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Spirulina

mada_margueriteWhy did Antenna choose spirulina ?

Antenna has chosen to increase awareness about malnutrition among infants, and thereby help prevent it thanks to the local production of spirulina.
Sirulina has the following key properties:

  •  It is a microalga with exceptional nutritional qualities
  •  It is an excellent food supplement and a very efficient means to fight malnutrition
  •  It can be produced locally, which makes it accessible to all and more interesting than an imported product
  •  Local spirulina production creates jobs at the production farms and distribution networks.

For more information please see Algae as an Approach to Combat Malnutrition in developing Countries, by Christophe Hug and Denis von der Weid (Antenna Technologies), Journal of Technology Assessment and System Analysis 2012(1); 16-22.

The cyanobacterium spirulina, an important food resource

Spirulina (“Arthrospira platensis”), once classified among the “blue-green seaweed” is not a type of seaweed per say. It is a microorganism, a spiral-shaped cyanobacterium (thus, its name) that quickly multiplies via photosynthesis either naturally in the alkaline waters of certain lakes in warm regions or artificially, in ponds designed for spirulina production.
Its very rich and extensive composition makes spirulina an ideal candidate for nutritional and therapeutic purposes.
Rich in vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium and essential amino acids, spirulina is also known for its high protein content. Moreover spirulina contains more than fifteen pigment types such as chlorophyll, and especially phycocyanin (the latter having anti-inflammatory, anti-oxydant and anti-tumor properties).
Furthermore the body easily absorbs spirulina thanks to the absence of cellulose walls. The alga is in fact an excellent food supplement, as well as being a very effective fortifying substance for the body, especially to strengthen its immune defence systems.

The composition

  •  An exceptionally high protein content (60-70%, nearly twice as much compared to soja)
  •  Spirulina contains the 8 essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized by the body: isoleucine (essential to growth), leucine (which stimulates brain functions), lysine (which is needed to produce antibodies, enzymes and hormones), methionine (rich in sulfur and anti-oxidant properties), phenylalanine (essential for the thyroid), threonine (which helps improve the intestinal and digestive functions), tryptophan (which regulates the levels of serotonin) and valine (which is a natural stimulant of mental and physical performance)
  •  Spirulina is rich in vitamins : vitamin A = beta carotene, vitamins of the B group (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B8, B9, B12), vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K
  • Spirulina is after breast milk the second source of gamma-linolenic acid, a substance, which belongs to the family of the fatty-acids omega-6 and intervenes in the body’s anti-inflammatory and immune systems.
  • Spirulina contains at least fifteen pigment types such as chlorophyll, and especially phycocyanin (the latter having anti-inflammatory, anti-oxydant and anti-tumor properties).
  • Spirulina is rich in minerals : iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and selenium.

For more detailed information on the nutritional properties of spirulina, please see the following document (in French): spiruline aspects nutritionnels J. Falquet et J.-P. Hurni, Antenna Technologies, 2006 (41 pages)

Toxicity and overdosage

A number of detailed toxicology studies have been conducted on spirulina. To date all the research undertaken in this field has concluded that spirulina whatever the dose intake is non-toxic.
Regarding overdosage, it is correct to say that vitamin A may be toxic at a very high level. However, this is not the case for its precursor, beta-carotene, which is contained in spirulina. Indeed, whatever the concentration, the body will only transform the quantity of beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is necessary for its well functioning.
Excess in iron may also be problematic for the body. It is recommended to not go over 50g/day, which is far more than the daily spirulina intake.
Regarding the risk of a possible microbiological contamination, it is nonexistent as growing spirulina in artificial ponds takes place under such conditions that no other bacteria can develop (strongly basic pH) .

Quality control

In terms of hygiene and quality, the operational team of the local farm is first and foremost focused on the production phase and on ensuring that once the spirulina is taken out of the pond, the conditioning phase is a success. Wearing gloves and a mask is compulsory, as well as cleaning the harvest equipment and production sites with bleach. The personnel are required to make sure to work away from dust and insects (use of mosquito nets). The drying phase is key to a good maintenance of the spirulina and prevents biological pathogens from developing.
A certified lab conducts regular microbiological analyses, at least once every trimester, and more frequently if a specific potential risk exists. 
Product traceability is ensured thanks to the codes on the spirulina packets, which indicate the place of production, the production date and the expiry date.

