Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
30 Oct

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

There are many thousands of foods out there at our beck and call, 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 sautéeing and stir-frying. Legend has it that a clove or two of chopped garlic goes well with sautéed 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.

Mycryo

I’ve discussed the considerable health benefits of the cocoa bean (or is it “cacao bean”; I can never quite remember), one of which is the cocoa butter. Mycryo is cocoa butter, only in powdered, freeze-dried form. You can sprinkle it directly onto foods along with spices and salt and pepper before applying heat. According to proponents (and Mycryo’s producers), Mycryo will give a steak a fantastic sear. It’s also an interesting way to control the amount of fat you use, if you worry about that sort of thing. At the very least, by selectively applying only as many freeze-dried fat globules as the job requires, you’ll waste far less than you would using more traditional forms of cooking fat.

I don’t see any reason why Mycryo would be harmful. It’s certainly a novel form of an inarguably Primal fat – cocoa butter – but then again, so is the powdered coconut milk I use in Primal Fuel. There aren’t a ton of studies on the effects of freeze drying on fatty acids, and zero (at least that I could find) on the effects of freeze drying on the fatty acids specific to cocoa butter, but in the few that were available, I was able to discern that only the polyunsaturated fats are negatively affected by freeze drying. And even then, it takes time for that damage to accrue.

In regards to Mycryo, it appears that the oxidation fears are unwarranted. Cocoa butter is over 50% saturated, with the bulk of the SFAs coming from stearic and palmitic acid. SFAs are resistant to oxidation as a general rule. The rest of cocoa butter is unsaturated, but mostly monounsaturated oleic acid, the same fat found in olive oil and beef fat that’s highly resistant to oxidation. Between 0-3% of cocoa butter fat is polyunsaturated and therefore in danger of oxidative damage from freeze-drying – not a very worrisome amount, by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve never used the stuff, but my interest is piqued. I could see people doing some interesting things in the kitchen with it. Check out the cooking demos for some ideas.

Verdict: Primal.

Freeze Dried Fruits and Vegetables

We already know that fruits and vegetables are Primal, so the real crux of the contention here is the freeze drying, which can be a helpful way to produce shelf-stable produce. Obviously, fresh, preferably just-picked fruits and vegetables are superior choices, but what if we’re going on a road trip, going camping, or flying to Mars and we want access to berries, broccoli, and spinach? Just like Mycryo above it, you’re probably wondering whether or not freeze drying fruits and vegetables negatively impacts their nutritional content. Does it degrade the vitamins? The polyphenolic compounds? What about minerals – are any of those lost to the drying process?

Vitamin C levels appear fairly sensitive to freeze-drying. One Brazilian study (PDF) found that freeze-dried tropical fruits, including mango, pineapple, guava, and papaya lost up to 37% of their vitamin C, though the authors concluded that even freeze-dried, the fruits remained a valuable source of the vitamin (especially compared to other methods of drying).

Polyphenol content appears to be quite stable after freeze-drying, at least in blueberries, strawberry tree fruits, raspberries, strawberries, yams, asparagus, corn and marionberries, to name just a few. In fact, that strawberry tree fruit study concluded that “freeze-drying is the best drying method to keep the nutritional value, antioxidant activity and sensory properties of fruits.” Mineral levels remain steady, too.

One negative I can see is the lost water content. The water content of a food contributes greatly to its ability to satiate those who eat it, so if you’re snacking on dried fruit, it’s easy to put a lot of it away. For this very reason, you’re likely to eat more calories from dried mango than from fresh mango.

Fairly minor negatives aside, if you’re in a situation where you need to pick a shelf-stable produce option, freeze dried appears to be your best bet. While it does degrade some nutritional aspects of some fruits, it depends on what fruit you’re talking about and what specific nutrient you’re worried about. Overall, I’d say it’s a wash and it’s definitely better than eating none at all. Treat freeze-dried fruit and vegetables like their fresh counterparts, making sure to account for the fact that it’s a little too easy to eat the equivalent of six pounds of fresh fruit in freeze-dried form.

Verdict: Primal.

That’s what I’ve got for today, guys. If you have any other foods you’ve been wondering about, send them along in the comment section. Get as specific or as obscure as you desire.

Thanks for reading. Take care!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2014 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!