"REBUTTAL" To the Editor of the Straits Time

To the Editor of the Straits Times

Dear Sir,

For the past 35 years I have studied the protein-and vitamin- rich aquatic microorganism called Spirulina (the Cyanoprokaryote Arthrospira platensis).  I've grown it in the laboratory, designed and installed self-sufficient farms or culturing systems in remote Third World villages for the purpose of fighting against malnutrition, written books about it, and taught hundreds of students about its history, physiology, chemical composition, requirements for its growth, how to use it, and the health benefits it can be expected to give.

Also, for the past 35 years I have consumed from 10 to 20 grams (dry weight) of Spirulina a day, with a 90-day period during which I consumed 45 grams per day. I am over 83 years old and in good health.

My attention has been drawn recently to an article written by Mr. Andy Ho in the Saturday, July 19, 2003 issue of the Straits Times. The article is entitled, Spirulina: Pond Scum or Wonder Food ? Jury's out.

It is more than just "unfortunate" that the Straits Times has seen it fit to publish such a sensational condemnation of Spirulina based upon such shallow research.  The reputation of your journal deserves more correctness and the reputation of Spirulina demands the truth because it is saving the lives of thousands of children throughout the world and needs to continue doing so.  No journal has the right to deny these children the good health they receive from Spirulina.

Along with everyone else, we sympathize with the actress, Andrea De Cruz, who, suffering from liver failure, was obliged to undergo a liver transplant operation.  Your article claims the British liver specialist, Dr. Julia Wendon, said Ms. De Cruz's condition may have been brought on by a health food supplement, called Spirulina. Correction: the supplement was called Slim 10, which contains nitroso- fenfluramine: This, according to the Singapore liver surgeon who operated on the actress, is the chemical in Slim 10 that most likely caused the liver failure. We wish Ms. De Cruz well.  Dr. Wendon's testimony is understandable.

There are many blue-green algae (actually they are not algae, but Cyanoprokaryotes, which originated more than a billion years before the algae) and a number of them have been known to produce toxins under certain circumstances - especially to protect themselves against predation by zooplankton. Medical doctors have a bewildering number of things to learn before getting their diplomas.  So it is not surprising if one of them does not know which Cyanoprokaryotes are not toxic and why.

Spirulina is not considered to be a toxin producer, whereas Anabaena, Microcystis, Aphanizomenon flos aquae, Nodularia, Planktothrix and others can be toxic. This is disturbing because Aphanizomenon flos aquae from Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon has been touted widely as a "super blue-green alga" which is not only nutritious but can solve various health problems. Mr. Ho mentions that "in 2000, the Department of Health in the US State of Oregon surveyed 87 commercially available blue-green algae products and found 85 of them were contaminated with microcystins" (hepatotoxins). What Mr. Ho does not mention (see Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 108, N°5, May 2000) is that the 87 products were all made from Aphanizomenon flos aquae from Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake.

Mr. Ho, perhaps quoting from the publicity of some ill-advised "algae" grower, writes that blue-green algae is "so low on the food chain it has to be packed with nutrients and energy …. that it is so rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients it is nature's perfect food, capable of sustaining life without the need for other foods". Correction: Spirulina is not a source of energy, and one cannot live without fats, cereals or other sources of energy.  Spirulina supplies the rest but the Kanembou people of Chad (not Central African Republic as Mr. Ho reports) and the Aztecs always have used it in combination with cereals.... and that is the way it should be eaten. The USA's NASA and the European Space Agency recognize this in their high-tech programs for nourishing their astronauts with Spirulina.

Mr. Ho says Spirulina contains vitamin B12 "otherwise found only in animal meat" and that "humans can't absorb the vitamin B12 in Spirulina". Correction: Besides meat, it is found in anaerobic bacteria, in fishes, in milk and dairy products, special brewer's yeast and wheat germ (in that descending order). There are several possible structural modifications of the vitamin B12 molecule involving group substitutions, and these modifications are called analogs. These analogs are not considered to be effective against pernicious anemia which is corrected by vitamin B12.  Spirulina contains these analogs and that is why some people say humans cannot absorb the vitamin B12 in Spirulina.  However, Spirulina also contains 0.4 mg of true Cyanocobalamine (vitamin B12) per kilogram of dried biomass, not including the analogs - which extrapolates to 4µg per 10-gram serving (twice the amount needed by children and sufficient for pregnant women).  So it is false to say that humans cannot absorb the vitamin B12 in Spirulina.

Mr. Ho says "The Aztecs ate Spirulina as a food called tecuitlatl, if records kept by the Spanish conquistadors are to be believed".  To insinuate that the Spanish were unable to report things correctly around 500 years ago while he expects his readers to have faith in what he writes today certainly doesn't advance his argument very far.

