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Can fresh spirulina change the minds of microalgae's doubters?

We Are The New Farmers is a Brooklyn-based startup looking toward microalgae as a potential solution for a more sustainable future. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)
We Are The New Farmers is a Brooklyn-based startup looking toward microalgae as a potential solution for a more sustainable future. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)
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NEW YORK CITY (TND) — Spirulina is a polarizing topic.

The comestible type of blue-green algae has its staunch supporters in those who find the transformation of pond scum into a palatable smoothie supplement to be as miraculous as the conversion of water to wine in the Gospel of John. The strongest believers will preach the merits of the superfood to anyone who will listen, rattling off a laundry list of the health benefits of what they consider to be nature’s most powerful offering.

To others, it’s pond scum — and only pond scum, nothing more. Its healing properties have been greatly exaggerated or fabricated entirely, and conclusive scientific evidence for even one of the microalgae’s purported virtues is in short supply. Spirulina, according to the doubters, is just another way to get wellness fanatics to readily part with large sums of money in their tireless quest for longevity, an endeavor that might also include the likes of doTerra essential oils and Himalayan salt lamps.

On the Wikipedia page for “Spirulina (dietary supplement),” a constant barrage of edits and reverts is reflective of the unwavering opinions on both sides of the debate, each believing that their additions represent only veritable facts in full compliance with the online encyclopedia’s content guidelines. Throughout the years, control of the page has become so contentious that spirulina companies have surmised that they’re battling paid “watchdogs,” rather than a troop of committed volunteers.

“You seem to be substituting your own personal opinions for the statements of reliable sources, which is a no-no,” wrote one editor in 2011, arguing in the same comment that spirulina shouldn’t be considered a source of vitamin B12 based on the available evidence at the time.

“Quite frankly, the previous version was exceedingly skeptical and concealing,” came the reply.

It’s also very much possible to land somewhere in the middle of the quarrel.

My fiancee saw the viridian hue of my spirulina smoothie and grimaced. "That looks disgusting," she said.

It wasn't only the smoothie's off-putting pigment that elicited her repulsion but the childhood memory of her mother coercing her to mix frozen chunks chipped off of a rock-solid block of spirulina with water whenever she had a cold. She didn't know it by name at the time, referring to it only as "the green stuff," and it was the green stuff's fishy flavor, hardly concealed by the straightforward recipe of just two ingredients, that brought tears to her eyes and made the contents of the large cup seem positively never-ending. Even the updated recipes with oat milk and chia seeds on the letterboard menus of plant-filled, plant-based smoothie shops do little to shake her association in adulthood.

"But," she admitted, "it seemed to work. The cold would go away."

Most colds, of course, will eventually subside on their own, whether or not spirulina is consumed, and studies have yet to go so far as to name spirulina as the cure for the common cold. But even if my fiancee did fully subscribe to the idea that spirulina alone was responsible for clearing up her cough and stopping her sneezes, she was unwilling to forgive the supplement for delivering a barefaced gustatory reminder of its open pond origins with every agonizing sip. Now, it’s not filamentous microalgae that she reaches for at the onset of a cold but over-the-counter pain relievers and herbal tea.

There’s no question that Jonas Guenther is one of spirulina’s biggest champions. In casual conversation, he effortlessly rattles off facts and figures about microalgae without a moment’s hesitation, as is fitting for the co-founder of a spirulina startup, and the impression is that he could continue to talk about the topic for hours on end if he wasn’t so busy cultivating algae at We Are The New Farmers’ 1,250-square-foot production space located within the Brooklyn Army Terminal and distributing the urban farm’s orders from a nearby fulfillment center.

Guenther came up with the idea for We Are The New Farmers while pursuing his master’s degree at New York University and assembled a team of like-minded innovators at the college’s workspace lab, MakerSpace, in 2016. The group’s original urban farm was constructed in MakerSpace, but by 2018, the scale of the project necessitated a move to a larger space to house the shallow tanks of algae cultures, and Guenther forecasts rapid growth ahead for both his company and spirulina itself.