The genomic structure of spirulina

The genomic structure of spirulina has been entirely sequenced and registered in July 2009 by Antenna Technologies, two private Swiss companies – Biorigin SA and Fasteris, as well as by the Haute Ecole Spécialisée Hepia of Geneva, represented by the research group “Plants and Pathogens”.
By registering the genome of spirulina at the GenBank, they chose to make it accessible to all for free and to prevent any patenting attempt. Any person interested can thus easily and quickly access it. Applications of this research take place in fields such as nutrition, industrial ecology or the production of molecules for therapeutic purposes.
For more information, please see the following paper (in French): spiruline données scientifiques, quelques bases scientifiques et analyse de l’ADN de la spiruline, Antenna Technologies 2009

History of spirulina

The first written works on spirulina date back to the 16th century, when the Spaniards left to conquer South America, and especially Mexico. The Aztecs collected spirulina off the lake waters and mixed it together with corn before eating it.
Taking an interest in the unknown…
That’s what the Professor Jean Léonard did in 1964 during a mission in Chad, where he discovered spirulina: Intrigued by blue-green dry patties, called “dihé”, that the Kanembeus community ate, he asked the algae specialist Pierre Compère to study some samples. Doctor Kufferath completed the research by breaking down the chemical composition. He identified the nutritional components contained in the alga. Once the richness in proteins and amino acids was established, the researchers informed the scientific community about their findings.
In the 1970s, Doctor Ripley D. Fox and his wife created spirulina production farms in India, Africa, Vietnam, Peru and China and encouraged the locals to invest in spirulina. The aim of their endeavor was to bring to the third world a sustainable solution to fight malnutrition.
In the early 1990s, Denis von der Weid, Founder of Antenna Technologies in Geneva, followed in the Fox couple’s footsteps, because he shared their conviction that spirulina would be the solution to the problem of malnutrition in the world: a natural food resource, rich in micronutrients, that can be locally produced in countries suffering from malnutrition.

Acknowledging the benefits of spirulina

Spirulina is already known and its benefits are acknowledged in a number of countries: big quantities of the alga are produced in China (the government calling it a national food), in the United States (where spirulina is classified as Generally Recognized As Safe – G.R.A.S. by the FDA), in Ecuador… Spirulina is consumed in these countries, as well as in Europe (in particular in France), in Africa, in India, etc….
Governments of several countries experiencing precarious nutrition situations have acknowledged the benefits of spirulina and have supported either local production or distribution, or both: this is the case of Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Benin, Madagascar… Spirulina has been granted a marketing authorisation in most countries, where production is taking place.
The FAO report in 2008 “ A review on culture, production and use of spirulina as food for humans and feeds for domestic animals and fish” confirms the important potential of spirulina.
This report, which acknowledges the considerable potential for development of spirulina, makes two recommendations worth noting:

  1. “International organization(s) working with spirulina should consider preparing a practical guide to small-scale spirulina production that could be used as a basis for extension and development methodologies. This small-scale production should be orientated towards: (i) providing nutritional supplements for widespread use in rural and urban communities where the staple diet is poor or inadequate; (ii) allowing diversification from traditional crops in cases where land or water resources are limited;”
  2. “There is a role for both national governments – as well as intergovernmental organizations – to re-evaluate the potential of spirulina to fulfill both their own food security needs as well as a tool for their overseas development and emergency response efforts.”

For more information, please refer to Spiruline-Bilan-et-perspectives by Christophe Hug, MSc, MBA & Denis Von der Weid, PhD, 2010 (Paper in French)

Clinical studies

Contrary to what has often been written or said, the nutritional virtues of spirulina have been analysed by a number of scientific studies. However, some of these studies can certainly be put into question and further studies should be conducted to support the conclusions. However, despite the difficulty of conducting such studies in countries of the South, where malnutrition prevails, and for an NGO like Antenna to obtain sufficient research funds, results over the years have been promising. Indeed, positive results, as well as a growing number of medical practitioners’ positive testimonies should start raising awareness among decision-makers as to the effectiveness of spirulina in the fight against malnutrition (Halidou Doudou, 2008).
The clinical trials conducted by Antenna Technologies and the Medical College of Maduraï in the south of India, which were presented at the World Congress of Nutrition in 1999 have shown that 1 to 3 grams of spirulina per day during 4 to 6 weeks can be sufficient to treat children between 0 and 5 years old, who suffer from light and moderate malnutrition.
Further research:

