They're nothing more than single-celled algae, but if line extensions are the measure of a category's success, green superfoods are waxing triumphant. Retailers can now carry tablets, granules, powders and extracts of chlorella, spirulina and other algae. Pure Planet, based in Long Beach, Calif., offers not just organic spirulina, but also Hawaiian spirulina, carob-mint spirulina and Purely Greens, a product combining spirulina with cereal grasses. And that's just one manufacturer.
Almost everyone knew someone in the late 1980s or early '90s who was pushing blue-green algae in a multi-level marketing scheme. Its popularity waned for a decade or so, but now supergreens are making a comeback, and this time, it's legit.
"It's resurgent," says Al Ciment, owner of Maplewood Nutrition and Dietary Food Shop in Philadelphia. "Judging by how many [green superfoods] are on the market today, a lot of people must be asking for it."
Indeed they are. While the No. 1 channel is still direct sales, the naturals channel is doing a brisk business as well and has lots of room for growth. In 2003, the category was worth between $110 million and $120 million, representing annual growth of about 20 percent, according to Grant Ferrier, editor in chief of Nutrition Business Journal.
Sun Chlorella USA, which sells about $35 million to $40 million worth of green superfoods annually, according to Ferrier, is the biggest player in the direct-to-consumer channel, with about 75 percent of its revenue coming from direct sales. "The secret of greens has been around for so long," says Janis Van Tine, a spokeswoman for Sun Chlorella. "But it is getting hype. We're seeing a lot of competition." In naturals stores, consumers bought about $32 million worth of green stuff. Earthrise Nutritionals, which makes spirulina products, saw a 15 percent increase in sales in 2004 and is predicting even bigger increases for this year.
Green superfoods have even hit the hip-hop lifestyle. Andre 3000, lead singer of megagroup Outkast, is known for his vegan lifestyle and is also a fan of green smoothies. That's cachet you just can't buy with advertising dollars.
"Right now the most popular are the multi-greens," says Ciment. In particular, he names NOW Green Phyto Foods ("They've got a huge amount of greens and are cheaper than some of the other brands") and Greens Plus. "People seem to want a multi because they want the benefits of all the greens—especially people with the cancer issue and the AIDS issue and the lupus issue." Ciment adds, "They seem to think it helps with the immune system, and people are just hedging their bets by taking it."
Immunity is just one of dozens of benefits that "true believers" attribute to algae. It's also the one with the most science behind it. In 2002, researchers in Japan found that the activity of so-called natural killer cells—the cells that surround and destroy cancer cells—increased in people who took a hot-water extract of spirulina. Older studies had shown a possible link between consumption of spirulina and prevention of oral cancer. In 2003, Canadian researchers found that healthy adults ages 50 to 55 had a better response to flu vaccine if they also supplemented with chlorella. And in 2004, researchers from the University of South Carolina hypothesized that Asians had a low prevalence of AIDS due to their high consumption of algae.
A nutritional powerhouse
Theories about the reasons for the immune-enhancing effect of algae abound. Most attribute it to the nutritional profile of the algae. Both spirulina and chlorella are high in vitamin B12—somewhat unusual in the plant world—and vitamin A. Both are protein-rich (about 60 percent protein, compared with beef's 22 percent) and high in antioxidants. Spirulina also has high levels of gammolinolenic acid, an essential fatty acid that is thought to reduce the body's inflammatory response. Greens also have long been used for bowel, liver and blood cleansing.
However, Sun Chlorella's Van Tine emphasizes the need to use chlorella regularly. "Like any natural product, greens take time. It's not a quick fix. It has to be in your daily regimen," she says. Lance Sigal, division manager of sales and marketing for finished goods at Earthrise Nutritionals, claims that Earthrise's spirulina "helps cleanse but it also puts some nutrients back into the body." That's critical, he says. "Because it's a healthy item, you'd want it to have a balance, a give and take, a certain symbiosis with the body."
And evidence is mounting that these simple organisms, harvested from the warm waters of Mexico, Africa and the western United States, have other health benefits. Spirulina has been shown in at least one study to stabilize blood sugar and ease cravings and could therefore prove useful in the battle of the bulge. It's also been shown in animal studies to lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides. Sigal says a new spirulina blend, to be released this year, supports the respiratory system. "We have eight pages of structure/function claims that we've submitted to the [Food and Drug Administration] over the years that have been 'accepted.'"
