All hail Spirulina, the most super of superfoods
Meet the spunky micro-algae that could help solve some of the world’s biggest food problems
We’re always on the lookout for the next big super ingredient. Something that tastes of the future, that's healthier, that'll change people’s minds about the way we eat, and that will inspire them to do so.
One such an ingredient is making a splash on international and local food scenes – and it has the bonus of not only being good for you, but for the planet too.
Say hi to the deep green micro-algae, spirulina.
Declaring spirulina to be the “food of the future” is nothing new. In 1974, the UN described it as “the most ideal food for mankind”, while its Food and Agriculture Organisation deemed it “the best food for tomorrow”. Both Nasa and the European Space Agency have explored the benefits of including spirulina in astronauts’ and future off-Earth settlers’ diets.
Nowadays, you will find it in the Copenhagen-based research and design lab for Ikea, Space10. They first started experimenting with spirulina as part of their Algae Dome project, a 4m-high plywood pavilion housing a closed-loop system that produced a huge amount of the micro-algae. More recently, they've included it in their fast food of the future, the Dogless Hotdog.
Did you know you can get blue spirulina powder?
Unframed Ice Cream in Cape Town uses it to make their blue coconut vegan ice cream. Spirulina contains a pigment called phycocyanin that gives its deep green colour a slightly blue hue. This pigment is extracted to use as a colourant. As a bonus, it's also a powerful antioxidant.
“Our twist on the classic snack shows that healthy and sustainable food need not be bland,” says Simon Perez, chef and food designer at Space10. “It’s made with dried and glazed baby carrots; beet and berry ketchup; mustard and turmeric cream; roasted onions; cucumber salad and a herb salad mix. But the star of the show – and what gives the Dogless Hotdog its eye-catching looks – is the bun itself. That’s because it’s made with spirulina.”
PUTTING THE SUPER IN SUPERFOOD
Spirulina contains more beta carotene than carrots, more chlorophyll than wheatgrass, 50 times more iron than spinach and twice as much protein as meat. So, essentially, it is the most super of all superfoods.
And it’s not just good for humans. Some strains of micro-algae, such as spirulina, can be consumed by animals. At a time where majority of the world’s livestock, poultry and aquaculture industries use feed fortified with soy – which is potentially disastrous for the environment – algae might be the feed we've been looking for.
Moreover, because micro-algae are photosynthetic organisms, they use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into useable energy – expelling much-needed oxygen as a byproduct. Producing it doesn't require a large amount of land either; it can be grown in non-potable water and on non-arable soil.
This means it can be grown quickly, almost anywhere, and in a way that reduces greenhouse gases, without putting pressure on the environment.
Little wonder then that this super ingredient is popping up on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus around the globe.
In the Netherlands, you can buy yoghurt, energy bars, smoothies and even pet food containing spirulina. Locally, spirulina can be found mostly in smoothies on the menus of healthy fast food chains like Nü and Kauai.
Hopefully, we'll soon see a time when spirulina is as commonly used in SA as our other much-loved green, spinach.
• If you're as excited about using spirulina as we are, let us know. Snap a photo of the way you've experimented with it, or if you spot it on a menu, and tag @studio_h_ on Instagram.
• Hannerie Visser is an ever-curious investigator into food trends and the founder of experimental food design studio Studio H in Cape Town.