Spirulina 'Miracle' Invades Cuba
By Dalia Acosta*
Hundreds of products made from this "miracle" algae fill supermarket shelves across the Caribbean island.
HAVANA - A tiny blue-green algae known as spirulina is taking over Cuba. Approximately 100 tons a year of this sea species serve the island as a raw material for hundreds of products, ranging from hair-loss creams to skin toning lotions, and even as supplements to fight cancer or HIV/AIDS.
This microscopic algae began to be used as a nutritional supplement in the 1980s because it was found to contain some 60 substances that are beneficial to the human organism, including all known amino acids and a broad variety of minerals and vitamins, including B-12, whose normal source in the average diet is meat.
The Cuban products created using spirulina, which is nearly two-thirds protein, are already being sold in a dozen countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
"There is quite a demand, especially considering the relatively high prices," commented an employee at a Havana supermarket where fruit preserves and jams share shelf-space with jars of Espirel Real and Espirel+C, combinations of spirulina and royal jelly (a bee product) and vitamin C.
The price for this product -- five dollars for a bottle with 30 tablets -- was low enough to convince Mercedes Rodríguez, a Havana resident who has suffered systemic lupus erythematosus for the last 15 years, to quit taking the nine pills of a medication prescribed by her doctor.
"I continuously had low hemoglobin counts, but since I began taking spirulina the problem disappeared," Rodríguez said in a conversation with Tierramérica.
Multicellular photosynthetic Cyanophyceae, the scientific name for spirulina (so called for its spiral shape) has inhabited Earth for at least three billion years in salt water and in some lakes.
It played a key role in the nutrition of the Aztecs, who called the algae "tecnitlatl", before the Spaniards conquered what is Mexico today.
Some experts say spirulina is a possible solution to the nutritional problems afflicting large portions of the human population. In several countries it is already being exploited as "the food of the future". It can be cultivated in ponds or lakes, primarily in sub-tropical climates
Spirulina is marketed internationally as a food supplement, not as a medication. But numerous studies show that it has therapeutic value, particularly because it does not produce side effects and because its consumption does not create dependence.
Initial research in the 1980s found that the algae produced positive results for patients suffering certain illnesses. Today it is known to provide benefits -- as a dietary supplement -- for people diagnosed with intestinal or kidney problems, diabetes mellitus, acne, cardiovascular problems, cancer and even HIV/AIDS.
Spirulina can also boost the human body's immune system, according to a study published in March by Japanese researcher Tsukasa Seyaa, an immunologist at the Cancer and Cardiovascular Medical Center in Osaka.
It has been shown that consumption of spirulina by persons exposed to radiation reduces the radioactivity of their urine by 83 percent.
Phycocyanin, one of the algae's pigments, reduces the predisposition for the development of cancerous cells.
Cuban physician Idalina Suárez told Tierramérica that spirulina "is very good for reducing the risk of circulatory ailments, preventing cancer and even diminishing the effects of premenstrual syndrome, a problem affecting many women."
"Most people know spirulina as something that helps you to lose weight, and nothing more. Spirulina doesn't cause weight loss itself. What happens is that it is such a nutritious food that it easily satisfies the appetite," she explained.
Another indicator of the algae's popularity is the fact that the Cuban government ensures the supply of spirulina for all of the island's world-class athletes.
* Dalia Acosta is an IPS correspondent.