In this final article of our ‘Superfoods’ series, we will take a look at some super-powered green foods from two categories you might not think edible: algae and grasses. Not just fish-food or cow-fodder, the following forms of algae and grasses can provide incredible nutritional power that just can’t be found in the same density in any other food types:
Algae make up a large and diverse group of non-flowering plants that grow all over the world, mostly in aquatic environments. Though not featuring regularly on restaurant menus or even on supermarket shelves, there are over 100 edible types of algae. We have picked out just 4 of the superstars at which to take a closer look.
Spirulina, chlorella and aphanizomenon flos-aquae (also known as AFA) are single-celled micro-algae which grow in a fresh water environment.
They have many properties in common. All three algae are extremely rich in digestible protein, ranging from 55-70%, which is incredible when compared with beef, which has about 20-40% protein! Like animal protein, they also provide ‘complete protein’ because they contain all of the essential amino acids; making them especially good sources of protein for vegetarians. What’s more, they have high levels of essential fatty acids – particularly GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – and many important vitamins and minerals, including: all of the B vitamins; vitamins C and E; most of the macro minerals, especially calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc; and numerous trace minerals.
Their high nutrient density is what makes these micro-algae so attractive to anyone wanting to increase their nutrient intake through food sources. Let’s have a look at their individual strengths:
Named after the spiral formations it grows in, spirulina is a very hardy and resistant form of algae. It can live in a dormant state when all surrounding water has evaporated and retains its nutrients even when exposed to high temperatures. In other words, it can go without fluids and sit in a sauna and not get frazzled. This makes it possible to grow spirulina in many different climates around the world. Historically, spirulina was used extensively by people of Lake Texcoco near Mexico City and by those living in the Lake Chad region of Africa. There are at least 35 varieties of Spirulina still in existence.
Not only is spirulina rich in chlorophyll, but it also has high levels of phycocyanin – the antioxidant that is responsible for its blue-green pigment. Spirulina is known for its ability to improve blood quality, protect against free radical damage and therefore may have a protective effect against free radical damage, as well as supporting the immune system. Research also suggests that this multi-tasking plant may support the body’s defences, reduce the toxic effects of heavy metals and protect against radiation exposure.
Spirulina is available as a powder, capsule, or tablet and is recently available in ready-to-drink smoothies or juices. It can also be found as an ingredient in raw food products such as chocolates, cakes, muesli’s and energy bars. People are catcing on to this nutritional wonder-plant, and rightly so.
Chlorella (the algae not the similar sounding disease, Cholera!) is thought to be the richest known source of chlorophyll, gram for gram, compared to any other leafy green vegetable. It was first discovered in the 1890s by a Dutch microbiologist, but was not studied closely until the 1940s and has become increasing popular since, as its wide-ranging benefits have been recognised. Japan pioneered the technology that allows Chlorella to be commercially grown today, and it is highly regarded in Japan as a functional food rather than a dietary supplement.
What makes chlorella truly special is its ability to bind to heavy metals and other environmental toxins and eliminate these from the body… a bit like a reverse metal detector. So it is often added to heavy metal and general detox programs where its rich chlorophyll content also cleanses the blood and helps it to support liver and digestive functions.
Studies show chlorella’s potential to assist with healing from radiation exposure, enhance the immune system, improve healing time, support healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, as well as to support brain function and help to prevent development of degenerative diseases. No other known plant is capable of quadrupling itself every 20 hours as chlorella does, and it is this component called ‘Chlorella Growth Factor’ which is said to give the algae its tissue repair and anti-aging qualities.
Chlorella is usually found in capsule, tablet or powder form; however, freeze-dried chlorella is best avoided as this process can deplete its nutritional content.
AFA is a member of the Cyanophyta family, which consists of an estimated 50,000 species that are responsible for about 80-90% of the planet’s food and oxygen supply!
AFA contains over 64 nutrients that are very easy for the body to absorb, including two key compounds: phycocyanin and PEA (phenylethylamine). Phycocyanin, which gives AFA its blue-green colouring, is believed to support the production of stem cells from bone marrow, protect against free radical damage through its antioxidant effects, support neurotransmitter production and support liver function. The PEA (also dubbed the “love chemical”) can give feelings of excitement and euphoria. It can also enhance mental clarity and promote a positive mood.
AFA is available as dried flakes or powder and in a fresh frozen form. Who doesn’t need a little extra positivity in their breakfast cereal?
