In one word, Spirulina.
Due to ever-increasing population, bad economics, droughts and mismanagement of natural resources, probably the most acute "disease" being faced by humanity at large today is malnutrition.
Currently, a large group of lower photosynthetic plants called algae are gaining in prominence day by day as a means of fighting malnutrition and as a source of health foods.
Algae provide an excellent, though slightly unconventional, food supplement. As a food source, the algae have distinct advantages over higher plants. For example:
1. Their growth rates are much higher than those of higher plants. 2. They are exceptionally rich in protein and other nutrients. 3. By controlling growth conditions, it would be possible to further enrich the algae with desired nutrients.
Of the algae, the genus gaining the most importance as a food supplement for humans, is Spirulina. In 1993, Monaco hosted the first major world conference on Spirulina.
Spirulina is a filamentous organism belonging to the group of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria.
Spirulina is very rich in proteins. About 65% of its body mass is proteins which contain the essential amino acids like isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valin.
Spirulina farms can produce about 20 times more protein per unit area than soybeans.
In addition, Spirulina lacks cellulose in its walls and this makes its protein easily digested and assimilated in the human body. Studies have shown that this protein is 85 to 95% digestible.
In addition to proteins, Spirulina also contains high quantities of other nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
In the field of human health, other than their role in fighting malnutrition, algae are also important as sources of medicinal drugs.
Algae produce polysaccharides, carotenes and unsaturated fatty acids, in significant quantities. The importance of these compounds in medicine is well known.
Polysaccharides, also called glycans, are a group of carbohydrates consisting mainly of many linked monosaccharide units (a monosaccharide is a simple carbohydrate sugar with the general formula CnH2nOn).
Polysaccharide compounds are one of the most important stimulants of the natural immune system in humans, and as such, a valuable tool in medicine.
The carotenes are a group of photosynthetic pigments. Of the carotenes, probably, the most important is the á-carotene. á-carotene is the well-known orange pigment in carrots. Doctors believe that á-carotene could help prevent cancers of the throat, stomach, colon and gastrointestinal tract. Further, vertebrate metabolism converts á-carotene into vitamin A. Spirulina contains 15 times more á-carotene than carrots.
Fatty acids are a group of carboxylic acids with long hydrocarbon chains. These fatty acids occur as the basic components of many important lipids, including the glycerides. Of the fatty acids, three unsaturated fatty acids - linoleic acid, linolenic acid and arachidonic acid - are essential for promotion of cholesterol normalization and cell growth in mammals.
Spirulina produces in satisfactory quantities an essential unsaturated fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid. It has been calculated that each 10 g of Spirulina contains up to 225 mg of this fatty acid.
The gamma-linolenic acid is also used by the human body for synthesising eicosanoid hormones which perform vital biological activities, the regulation of blood pressure being one of these.
Some doctors believe that a diet of Spirulina slows down aging of cells. More recently, it has been used to treat children suffering from the effects of radiation after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, because it promotes the evacuation of radio-nucleids from the human metabolism.
In addition to proteins, carotenes, unsaturated fatty acids and polysaccharides, Spirulina also produces a group of lipids called sulfolipids. Experiments indicate that sulfolipids are remarkably active against the AIDS virus.
In view of all its superlative nutritional and medicinal qualities, Spirulina has been dubbed as the "super food".
Many western nations have started developing Spirulina farms. Prototype Spirulina production units have been installed in India, Senegal and Togo. The Mexican government has sponsored an aquaculture farm of Spirulina at a shallow lake near Mexico city. This farm daily produces 4 tons of Spirulina.
While the civilized world is only now coming to realise the importance of this little organism, Spirulina was part of the staple diet of Mexican Aztecs. It is, and has been for centuries, the principle source of protein for the Kanembou tribe near Lake Chad in Africa.