The thought of eating any type of algae, for the vast majority of people, seemed unthinkable not too long ago. But with the health consciousness of the world rising by leaps and bounds due to the Internet and the proliferation of health food stores and companies, spirulina and its cousin chlorella have become highly sought-after commodities.
Author and green business entrepreneur Robert Henrikson, 64, has been a driving force behind the algae-as-health-food boom, having spent over 30 years developing it as a world food resource while founding the world’s largest spirulina farm.
His book, “Earth Food Spirulina,” later updated and released as “Spirulina — World Food,” was originally published in 1989 and has been translated into six international editions and revised seven times. Robert’s websites are www.smartmicrofarms.com, www.algaecompetition.com, www.spirulinasource.com and www.algaealliance.com.
Recently, he sat down for an interview with AltHealthWORKS.com to discuss his various ventures including international contests for algae building designs, the value of spirulina as a health and green resource, and much more.
AHW: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started working with spirulina and other truly sustainable green technologies and health foods.
RH: Well my background, I’m 64 and I’ve been an entrepreneur going back to 1977, when I first became involved with algae, so that’s a long time ago. It’s been a long career working with micro algae and back then, in ’77, people hadn’t really heard about algae, it was something they hadn’t really conceived of eating.
But there was some good historical evidence and medical research showing it was really good. Not only is spirulina nutritious and healthy but it had a history of safe consumption. I understood that if we could grow food at the base of the food chain we would enjoy productivity advantages because microalgae as a source of protein is 20 times more productive than any other terrestrial plant.
We can eat at the bottom of the food chain (and thrive). Algae is the base of life on the planet, the first photosynthetic life form, and we and everything else evolved from algae. There are hundreds of thousands of algae species yet to be discovered.
It’s also amazingly productive. If we can harness it for food, nutraceuticals and even biofuels these days we’ll enjoy a big productivity advantage. That’s what’s driving the excitement with algae, it’s just so productive and that’s what has inspired me for 35 years.
AHW: How did you begin to sell people on and make money off of algae, what was that process like when you got started?
RH: We had to develop a business model that could eventually be profitable and sustainable, so first of all we looked at growing spirulina in places where people really needed it and were malnourished such as in Africa.
People in Africa asked us, “Are you eating it in the U.S.?”
They were right. We needed to start a business here first. So we started growing in California on a small scale and raised private money, creating pilot farms down in southern California around 1977-1980, in the Imperial Valley.
After three or four years we began feeling more confident and on the right track and we developed a relationship with a Japanese corporation growing algae in Thailand, for a food coloring and natural supplement. We formed a joint venture with several million dollars to build the Earthrise Spirulina production farm. Eventually, we got that farm producing in the early 1980s as the first company growing and selling spirulina as a food supplement in the USA in health food markets. We exhibited at natural health food trade shows featuring spirulina algae products.
We market spirulina as a supplement similar to the value of vitamins or minerals: take six to ten tablets a day, or blend powder into green smoothies, and that was how people started taking it.
To grow the business profitably took longer than we had thought but by the mid-90s and we had the largest algae farm in the world, with more than 10,000 stores and 30 countries around the world buying Earthrise® Spirulina.
AHW: Where did the term spirulina come from in regards to the algae?
RH: It means “little spiral,” referring to the filament of algae in the shape of a helical coil. One cell wide, cells are stacked end on end and forming a perfect coil. It’s one type of blue green algae.
There are other algae such as chlorella you may have heard of but we started with spirulina in the late 70s for four pretty important reasons.
First, we had historical evidence that people had traditionally consumed it as a safe food, eaten by people in Africa, and before the Spanish took over Mexico it looked like the Aztecs were harvesting it from a lake around Mexico City.
Second, you can grow spirulina outdoors in ponds as a pure culture.
All kinds of algae will grow in warm sunny ponds of course, but some kinds you don’t want, and you have to know how to grow only the kind you want. With spirulina it is possible to mimic natural alkaline spirulina lakes by establishing water chemistry that allows spirulina to grow better than competitors.
Third, because spirulina is a long spiral filament, not a tiny sphere, we can use simple micro screens that make it easy harvest microscopic algae.
Fourth, Since the 1960s there has been a growing body of scientific research documenting spirulina’s remarkable health benefits, taking just 3-5 grams per day.
AHW: Tell us a little more about the book, ‘Spirulina: World Food,’ what is the meaning behind the cover with the Earth rising in the background?
RH: The Earth rising was inspired by the famous NASA photo from 1969 of Earth rising above the lunar surface. We wanted people to know that algae is our future – the Earth rising and taking care of ourselves. The brand we created was called Earthrise ®. I was involved in that company for 20+ years through 2000.
AHW: And is the algae typically grown in ponds or the ocean or both?
RH: When we’re talking about spirulina, it’s grown fresh or alkaline water, not seawater.
Other companies are working on developing algae for supplements, feed products or even fuel, so they’re looking at all kinds of algae, marine and freshwater.
For algae grown for food, it’s best to start with good water, that’s very important and to know the source. I encourage anyone when buying algae products to look closely at the source.
AHW: How do you get people to get over their first impression that algae is sort of, well, dirty?
RH: Algae is the stuff we saw growing in swimming pools or in scummy-looking ponds, lakes and more. There are many kinds of algae and some of them are great at cleaning up waste water. It takes an educational process so people can learn how valuable algae are, especially for health benefits.
AHW: And of course a lot of pretty big animals eat algae.
RH: Right, like whales, whales eat krill and krill eats algae so it’s all part of the food chain. The largest organisms are vegetarians, not carnivores, and there’s plenty of protein in algae, it’s just a wonderful food especially if you happen to be living in the ocean.
AHW: So what have you been working on lately?
