How to be an algivore

powdered chlorella on a spoon

To start my investigation of algae, I cracked open an old textbook of my husband’s titled: ‘Introduction to Phycology’. According to the textbook, “algae is ubiquitous, occurring in practically every habitable environment on earth.” I agree as I don’t have to look far to find algae. My aquarium hosts all sorts of algae types resulting in periodic algal blooms, some less desirable than others. Walking into my bathroom, I can often find a pink alga growing on my shower curtain which would take over my shower if I didn’t regularly beat it back with bleach. Further afield, algae can be found thriving under Arctic ice and in deserts. I doubt there’s a more a resilient plant out there.

Plenty of critters thrive on an algae diet. Back to my aquarium, a farlowella (a stick-like fish with a suction-cup-like mouth) thrives on the green alga growing on the glass. My ever-expanding population of snails also dine on this alga. Out in the wild, frog and toad tadpoles live on algae. In fact, algivores reside all over this planet. Plenty of humans include algae in their diets – and have been doing so for eons. Apparently, ancient Aztecs considered spirilina (a freshwater microalga) a staple. Many coastal communities harvest seaweeds (a type of algae) all over the world and have done so for centuries.

In the alga eating spirit, I’ve decided to try eating (drinking actually) Chlorella vulgaris daily. Chlorella is a microscopic freshwater green algae. I bought a small tub of it in powdered form. Before I opened the tub, I expected chlorella to smell like pond scum, instead I got a pleasant surprise when the smell reminded me of a hayloft on a sunny day (still not a food smell). The powder is a dark forest green, so dark it’s almost black, with the texture of a ground up pigment.

my farlowella kindly cleaning the glass for me

It is easy to find glowing reports about chlorella (which I keep wanting to pronounce as cholera) as a superfood. I’m sceptical whenever the declaration of a ‘superfood’ is made, especially if the superfood was considered a ‘staple’ of an ancient remote civilization – everyday food never seems to be declared a superfood. Instead of eating a blackberry from my backyard, am I supposed to rush out and buy acacia berries from South American jungles?

There are documented benefits to eating microalgae. First of all, they contain all sorts of nutrients and complete proteins. Additionally, chlorella can reproduce itself four times every twenty-four hours, making it the fastest growing plant on the planet. This productivity is an important factor in considering food sources for our seven billion plus population. As for the health claims, I just don’t know. According to the internet, chlorella is apparently a cure-all, especially useful for ‘people with poor vitality’ (whatever that means). On the flip side, I’ve found web sites documenting digestive distress caused by consuming chlorella. I take the hype with a grain of salt.

Another well documented benefit to chlorella is how it improves air. Experiments have shown chlorella absorbs carbon dioxide and replenishes oxygen (important for long space voyages). If cultivated in tanks, eight metres squared of exposed surface is needed to keep one person breathing – which isn’t much considering the cultivation tanks could be shallow and stacked. These experiments were conducted in soviet-era Russia (1970s) where they made no effort to eat the stuff. NASA took the next step and looked at chlorella as the sole food source for astronauts on long space voyages – apparently they would survive, but I bet they would be grumpy.

As a food, chlorella poses a bit of a problem. It’s a single celled spherical alga with tough cell walls. These cell walls make it impossible to digest in its natural state. Processing of some form is required. Chlorella has a second problem – flavour. I’ve tried algae (in this case seaweeds) that have tasted fantastic, chlorella doesn’t. It isn’t that it tastes bad exactly, just unfamiliar. So far, I haven’t found any reference on how to make it taste good – just advice on masking its flavour in smoothies, or taking it in pill form. I tried it in a chocolate-banana smoothie, the smoothie was fine but there was no hiding the fact that chlorella was in there.

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