Mr. Ho speaks lightly of the many hundreds of scientific articles concerning Spirulina published within the past 30 years; the books and theses written about Spirulina, and the splendid results obtained with kwashiorkor children when he says "very preliminary evidence from very small studies suggest that Spirulina .. may help.. but the findings have yet to be confirmed by larger and longer studies". Not only has it been studied extensively, but Spirulina has been eaten by man for over a thousand years.  Is anyone suggesting that larger and longer studies be conducted on tomatoes before they can be recommended ?  They were introduced less than 500 years ago !  And, please, somebody, tell Mr. Ho that Chlorella is not one of the "blue-green algae", but a green alga - a mistake of about a billion years.

Mr. Ho does say that cultured Spirulina can be grown free of microcystins, but throughout the article there is confusion between Spirulina and toxin-producing "algae", and the reader is led to believe, from the title down to the last sentence, that it is dangerous to eat Spirulina.

Spirulina grows in waters of considerably higher salinity and pH than the possibly-toxic Aphanizomenon flos aquae, Anabaena, Microcystis and others, so the likelihood of a Spirulina culture being contaminated with microcystins is certainly minimum.  And, I'm sure, Mr. Ho will be glad to know that there are rapid, sensitive, and reliable tests available for microcystins. There is the Artemia nauplii bioassay test which is extremely low in cost and reveals the presence of toxin within an hour. Other aquatic organisms capable of being used in bioassays tests for microcystins include: the Water Flea, Daphnia, the Copepod, Cyclops, the Rotifer, Brachionus, the Protozoan, Paramecium, and others easily maintained in culture in the field laboratory of a Spirulina farm. And there is the EnviroLogix Quicktube Microcystin Kit, an ELISA test which detects quantities of microcystins as low as 0.3 of one part per billion (0.3 ppb).  It would take 1 microgram of microcystin (injected intraperitoneally) to kill a 20-gram mouse. By extrapolation, to kill a man would take 4000 times more.

As I have said, there are many peer-reviewed scientific articles describing Spirulina, its contents and effects. One should not miss The Potential Applications of Spirulina as a Nutritional and Therapeutic Supplement in Health Management, written by Dr. Amha Belay  and published in the Journal of the American Nutriceutical Association, vol.5, N°2, Spring 2002.  This 21-page article is a critical examination of more than 70 studies made in vitro, in vivo, with rodents, fish, chickens, and human patients showing the immunomodulation effects of Spirulina, antioxidant effects, anticancer and antiviral effects, cholesterol reduction activity, and protection against radiation damage.

In his concluding remarks Dr. Belay states: "(1) the technology for mass cultivation and harvest of Spirulina is well-established, (2) Spirulina has undergone two decades of toxicity testing in addition to its known centuries of human use, (3) microbiological and other safety standards have been established for Spirulina products, (4) the two most commonly grown species, Spirulina (Arthrospira) platensis and Spirulina (Arthrospira) maxima are free from Cyanobacterial toxins and can be grown (under controlled conditions) free of contaminant Cyanobacteria by virtue of their adaptation to a high alkaline environment.."

In September 1999, Health Canada announced the findings of extensive testing of a broad sampling of blue-green algal products, including Spirulina. (Their news release 1999-114, 27 September 1999). "Results of the testing, conducted at two separate laboratories, indicate that no microcystins were detected in the blue-green algal products containing only Spirulina. Based on these results, products made only from Spirulina are no longer considered a microcystin-related health risk." This was confirmed in writing , 11 February 2003, by the Canadian Minister of Health.

 Spirulina is not a danger to human health, but a natural food that restores health to humans who have been exposed to dangers caused by other foods, to lack of food, or to substandard living conditions.

However, Mr. Ho's article is a wake-up call to Spirulina growers to be alert to the presence in their cultures of other algae which could be microcystin producers…. though it is known that by keeping the total salinity and the pH at optimum levels there are no such contaminants. Nevertheless, if there are any growers who do not test for microcystins, they should do so, thus meeting their responsibility for product safety.

Spirulina is being fed to child victims of malnutrition in Benin, Republic Democratic of Congo, India, Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, etc.. where the children are recovering in significantly less time than with other therapy.  This must be allowed to continue until we are no longer faced with images of children dying of undernutrition.

The Straits Times has an obligation to present the truth about Spirulina to its readers. Business interests, professional jealousy, shallow research aside - the true story of Spirulina is fascinating, remarkable, and promising for humanity.

I am yours sincerely,

                                                                                                    1 October 2003

Dr. Ripley D. Fox

Director General

Intergovernmental Spirulina Program