RH: Well last year I produced another book called, ‘Imagine Our Algae Future: Visionary Algae Architecture and Landscape Design’ (with Dr. Mark Edwards), which is exploring how growing and producing algae will affect our lives going forward.
We sponsored the International Algae Competition for architects and engineers to design visionary algae food and energy systems. Registrants from 40 countries submitted amazing entries. We had an international panel of jurors to judge these amazing architectural designs and landscapes. The purpose was to give people a positive view of how algae will improve their lives.
Back to the food aspect of it, we built one of the world’s largest algae farms back in the 80s and 90s, and now I am focused more on promoting small farms. Now entrepreneurs and can grow algae on a small scale for local food production.
AHW: So speaking of the health benefits mentioned earlier, what are some of the most unique benefits of consuming spirulina?
RH: Just three grams of spirulina a day, 6 tablets or a teaspoon of the powder, can provide six major medical benefits. I take 10 tablets a day or a similar amount of the powder.
You don’t need to change your whole diet to start feeling benefits, you can just add spirulina as a supplement. There are 40 years of published international medical research that describes the 6 major benefits for just a 3-gram serving, and these are well-documented.
First, spirulina promotes and stimulates the immune system and its ability to protect your body.
Second, it restores and enhances beneficial intestinal flora and is pretty good for digestion.
Third, it enhances your own body’s healing response. Unique to blue green algae is phycocyanin, a unique blue pigment that increases the healing response and helps you recover faster after injury.
Fourth, research shows spirulina strengthens neuro-protection and is anti-aging; like blue foods such as blueberries, and (red ones like) pomegranate, spirulina has one of the highest concentrations (of anti-aging compounds).
Fifth, phycocyanin and chlorophyll help detoxification of toxins, heavy metals, even radioactive compounds. You can use it while fasting and it helps accelerate the process.
Sixth, all the beta carotene and antioxidants, are great for eye health and cellular health.
Those would be the six top medical benefits of spirulina beyond the fact that has the highest level of protein and is nutrient dense with vitamins and minerals.
AHW: What about the price of spirulina? It seems like such a simple, abundant thing but the prices of health store supplements are high. Will the price get lower as it becomes more in-demand and can it really be used as a food the poor if that happens?
RH: The price has been coming down, and now it’s being grown all over the world, in India and China as we said earlier.
If you’re selling a supplement in America the distribution system adds a lot to the cost. Every level is taking a profit through that system. But the cost of production has been coming down gradually over the past 20 years.
AHW: And where exactly is the Earthrise farm located for growing spirulina?
RH: Earthrise Nutritionals Farm is located in Imperial Valley, California, two hours east of San Diego. With 108 acres and 30 main production farms, Earthrise produces a tremendous amount of spirulina today.
AHW: So do you believe people will eventually be able to do the same in their own backyards in their own ponds for food and fuel?
RH: I used to say no to this question when people said they wanted to try and grow it themselves. On large commercial farms, there scientists, technicians and a whole infrastructure to keep the cultures growing at a phenomenal rate and that’s not easy to do.
Now after 30 years things have changed, and it’s possible to be successful on a much smaller scale. Now I’m focused on helping small scale production with algae microfarms.
The algae microfarming movement, started in the developing world, and now has really taken off in France, and that’s not a tropical location, it’s cooler than here in California. There are over 100 microfarmers, entrepreneurs and businesspeople growing spirulina in France and selling it locally.
Imagine a farm with greenhouses 20 by 50 or 100 feet long. Inside are algae ponds, that’s what’s been going in France. In 5 or 6 warm months, a grower can make enough money by selling product in the local market and to support his family and build the local food production movement.
My company, Smart Microfarms is stimulating the movement building microfarms.
We’ve got aquariums inside, tanks on a sunny deck, and a small greenhouse pond in a backyard near San Francisco Bay. This spring we installed a greenhouse microfarm near Olympia Washington. More are underway.
It’s fun to grow your own, dry in it the dehydrator or eat it fresh or frozen. Fresh and fresh frozen spirulina doesn’t have any flavor so you can mix it in with foods, spreads, and drinks.
You do have some limitations though. The best climates are the hot, tropical and warm ones, sunny days. In San Francisco we have a pretty good climate here but the water gets cold so if you want to grow in the offseason you’ve got to heat the water.
If you want to grow in the winter you may have to add light as well as heat. I don’t have to add light here in San Francisco but I do have to add heat.
AHW: What about chlorella, how does that compare and contrast with spirulina? We’d like to hear a little more from an expert.
RH: Chlorella was one of the first algae grown on a large production scale, it’s been around for a while and it’s a great supplement. It is grown in Asia: Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia. Chlorella’s shape is a tiny ball. It doesn’t harvest on a simple screen, you need a centrifuge or other method that is more expensive and doesn’t lend itself as well to small scale cultivation, because it takes a lot more elaborate machinery and infrastructure to grow and harvest.
Spirulina grows well at a high 9-10 pH in very alkaline water. So if you recreate these conditions, spirulina grows well and other organisms cannot compete. Chlorella grows at a normal pH and it can get contaminated with other algae, so it’s harder to keep a pure chlorella culture growing outside.
AHW: So what are some of the best ideas for using algae in architecture you’ve seen?
RH: Retrofitting or designing buildings with algae panels on the outside, whether with glass or plexiglass, with algae inside screening the light to cool or warm the buildings.
Some designs use algae to clean up the water recycled inside the buildings and then reuse the water for flushing toilets. But if you’re going to eat algae you have to grow it off of clean sources, from a clean environment.
Some of these projects are being built now in Germany and France. These buildings are covered with algae membrane panels, algae in vertical systems. It’s really exciting to watch how well these living buildings perform.
AHW: It certainly sounds exciting. Thanks a lot for joining us, Robert. How can people find out more?
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