁcant anti-oxidant activity both
in vitro and in vivo. Manoj et al.  reported that the alcohol extract of Spirulina inhibited lipid
peroxidation more signiﬁcantly (65%) than chemical anti-oxidants like ␣-tocopherol (35%), butylated
hydroxy anisol (45%) and ␤-carotene (48%). The water extract of Spirulina is also shown to have
more anti-oxidant effect (76%) than gallic acid (54%) and chlorogenic acid (56%). Phycocyanin also
inhibited liver microsomal lipid peroxidation. Zhi-Gang et al.  studied the anti-oxidant effects of
two fractions of a hot water extract of Spirulina using three systems that generate superoxide, lipid,
and hydroxyl radicals. Both fractions showed signiﬁcant capacity to scavenge hydroxyl radicals (the
most highly reactive oxygen radical) but no effect on superoxide radicals. One fraction had signiﬁcant
activity in scavenging lipid radicals at low concentrations.
Spirulina anti-oxidant activity was analyzed against lead acetate-induced hyperlipidemia and oxida-
tive damage in the liver and kidney of male rats. Animals were fed on a standard laboratory diet with
or without 5% Spirulina maxima in the standard laboratory diet and treated with three doses of lead
acetate (25 mg each/weekly, intraperitoneal injection) The results showed that Spirulina prevented the
lead acetate-induced signiﬁcant changes on the anti-oxidant status of the liver and kidney. On the other
hand, Spirulina maxima succeeded to improve the biochemical parameters of the liver and kidney
towards the normal values of the control group .
4. Spirulina platensis as supplement of animal feed
Because of the nutrients and effects reported above, ﬁshmeal, groundnut meal or soybean meal can
be partially replaced by spirulina in forage of ﬁsh, poultry, cattle and domestic animals [28, 38, 75, 76].
Fishmeal and peanut cake in a commercial diet containing both protein sources may be replaced on an
isonitrogenous basis with dried spirulina 140 and 170 g/kg (starter), and 120 and 128 g/kg (ﬁnisher)
for broiler chicks . A vitamin or mineral supplement was not added to the two algal diets because
spirulina is rich in these nutrients. All the growth parameters of chicks were similar fed diets with
spirulina. Meat color was not affected by diet except for a more intensely colored meat in broilers fed
on spirulina containing diets. Spirulina administered to poultry led to shiny and more durable plumage,
which was primarily attributed to the ingredient gamma-linolenic acid. With high administration of
spirulina - if a hereditary predisposition for red lipochrome is present - a red coloring or an increase in the
red coloring of the plumage can occur. Red canaries have an enzyme which can produce canthaxanthin
from certain carotenoids (in the case of spirulina this might be zeaxanthin) by gene introduction as
a result of mating with hooded siskin. (Zeaxanthin itself, however, leads to an orange rather than to
a red coloration ). However, there are also small amounts of canthaxanthin directly contained in
spirulina, which are stored unchanged and could therefore also cause a red coloration. Red coloring or
orange coloring has not been observed with yellow-ground canaries; provided a dosage of 3g spirulina
50 F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food?
per kg of egg feed is maintained. In the above-mentioned studies on poultry up to 170 g spirulina per
kg of feed was given (e.g. ).
Comparative studies on poultry clearly showed that fertility of animals treated with spirulina was
clearly higher than in the comparison group . Whether the growth of young animals will also be
faster is not yet certain. There are studies that prove this  as well as others in which this was not
Spirulina has already been used several times to inﬂuence both the color of egg yolks  and the
ﬂesh of poultry. It was shown that already at a dose of 40 g/kg the colour of the muscle meat (due to
the storage of zeaxanthin) clearly increased [24, 75].
5. Quality-related safety and toxicology
Spirulina is a form of cyanobacterium, of which some are known to produce toxins such as micro-
cystins, ␤-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), and others. Some spirulina supplements have been found
to be contaminated with microcystins, albeit at levels below the limit set by the Oregon Health Depart-
ment . Microcystins can cause gastrointestinal disturbances, and in the long term, liver damage
These toxic compounds are not produced by spirulina itself but may occur as a result of contamination
of spirulina batches with other toxin-producing blue-green algae. Adverse events caused by Spirulina
are not known up to now . As spirulina is considered as a dietary supplement in the U.S., no
active, industry-wide regulation of its production occurs and no enforced safety standards exist for
its production or purity. The U.S. National Institutes of Health describes spirulina supplements as
“possibly safe”, provided they are free of microcystin contamination, but “likely unsafe” (especially
for children) if contaminated . Given the lack of regulatory standards in the U.S., some public-health
researchers have raised the concern that consumers cannot be certain that spirulina and other blue-green
algae supplements are free of contamination. Since the risk for contamination with toxin-producing
microalgae is higher in open pond systems than in closed bioreactors, increased quality control for
open ponds algae products must be realized. Heavy-metal contamination of spirulina supplements has
also raised concern. The Chinese State Food and Drug Administration reported that lead, mercury,
and arsenic contamination was widespread in spirulina supplements marketed in China very likely
due to water pollution. One study reported the presence of lead up to 5.1 ppm in a sample from a
commercial supplement . Therefore, it is extremely important to use Spirulina only from providers
which produce under stringent and standardized conditions.
Spirulina doses of 10 to 19 grams per day over several months have been used safely. Furthermore,
there is evidence that regular consumption in several regions of Africa reaches up to 40 g  and no
adverse effects have been reported. Adverse effects may include nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, or headache
6. Sustainability of Spirulina
With the high proportion of proteins, beta-carotene and iron, Spirulina can exactly replenish and
compensate deﬁcits, which might occur in areas with poor and/or unbalanced animal fodder (e.g.
Sahel area in Africa, waste lands in India, China, South America). In addition, Spirulina can be
cultivated in otherwise rather barren areas without consuming valuable, clean fresh water, because it
thrives best even in highly saline water. An important aspect from the sustainability point of view.
Another beneﬁt includes the process of photosynthesis performed by Spirulina during their growth.
In that way carbon dioxide is converted into a broad spectrum of organic substances powered by
F. Jung et al. / Spirulina platensis, a super food? 51
light energy. On a theoretical basis one kg of algae can break down up to 1.8 kilos of carbon dioxide
(CO2) while roughly one kilo of oxygen is released by the hydrolysis of water. Microalgae such as
Spirulina are characterized by a basic morphological cell structure and have evolved efﬁcient uptake
and concentrating mechanisms of inorganic carbon. Those features make them superior to terrestrial
photosynthetic organisms in terms of CO2ﬁxation capacity and biomass productivity.
While there are a series of ﬁeld reports in animals and humans, the scientiﬁc evaluation of the
different effects of spirulina on a molecular biology level on human cells is underexplored. Especially
molecular effects on the detoxifying system, on liver cells or on endothelial cells, important organs
involved in the detoxiﬁcation of the organism, and on the regulation of blood pressure and anti-
coagulation, are nearly completely unknown. There are ﬁrst studies showing that spirulina seems to
protect against effects of endotoxins e.g. on neural stem cells or also may have an inﬂuence on the
phagocytic activity in stimulated U937 cells . In addition, Zhang reported a chemo-protective
and radio protective capability, and described a spirulina extract to be a potential adjunct to cancer
Future studies will show whether spirulina can inhibit harmful effects of cytostatic agents in
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