Is It Primal? – Spirulina, Chlorella, Amaranth, and Other Foods Scrutinized

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by Mark Sisson Mark's Daily Apple

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There are many thousands of foods out there at our beck and all, and you want to know which ones are Primal-approved and which ones are not. I know this because I get a lot of emails from you guys asking me about this food or that food. I’m happy to give my perspective, but I also want to iterate (or reiterate, in case I’ve already said this) that eating or not eating any of the aforementioned and heretofore-mentioned foods will neither ratify nor revoke your Primal Cred card. Heck, such a card doesn’t even really exist! These are just my opinions based on the evidence available to me.

Without further ado, let’s dig in to the foods in question. We’ve got spirulina, chlorella, amaranth, Mycryo, and freeze-dried produce on the docket for today.

Spirulina

Spirulina is a type of microalga — tiny algae, seaweed that you can’t see (“can’t-seeweed”? No, that’s terrible) — found in tropical and subtropical lakes (so I guess it’s not actually even seaweed, but rather lakeweed). In certain areas of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where it grows naturally, spriulina has long been prized as a food source rich in protein, vitamins, fats, and minerals. How rich?

By dry weight, spirulina is around 60% protein, and because it contains all the essential amino acids, spirulina has been called the finest source of non-animal protein around. That may be true, but I’d wager it’d be less expensive (and tastier) just to eat some eggs.

Purveyors and enthusiasts often claim that spirulina contains vitamin B12, but that’s not really true. It contains something called pseudovitamin B12, which sounds interesting but is “not suitable for use as vitamin B12 sources, especially in vegans,” because it is inactive in humans. Nice try.

Spirulina contains a lot of gamma linolenic acid, or GLA, a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid that’s pretty rare in average diets. Contrary to how we usually conceive of omega-6 fats, dietary GLA is actually more anti-inflammatory than inflammatory in practice.

Spirulina is filthy with iron and vitamin K and, being a vibrant blue-green, contains tons of pigments with antioxidant properties.

It’s passed extensive toxicological safety tests (PDF) and has been shown to exert hypocholesterolemic and immune-boosting effects, which sound uniformly beneficial until you realize that a “boosted” immune system could also exacerbate autoimmune conditions, like autoimmune inflammatory myopathy.

I don’t see any real glaring issues with spirulina, but it seems more suitable as a supplement than a straight-up food source. Most studies use, at most, 7 grams per day; when you look at the impressive nutritional content of spirulina on some sites, it’s often for a 100 gram dose, which is far beyond what you’d be willing to eat.

Verdict: Primal.

Chlorella

Chlorella is another freshwater microalga favored by conventional and vegetarian health nuts, albeit without the longstanding legacy of spirulina. It is high in protein, fatty acids (including EPA) (PDF), magnesium, zinc, iron, and chlorophyll, plus plenty of phytonutrients. Of course, chlorella is hard to digest because it has a tougher cell wall than spirulina, which is easy to digest, but “broken cell wall” chlorella is more digestible and widely available in supplement form.

Much has been made of chlorella’s ability to remove heavy metals, dioxins, and other toxic materials from the body. Is it true? Kinda. One study in pregnant women found that chlorella supplementation reduced the maternal-fetal transfer of dioxins; it also reduces the transfer of dioxins through breastmilk. Another — this time in rats — found that chlorella helped reduce cadmium absorption in the liver when the two were co-administered. Still, this doesn’t tell us much about chlorella’s ability to remove stored lead, mercury, and cadmium once they’ve already been absorbed or swallowed. I suppose we could just take a shot of chlorella every time we consumed anything that might be contaminated with metals (or breathed air contaminated with heavy metal particulates), but that would get annoying fast.

Chlorella’s just another “superfood” in a long line. It’s got some interesting nutrient content, like EPA and complete protein (especially for vegans). It’s proved beneficial in several human studies, improving the antioxidant status of Korean smokers, improving metabolic parameters of at-risk patients, reducing mild to moderate hypertension (in some subjects), and increasing immune function. But it’s not going to cure whatever ails you. No one thing will.

Verdict: Primal.

Amaranth

Amaranth is an herbaceous plant, but when most people say “amaranth” they refer to its grain-like seed, or pseudograin. Amaranth grain has been used for thousands of years, particularly in South and Central America, where the Aztecs, the Inca, and the Maya all cultivated extensive amounts of amaranth. In fact, when the conquistadors arrived to find the Aztecs using the pseudograin in delicious-sounding yet completely heretical religious ceremonies where sculptures of the gods would be fashioned out of amaranth and honey and then broken apart and eaten, they banned its cultivation. I suppose the symbolic consumption of the body of a deity hit a little too close to home. Besides, amaranth and honey taste way better than bland bread, so they had to eliminate the formidable competition.

Being a seed that acts like a grain, amaranth is fairly carb-dense — about 65 grams per 3.5 ounce serving of dry grain. It’s also rich in iron, magnesium, protein, and calcium.

If you’re going to eat amaranth grain, particularly as a “safe starch” source, a little traditional prep work is advised to make it as safe as possible. “Steeping and germinating” — also known as soaking and sprouting — amaranth grain for 5 and 24 hours (PDF), respectively, eliminated phytic acid and tannin content while minimizing loss of dry matter and making the protein more digestible. Soaking and sprouting for longer periods were unnecessary and in some cases even diminished the nutritional content.

What I like about amaranth, at least relative to other grains and grain-like seeds, is that it also produces edible, nutritious leaves. Amaranth leaves taste a bit like spinach and can be eaten raw, though they’re substantial enough for sauteing and stir-frying. Legend has it that a clove or two of chopped garlic goes well with sauted amaranth leaves. Heck, even the root and stems are edible and employed in various cuisines.

Verdict: Not Primal, but if you already do rice and quinoa, it’s worth looking into.

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