But there’s one disclaimer on Guenther’s devoted discipleship to all things microalgae — spirulina should not taste fishy.

“Most people know spirulina as this dried powder that you can get at any nutrient store,” he said. “It’s also very notorious for having a very nasty flavor that not a lot of people enjoy.”

For those able to set their preconceived notions aside, We Are The New Farmers presents the opportunity for a considerable change in perspective. Guenther asserts that his company’s fresh spirulina paste, grown and harvested in a controlled indoor environment in Brooklyn, is nothing short of delicious. Their clientele isn’t choking it down in a desperate attempt at wellness with tears in their eyes and the looming threat of regurgitation — they’re savoring its mild taste and hummus-like texture by the spoonful, directly from the jar.

“Some of our customers literally described it as a religious experience,” said Guenther.

In considering the ancient origins of spirulina while plopping We Are The New Farmers’ paste into the blender, that religious experience can become all the more mystical.

“The type of microalgae that we grow is 3.6 billion years old,” said Guenther. “It’s actually the predecessor to all plant life.”

To hear Guenther tell it, chloroplasts — the plant organelles within which photosynthesis takes place — are believed to have evolved from what scientists called an endosymbiotic event involving a cyanobacterium and a heterotrophic eukaryote. Over a billion years ago, back when days fell shy of 24 hours and plant life had yet to adorn the Earth’s dry land, the eukaryote ingested the cyanobacterium. But rather than acting as predator and prey, they entered a symbiotic relationship that resulted in the development of chloroplasts. According to the endosymbiotic theory, mitochondria and other organelles first formed in a similar fashion.

Credit is also given to cyanobacteria for the Great Oxidation Event, considered to be an immensely important tipping point in the history of our planet.

Long before chloroplasts and plants first materialized, the atmosphere lacked the necessary amount of oxygen to support life as we know it. By engaging in photosynthesis, cyanobacteria in the Earth’s early oceans may have begun releasing oxygenated pockets called “oases” into the otherwise anoxic waters as a byproduct of the process, but the amount of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere remained negligible. It’s posited that, at least initially, the environment into which the oxygen was released blocked permanent atmospheric oxygenation.

Approximately 2.4 billion years ago, a shift occurred that affected Earth’s habitability and dramatically impacted the course of evolution. Conditions allowing higher atmospheric oxygen, for which the catalyst is still debated, led to a mass extinction that killed off anaerobic bacteria and triggered a period of climatic instability, ultimately giving rise to complex multicellular life.

Spirulina also has deep roots in the history of human sustenance.

In the markets of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire and the location of modern-day Mexico City, vendors sold brick-like cakes of dried, thickened slime sourced from the marshy waters of the surrounding Lake Texcoco, as described in several written accounts chronicling the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The Mexica called the loaves “tecuitlatl,” meaning “excrement of stone,” and one Spanish conquistador compared the taste to cheese in his memoirs.

It has been theorized that tecuitlatl was, indeed, spirulina, with a key piece of evidence coming from a mention of its “clear blue color.” Unfortunately, the practice of making tecuitlatl was largely lost as a result of Spanish settlement and numerous endeavors to control flooding in Mexico City through drainage systems that have since led to severe water shortages for millions of residents.

Over 7,000 miles away from Mexico City and several centuries later, a sample of a hardened cake was collected from a market in the village of Massakory in the Chadian region of Hadjer-Lamis. French phycologist Pierre Dangeard reported in 1940 that the cake, called “dihe,” consisted almost entirely of the cyanobacterium Arthrospira platensis, collected from the surface of ponds around Lake Chad and dried on the shores. Dangeard’s colleague, a pharmacist stationed at Fort Lamy, communicated that the Kanembu tribe used dihe as a sauce to accompany millet.