Chlorella, too, has its fans. Preliminary evidence shows strong promise for chlorella's use in preventing cataracts that occur as a result of diabetes; for improving the symptoms of fibromyalgia; and for decreasing weight gain and elevated cholesterol in menopausal women.
Van Tine confirms that seniors are one of the target markets for chlorella. "We're getting into the younger crowd, too. People who are working out find they have more energy" after incorporating chlorella into their diets, she says.
Then there's the chlorophyll. Both spirulina and chlorella are excellent sources, but chlorella is believed to have more than any other plant. "It's like hemoglobin," says Van Tine. "Green to plants is like red to blood in humans."
"Chlorophyll does assist in some of the enzymatic reactions in the body," says Jennifer Lovejoy, chairwoman of the nutrition department at Bastyr University, "and [it] provides some nutrients that we get when we eat green products. Is [chlorophyll] an essential nutrient? Not really."
Therein lies the controversy surrounding chlorella, spirulina, blue-green algae and red algae, as well as some of the cereal grasses. These superfoods are touted as the missing component in today's diet, and a brief search of the Internet unearths claims that they improve energy, cure attention deficit disorder and heal wounds. Fans boast of algae's ability to enhance sleep quality and memory. But there's little scientific evidence to back these assertions. "There's no question that some of the claims are total hyperbole," Lovejoy says, "but it is a very rich source of nutrients and vitamins and chlorophyll, [which] probably does have some benefit, particularly if [people] are lacking green foods in their diet."
That's why the supergreens are being touted as fast food for the New Age set. Because of algae's nutritional density, and its ability to be mixed into smoothies or sprinkled on food, people who don't get enough vegetables in their diet can still get their nutritional benefits.
"It's meant to supplement the diet for those who don't eat healthy," says Earthrise's Sigal.
A green education
Those who don't or can't eat right aren't necessarily the consumers attracted to a product that's "green and has a slight odor to it," Sigal admits. The trick is in educating consumers and retailers alike. "People don't know where to start," he says. If they enter a store and see seven facings of Earthrise and five facings of Nutrex and two facings of the store brand, they have no idea which to buy. "It's good for me," he says, "but that's not the way to sell spirulina."
Moreover, once first-time buyers get green superfoods home, they have no idea how to use them. "If it's a green powder, they don't know how to mix it into the smoothie so it doesn't stick to the side of the blender," Sigal says. Because consumers often seek guidance from retail employees—who have varying levels of knowledge—Earthrise offers retailers a self-study program, with a manual that breaks out the features and benefits of spirulina. "It sells the product more than the name," Sigal says.
The company also plans a major consumer advertising push this year, Sigal says. "We don't want to be known as snake oil. We made a decision to renew our commitment to education" about the science behind supergreens.
Beyond St. Patrick's Day
While further research is needed on their health benefits, the popularity of supergreens can't be denied. In 2000, Robert's American Gourmet, best known for its Pirate Booty snacks, produced Spirulina Spirals before the FDA cracked down. "The real question revolves around whether spirulina is a food or a food additive," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council. Robert's took one for the team, though—spirulina has since been Generally Recognized As Safe by the FDA.
"We are GRAS'd," says Sigal. "It is out there and it is being used" as an ingredient in foods. In fact, Greens Plus manufactures energy bars with added green foods. Odwalla and Naked each have a bottled smoothie that uses spirulina, chlorella or blue-green algae. Henderson, Nev.-based No Guilt Chocolate manufactures five different bars, each with a distinct health benefit. The company's Happy-Girl bar, marketed as an antidote to PMS, takes "the satisfaction and decadence of premium gourmet chocolate" and adds spirulina, roasted edamame and ground flaxseed, according to No Guilt's Web site. New Zealanders can buy Griffin's Vitalife Well Grain Multigrain Crispbread in three different flavors, one of which is Garlic & Spirulina. Europeans have access to a German beer enriched with spirulina as well as vitamins A and D, protein and iron. The brew is touted for its anti-aging effects. Finally, green beer isn't just for St. Patrick's Day anymore.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 2/p. 24, 26