These multi-cellular marine plants are the largest group of the algae family and are known as seaweeds or sea vegetables. They vary in size but can grow up to a massive 65 metres in length. Sea vegetables feature prominently in the diets of many of the Asian regions, as well as other coastal areas of the world. Like freshwater algae, they are valued for their nutrient richness and are the most iodine-rich food source around. Of the three types – red algae, green algae and brown algae – the brown algae, commonly called Kelp, has received the most attention. Here’s why.
Kelp is a general name for many species of brown algae, we will use the term ‘kelp’ here to refer to the whole family. This plant family contains large amounts of chlorophyll and pigments that give them their yellow-brown colour. Kelp is a very hardy and abundant plant that can grow as much as 1 metre per day and exceeds 25 metres in length. Scientists believe that settlements dating back more than 9,000 years relied on these underwater kelp forests for food and that this facilitated coastal migration.
Kelp is high in over 70 different minerals; especially potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium. But it’s kelp’s abundance of iodine that has really made it famous, because iodine plays a crucial role in thyroid function, breast and prostate health, as well as the health of other tissues and organs in the body. Sufficient iodine levels also protect the body against the damaging effects of radioactive iodine in the environment. What’s more, kelp contains essential fatty acids, vitamins, antioxidants and fibre, which are all important for good health.
The wide range of nutrients in kelp support optimal organ and glandular function, aid rejuvenation, and support healthy digestive function, detoxification and weight management. Research has shown that the alginic acid in seaweed can bind with heavy metals in the intestines and help to eliminate them from the body. (And if you make too much Sushi, seaweed also makes a great fertiliser for the garden!).
Dried kelp is available in capsules, tablets, flakes, pieces, powder and in seasonings as an alternative to salt. Kelp can also be added as a seasoning to any savoury foods or a pinch added to your favourite smoothie. It’s a good idea to incorporate kelp into your cooking whenever possible, to make the most of its incredible nutritional value.
Please note that it is important to consult with your health practitioner before taking high doses of iodine or kelp supplements as thyroid function and blood pressure medications may need to be monitored.
Nutritional grasses are sourced from the young green shoots of grasses grown for their grains (i.e. barley grass eventually produces barley grains). This is when their nutrient and enzyme levels are at their peak. The most popular of these grasses are wheat and barley grass. For those trying to avoid gluten, the good news is that these grasses do not contain the gluten which eventually develops in the grain (i.e. wheat grass does not contain gluten like wheat flour which is made from the wheat grain). The dietary use of these grasses began in the 1930s, when it was observed that cows not fed young grass produced milk that was much lower in nutritional content.
Both barley and wheat grass are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants and enzymes. Their bright green colour shows their abundant chlorophyll which, together with their dietary fibre, has blood cleansing, detoxifying and purifying properties; promoting a healthy digestion and helping to eliminate bodily odours.
Barley grass is particularly rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin C. Another key nutrient in barley grass is the powerful antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD), which helps to protect our cells from free radical damage and supports liver function. Barley grass has the unique ability to enhance energy levels and is known as the “energiser”.
Wheatgrass is especially high in dietary fibre, vitamin A, the Bs and vitamin K. Although both wheatgrass and barley grass are very alkalinising, wheatgrass is considered the “King” of all alkaline foods and increases alkalinity in the body to help prevent illness and imbalance. Wheat and barley grass help to maintain a good alkaline/acid balance to combat the acidity that can be caused by poor diet, stress, poor sleep patterns, illness, pain, poor mental attitude and negative emotions.
Barley and wheat grass are available as young grass grown in trays ready to be juiced. Alternatively, they are available as tablets, capsules and in powder form. Juice bars also provide shots of wheatgrass juice, as it’s being appreciated for its health-supporting ‘superfood’ properties around the world. Take care when choosing wheat and barley grass products, because they can sometimes contain other ingredients like maltodextrin and brown rice fibre.
So you can see that all of these ‘Super Greens’ have their own unique health-promoting properties and can assist your body to function smoothly and perform at its peak. Superfoods like these algae and grasses should be incorporated into your everyday diet: add them in combination or individually to fruit salads, fruit or vegetable juices and smoothies, salad dressings or even just to a glass of water. Superfoods don’t always come flying in in shiny lycra. They’re often more understated than that – and all-too-often they’re on the top shelf of the supermarket, just out of reach. So don’t forget to reach out and make the most of them.