In 1964, botanist Jean Leonard, unaware of Dangeard’s findings, encountered the same blue-green substance being sold in markets near Fort Lamy and conducted chemical analyses on the dried biscuits. He confirmed the composition of dihe and discovered its strikingly high protein content. A decade later, two food surveys in the region observed that the Kanembu people consumed dihe at a frequency of between one to six meals out of 10.

To date, spirulina is still harvested from Lake Chad’s riverbeds by women living in the village of Artomossi, who continue to use similar methods to those reported by Dangeard through a program backed by the European Union’s Global Climate Change Alliance Plus initiative. There have also been operations established in the fragments remaining of Lake Texcoco.

Elsewhere, outdoor spirulina production facilities have been constructed primarily in locales with tropical climates that allow companies to more easily meet the cyanobacterium’s optimal environmental conditions for growth. High yields have been linked to humid weather, year-round sunlight, and minimal precipitation, as well as temperatures typical of the tropics. A study conducted at a research institute in Bhopal, India found that the ideal temperature for cultivation spanned from 25 to 35 degrees Celsius; other sources point to a slightly higher range of 35 to 37 degrees Celsius.

Given these stipulations for maximal output, many of the top players in the spirulina market are located overseas. Within the United States, Earthrise and Cyanotech are two of the biggest names, operating facilities in California’s Sonoran Desert and Hawaii, respectively.

A bird’s-eye view of an outdoor spirulina farm will reveal rows of shallow ponds, usually oval-shaped and gleaming with spirulina’s signature hue. Developed in the 1950s, the human-made raceway ponds are no more than 4 feet deep but can vary in length and width, depending on the scale of the commercial operations; the largest have areas of up to one hectare. Paddle-wheel aerators keep the water in a constant state of motion to promote light distribution, ensure a uniform temperature regardless of depth, and maintain a flow velocity conducive to high productivity.

The economic benefits of growing spirulina in outdoor raceways are numerous, from low capital costs to free solar energy, and the method is widely used. However, multiple reports examining open pond systems for the mass cultivation of spirulina point to the possibility of contamination.

A position paper prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2008 identified a greater need for monitoring global spirulina production and identifying clearer food safety guidelines. “Contamination by different algal species may present a severe problem for microalgal cultures grown in outdoor open ponds,” the report read.

The review stressed the importance of clarifying which blue-green algae species are suitable for human consumption, particularly in countries without sufficient regulations in place for the production and sale of spirulina supplements. Otherwise, the authors cautioned, there existed a real risk of contamination or substitution with other cyanobacteria known to produce hepatotoxins called microcystins. which can cause severe liver damage. In the absence of stricter inspection, they recommended that at-risk populations exercise caution when incorporating spirulina products into their diets.

A 2017 analysis of 18 algae-based dietary supplements found cyanotoxins at levels higher than the tolerable daily intake values in eight of the products, and four of the eight were contaminated with microcystins. “The methods of cultivation in natural waters without appropriate quality controls allow contamination by toxin producer species present in the natural environment,” the authors wrote.

Growing spirulina in a closed environment like that of We Are The New Farmers’ indoor facility greatly reduces the risk of contamination by enabling farmers to meticulously control the contents of their tanks and to better manage the composition of their merchandise.

“We can ensure there’s nothing else in the product but 100% spirulina cells,” Guenther said.

The startup’s mission to sell fresh spirulina, rather than dried, lends further credence to Guenther’s guarantee of a superior product.

As Guenther explained, dried spirulina is the most prevalent product in today’s market. Corporations view it as a more viable option for distributing spirulina to the masses, especially amid rising interest in microalgae as a sustainable and nutritious food source. It’s easier to transport, it doesn’t require refrigeration, and a sealed bag will stay good for years, as opposed to the three-week window in which fresh spirulina must be consumed before going bad. With a longer shelf life, the tubs of powder lining the aisles of Whole Foods aren’t at the mercy of fluctuations in the popularity of microalgae but need only to await the next declaration that spirulina is, once again, the year’s hottest food trend.