  • In India as well, a random trial undertaken on 60 school girls deals not only with the nutritional effects of a small dosage of spirulina (1g/day), but also with the indirect effects it may have on brain performance (Sachdeva, 2004). Conclusions were statistically conclusive in both cases.
  • In Burkina Faso, comparative research on nutritional rehabilitation on 170 children (84 HIV-positive and 86 HIV-negative) shows that spirulina not only helps to cure malnutrition among children, it also has a considerable impact on the re-nutrition of children infected by HIV (Simpore, 2005). This work has been completed in Ouagadougou by using locally produced spirulina with the help of easy-to-use equipment.
  • Another study by the same authors allows to compare the nutritional benefits of diets containing spirulina grown in Burkina Faso with diets based on Misola (Simpore, 2006). The research was conducted in Ouagadougou on 550 malnourished children less than 5 years old. An improvement in weight relative to height and age is observed among all children, especially those following a food diet containing spirulina and misola. The study concludes that such diets are an effective way to treat severe malnutrition. The diet combining spirulina and misola gives the best results as the strong calory content of misola comes together with the protein-rich spirulina.
  • In the Central African Republic, a 6-month long prospective study was conducted on people, who were contaminated with HIV (Yamani, 2009). 160 patients were divided up into two groups. The patients of the first group received 10 grams of spirulina per day, while those in the second group were given placebo. This study shows a significant improvement of the main follow-up variables (weight, number of infectious episodes, mid-upper arm circumference), which is more or less equivalent in the two test groups. However, the study did not allow for clear-cut conclusions on the clinical criteria between the two groups due to methodology weaknesses reported by the authors.

For more information, please see the following paper (in French) “Resumes-etudes-cliniques-recentes, menées sur la malnutrition et la spiruline“, Christophe Hug, MSc, MBA & Denis von der Weid, PhD, 2010

Production of spirulina

Growing spirulina requires much less water than all other known agricultural sources of protein (corn, rice etc.) and produces 20 times more protein per hectare than soja. However, spirulina demands much more care and discipline, and requires daily interventions. Growing spirulina allows for high yield (between 5 and 8g of dry produce/day/m2). Easily grown, spirulina is especially adapted to countries of the south.

Spirulina grows in shallow artificial ponds (30 cm to 40 cm deep) of over 100 m2. Ideal are good quality waters 30°C to 40°C warm to which are added salts and fertilizers in strict amounts. The waters must be moved around on a regular basis and an electricity source is strongly recommended when operations require production areas of 400 m2 or 500 m2, the minimal area size required in order for the farm to be economically viable.
Spirulina can be harvested every day of the year, the ponds having to be covered during the rainy season. Harvest occurs through a filtering and pressing process. Once the pressing is over, the spirulina is dried in solar ovens in the dry season and in heated ovens (gas, wood charcoal) in the rainy season. Dried and distributed in packets, the spirulina can be kept for several months in a row.
How many children can be treated per m2 of harvest?

  •  1 m2 of harvest provides 2kg of dry spirulina per year.
  •  The treatment of one malnourished child lasts for 6 to 8 weeks on the basis of 2 grams of spirulina per day, which amounts to 100 grams in total.
  •  So each m2 of spirulina harvested provides treatment to 20 deficient children.

How does one become a spirulina expert?
A graduate of the MIT, Jean-Paul Jourdan has spent his whole career in the chemical industry before dedicating his retirement to the production of spirulina in the south of France, for the benefit of children in the third world. After having been a student of Ripley D. Fox and of Francisco Ayala, he becomes a member of Technap and collaborates actively with Antenna Technologies and several other NGOs in the field of spirulina. Take a look at his “Short stories” (in French) on the development of small-scale spirulina.
Manuel_Cultivez_votre_spiruline_Revision_2013, Jean-Paul Jourdan (in French)

Distribution of spirulina

The locally produced spirulina serves two main purposes:

  1. A social purpose in priority, in order to fight against malnutrition, which mainly affects children, pregnant women or women breast-feeding. Large information and awareness campaigns are required, as well as an extensive distribution of the produce to NGOs, in re-nutrition centers, orphanages, schools etc.
  2. A commercial purpose, in order to ensure that the production farm is economically viable. The spirulina is sold on local markets as a means to strengthen the immune system and as a healthcare product. Distribution takes place through wholesalers or in outlets, which invest in promotional marketing.

The allocation of the produced spirulina to either purpose depends on the short-term financial state of the farm (in general 30 % serves the social purpose and 70% the commercial purpose, sometimes the allocation is 40% social and 60% commercial according to the market and the economic context).

Developments are taking place to come up with products containing spirulina

Many possibilities exist already that combine spirulina with food: in mixtures, with sardines, biscuits or sweets, in juices etc.
Since 2012, the Roquette group, a French family-owned enterprise with international operations, which specializes in the processing of vegetable raw materials, provided Antenna with its know-how to design and market a “pleasure” product made out of spirulina. After several trials and field tests, the “Spirambar” saw the day in India to children’s greatest delight. Further testing on a larger scale will take place throughout India.
Further research continues to be carried out in all other countries, where ATF currently has ongoing programmes, in order to come up with products that are adapted to the local market.