Food Science in the News:
On August 13th, the FDA approved the use of a certain bacteria as a natural color additive.
Now presenting:
THE 10 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SPIRULINA
10- IT’S FROM MARS.
The petition to use spirulina extra as a color additive was filed by Mars Inc. The petition is for candy and chewing gum so it’s fair to expect slight color changes in Mars products.
9-IT’S BEEN TO OUTER SPACE.
Spirulina was used to feed NASA and ESA astronauts due to its concentrated nutritional profile (60-70% protein by dry weight, high beta-carotene, B12 and iron content).
8-IT LIKES SALT AND WATER.
Spirulina is a type of algae that needs alkaline lakes to flourish. It grows in fresh and marine waters but it needs high salt and high pH conditions.
7-IT’S THE MASTER OF TWO KINGDOMS.
Spirulina was first classified in the plant kingdom because it performs photosynthesis. It was later classified in the bacterial kingdom based on its genetics and other biochemical properties.
6-IT’S PROOF SCIENTISTS ENJOY NAMING THINGS.
If you look at spirulina under a microscope you’d see…. spirals. Surprised, aren’t you. Spirulina’s structure involves filaments that wind into a helix or spiral.
5-IT’S GRAS.
No, not like the stuff that’s greener on the other side but Generally Recognized As Safe. A substance obtains GRAS status when the FDA reviews studies proving toxicological safety.
Side-note: Ingredients in a food/beverage product must be either approved food additives or GRAS. Spirulina is popular in supplements, but it has been GRAS since 2003.
See GRN000127 – Oct 2003 –  FDA GRAS Notice. 
4-IT LIKES HEAVY METAL, … especially mercury.
Because it’s grown in alkaline lakes, mercury content is cause for concern. The good news is the WHO/FAO tested commercial spirulina products and found their lead and mercury contents were below the limit for safety. The bad news is that survey was done way back in ’89. The bottom line is controlling the source of the water can alleviate the heavy metal load.
3-IT MAY IMPROVE CHOLESTEROL LEVELS.
Some of the human clinical trials published using spirulina as a functional supplement have suggested the following correlation (with the corresponding dose, specified):
  • Increased HDL, decreased LDL (4.5 grams per day for 6 weeks)
  • Improved lipid profile for patients with CVD (2-4 grams per day for 3 months)
  • Improved cholesterol profile for patients with diabetes type 2 (1-2 grams per day for 2 months)
The fine print here is that these trials were all small and their findings are not consistent across multiple trials. It’s too soon to say whether spirulina will be the next Lipitor.
2-FINALLY, A FOOD COLORANT YOU CAN EAT ALL DAY AND NIGHT.
The “No Observed Effects Level” is 15 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day, which means a 60 kilogram person can eat 900 grams of this stuff per day and not notice any side effects. No word yet on whether “seaweed breath” counts as a side-effect.
1-JUST A PINCH WILL SPREAD THE COLOR FURTHER THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE.
As someone who has personally worked with spirulina, I can testify that a small pinch of it is potent enough to turn an entire glass of water dark blue-green. It’s also quite magical how this stuff colors the scale, the counter-top, the tips of your fingers/gloves, the measuring spoon…
Welcoming spirulina into the world of color additives brings us one step closer to not needing artificial colors, but achieving a true blue may be more of a challenge than it seems. Step 1 is to know what you’re dealing with (“the devil you know beats the devil you don’t). Step 2 comes later, when blue M&Ms start looking a little green…
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