But the question has been posed whether or not dried spirulina maintains the same level of nutrition as the fresh product. For companies set on selling powder, there is also contention regarding the best technique for drying spirulina.

Further research may be needed to establish definitive answers, but a comprehensive evaluation of microalgal drying, published in 2019, concluded that there was potential for quality loss following the transformation of moist spirulina biomass into a shelf-stable powder, particularly in the event of inadequate storage conditions. Additionally, a 2017 study demonstrated that the smell of spirulina can be more or less fishy depending on the drying method.

Along with the quality loss associated with dehydration, there have also been reports of purposeful contamination, in which manufacturers will intentionally introduce additives and lower-quality powders into their dried spirulina as a cost-cutting tactic.

We Are The New Farmers sells fresh spirulina in two forms — frozen, smoothie-ready cubes in quantities of 30, 60, and 90 and a fresh paste available in 4-ounce, 8-ounce, and 16-ounce jars.

For We Are The New Farmers and other companies offering fresh spirulina, the shorter lifespan of their products is not a detriment but an asset. Many of their websites utilize deliberate marketing language to contrast the vibrant life force of their antioxidant-rich, nutrient-dense, bioavailable food of the future with the dead, dry, fishy, processed, contaminated powders that should be relegated to the past.

Calling something the “food of the future” might bring Dippin’ Dots to mind, or it could evoke imagery of grocery stores filled with cricket protein bars and restaurants serving plant-based patties constructed with 3D printers. It’s a phrase that, unlike cricket protein bars packed with vitamins and essential amino acids, can be perceived as lacking any real substance in favor of selling consumers on buzzwords alone. And too often, it relies on a Western viewpoint of technology, the visual of glowing green tubes in sterile labs versus that of Kanembu women handling trays of spirulina paste in the fields of Chad.

But in spirulina’s case, the argument for its futuristic food status is amplified by the interest of both NASA and The European Space Agency. NASA has studied the feasibility of incorporating spirulina into the diet of spacecraft crews to make extended-duration missions a greater possibility with the assistance of self-contained systems that provide food, water, and oxygen through metabolic and hygiene wastes. Most recently, the Settles Lab received a grant from NASA to send spirulina to space in 2021 to test its stability as a crop on the International Space Station.

Similarly, ESA included spirulina on a list of nine ingredients that could conceivably be grown in greenhouses on Mars.

Of course, not everyone needs a NASA endorsement to convince them to latch onto a trend. For some, a tabloid will do. In 1981, The National Enquirer ran a front-page headline proclaiming that doctors had praised spirulina as a “safe diet pill” that would aid weight loss without feelings of hunger. The article featured recommendations from Christopher Hills, the wellness guru founder of a spirulina-focused nutrition brand called Light Force.

Diet pill companies quickly added microalgae to their repertoire, but the overnight surge of attention combined with the limited supply of authentic spirulina in the United States affected the legitimacy of the products being sold, and the use of cheap fillers and dyes quickly sullied spirulina’s name. A 1982 Yoga Journal article provided readers with detailed instructions on how to verify the purity of their spirulina during the influx of fake tablets, including tips to read the label carefully, seek out supplements with a mild taste, and look at the cell structure of the powder under a microscope.

The same article quoted Hills describing the consumption of spirulina as “an attempt to gain healthy cells so you can function as a vehicle for consciousness,” as well as claims that spirulina provided energy, contained a significant amount of vitamin B12, and served as a complete protein amid pages peppered with ads for spiritual hypnosis and the opportunity to join “the Light Force Family” as a spirulina sales rep.

As our collective obsession with aesthetics has propelled spirulina into newfound fashionability with photos of turquoise smoothie bowls, mermaid-worthy lattes, and aqua noodles that look straight from the sea, many of the powders used to make the unusually colored creations are wrapped in labels listing the very same health benefits emphasized by Yoga Journal.

When it comes to dietary supplements, declarations on the packaging come with no guarantee of truth. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 permitted companies to market such products without any real evidence for their dubious promises of detoxification and enhanced immunity, so long as they avoided mention of curing or treating specific diseases and included a disclaimer that the Food and Drug Administration had not evaluated their statements.

That’s not to say, however, that all supplement manufacturers have taken advantage of loosened regulations and should be assumed guilty of malfeasance.

Many spirulina brands truly believe in the potential of microalgae and substantiate their stance with published scientific studies and sources that celebrate spirulina’s nutritional makeup, antiviral abilities, and anti-cancer effects. The blue-green algae variety has been found to be a significant source of vitamin A in experiments with rats, and spirulina decreased high cholesterol levels in hypercholesterolemic hamsters. Research has shown it to include all of the nine essential amino acids “in fairly good concentration" (although the same study mentioned that the number of sulfur amino acids in spirulina — methionine and cysteine — was low), as well as sufficient amounts of protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and other crucial compounds. Studies have also examined spirulina’s effects on anemia in populations including senior citizens and pregnant women with optimistic results.

But much of the research, though encouraging, remains inconclusive. Others have found, for example, that the daily consumption of spirulina snack bars did not improve the levels of serum ferritin and hemoglobin in young anemic women. And despite the definite presence of B12, the bioavailability of the vitamin — and subsequently, spirulina's capability to serve as a valuable source of B12 for vegetarians — is still debated.

For proponents applauding the miracle of spirulina, there’s another biblical analogy to be made. The comparison has been formed more than once between spirulina and manna, the edible, bread-like substance that God provided as provisions to the Israelites wandering in the desert. In fact, some have argued that the manna rained down from the heavens was actually spirulina, given its ability to prevail in hot climates, to reproduce quickly, and to be gathered in large quantities (a theory that ignores the description of manna as being white in color in the Book of Exodus).

Whether taken literally or not, the correlation pertains to the prospective application of microalgae that climate change crusaders most strongly endorse.

Amid speculation of a global food crisis in the not-too-distant future, spirulina, environmental activists say, could be the solution to feeding the world’s growing population. Unlike other purported “superfoods” like quinoa and avocados that can lead to serious ecological issues like erosion and deforestation, spirulina is not only nutritious — it’s a sustainable option that competes much less with traditional crops for limited resources.

Due to spirulina’s unique growing requirements, most conventional farmland would be a poor choice for peak growth performance at outdoor facilities. With indoor farms, like that of We Are The New Farmers, land use is even less of a concern. Additionally, spirulina flourishes in saline water, thus needing only a small percentage of the freshwater required in standard agriculture processes. Pesticides and fertilizers, both of which contribute to pollution, play no role in the cultivation of spirulina. There has also been research conducted on the potential to utilize spirulina as a means of carbon dioxide capture to combat global warming.

The perspective of spirulina as a form of nourishment for the hungry is nothing new. During World War II, efforts to find a cheaper source of protein for a population in need of food led to the large-scale cultivation of microalgae in Europe. And in 1985, the Los Angeles Times published an account of a reception held by Microalgae International Sales Corporation, another spirulina-centered venture founded by Hills. At the reception, Hills declared spirulina to be the solution to world hunger as 500 guests drank in the author’s passion and mingled with celebrity guests over microalgae-inspired libations.

“In an apparent effort to gain goodwill for spirulina, Microalgae announced it has donated substantial amounts of the powdery substance to an odd mix of anti-hunger crusades,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Those initiatives included donations of spirulina tablets — a total of $500,000 worth, as reported by the Los Angeles Times — to provide a source of energy to mujahideen rebels fighting Soviet military forces in Afghanistan and to feed individuals in a drug treatment program in West Los Angeles with the assistance of an organization founded by actor Dennis Weaver. Some, too, went to the nonprofit organization Direct Relief International to tackle famine in Ethiopia.

The 1985 article expressed clear skepticism over Hills’ claims and the usefulness of his company's actions, including mention of a $225,000 settlement that Microalgae International paid to the California Department of Health Services for false advertising and assessments from health professionals that spirulina was not a viable fix for famine.

Doubt has followed spirulina’s supporters into the present day, but believers like Guenther remain resolute in their quest to alleviate world hunger and secure our future by way of microalgae.

Unsatisfied in his previous career, Guenther recognized the enjoyment he felt from gardening on his balcony and began to more thoroughly research the origins of the food that he ate. During his deep dive into food systems, he discovered the extent to which human-made emissions come from agriculture (11% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions resulted from the agriculture economic sector in 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency) and began to better comprehend the urgency in identifying ways to lower our carbon footprint.

“We don’t really have scalable solutions at this point to bring down our carbon footprint, so I was trying to look into the potential ways by which we can reduce the emissions that we get from our food chain and our food production and really make a change in that regard,” Guenther said.

Guenther found his answer in the efficiency of microalgae.

"Our algae can double its biomass in as little as 10 days," he said.

In a 2013 review of spirulina published in the International Journal of Applied Microbiology Science, the authors stated that the filamentous cyanobacterium "yields 20 more times protein per unit area than soybeans, 40 times more than corn, and over 200 times more than beef." Similar comparisons to soy and beef, with regard to the usage of water, land, and carbon, can be found on We Are The New Farmers' website.

We Are The New Farmers further aims to pursue the objective of sustainability through a focus on local distribution, rather than transporting the spirulina across great distances. Currently, the company ships nationwide from Brooklyn but plans to set up regional production hubs in other cities, including one in Los Angeles by the end of 2022, to limit the amount that the products must travel to reach the consumer. Additionally, initial orders of the frozen cubes come in a reusable jar to prevent packaging waste.

There's also an educational component to the startup's work for individuals curious about wellness (recipe cards, for example, are included with every order to provide inspiration for how to incorporate spirulina into daily life) and professionals in the field of nutrition (the company launched a free Algae Academy course last year that promises to forgo sensationalized proclamations to instead give only the facts).

Even if spirulina isn't exactly a magical, cure-all substance akin to the manna that kept the Israelites alive for 40 years in the inhospitable desert, We Are The New Farmers has earned ample support through the company's easily digestible presentation of science-backed evidence for microalgae's powerful potential to both improve personal wellness and save our planet, as well as through the premium quality of the fresh, Brooklyn-grown spirulina.

Earlier this month, Trend Hunter included We Are The New Farmers' frozen spirulina cubes in a slideshow of April's top food trends. The trend community included the product for its ease of use and nutritional profile, with further recognition given for its positive impact on the agriculture industry. And reviews from satisfied customers corroborate Trend Hunter's assertion that the cubes "have a mild flavor that is easy to mask" and praise the product's influence on their energy levels and gut health.

And on the private startup investment platform Republic, We Are The New Farmers raised $209,371 in growth capital (837% of the minimum goal) with the help of 332 investors. During the campaign, which opened in late 2021 and closed on April 13, Nasdaq included We Are The New Farmers on a list of the seven best startups to buy on Republic, citing the strong investor response that the crowdfunding attempt had received thus far.

With his list of accomplishments expanding at a rate similar to that of his fast-growing spirulina, Guenther maintains that there is still a long road ahead to accomplish his ultimate goals. To reach the sustainable future that he envisions, the common perception of spirulina must reach a level of ubiquity well beyond the niche natural food stores patronized only by health-conscious smoothie lovers and the occasional viral recipe for spirulina-hued cream cheese slathered on toast and destined for fleeting fame on social media.

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"We are on a mission to pioneer a brave new algae world that incorporates microalgae in everything that we do," he said. "We need to come up with an entire new way of thinking about food."

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