20th May 2012
Why would anyone want to eat pond scum, you might ask? On its own (usually dried and in capsule form), it looks and tastes disgusting. However, advocates say it is the perfect food supplement that offers all the micronutrients that body may be missing out on.
This could be good news for ordinary Cambodians, as malnutrition remains a problem despite the fact that the vast majority these days actually have enough to eat.
Now a Swiss-registered charity has announced through the Cambodian Parents’ Network that it is seeking distributors for the product here in the Kingdom. Presenting itself as an NGO, it says it is producing Spirulina in Cambodia “as a way to fight malnutrition” and is looking for people “interested in making additional pocket money by buying and selling Spirulina in their own interpersonal network.”
In other words, it is multilevel marketing (or pyramid selling) business.
Spirulina is the name given to a blue green algae more closely akin to bacteria than to seaweed, that produces its own food through photosynthesis. Aside from being an energy booster, it has been claimed that Spirulina can treat obesity, is good for the skin, and is rich in vitamins and protein. In fact, it is regarded by some as a veritable cure-all. (For a review of Spirulina as a supplement, see the Wikipedia entry)
Back in the 1990s, Spirulina became a fad amongst the whole-earth, alternative lifestyle crowd, fuelled as much by greed as faith in its purported healing properties. This came after The National Inquirer published an article in 1981 promoting it as the latest weight loss miracle. It was also claimed to be “a complete whole food,” contains “60% protein with all the essential amino acids in perfect balance,” and “the highest chlorophyll content of any plant.”
Claims for Spirulina’s health benefits are largely based on the notion that it is an ideal food, dense in nutrients and in perfect “balance.” The Swiss NGO says in its pitch that “Spirulina is a great, natural food supplement for health. It is highly recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children (6 months to 5 years), but really, it is good for anybody who wants to keep healthy and energetic.”
Unfortunately, as a food supplement, Spirulina products contain negligible amounts of nutrients, as they are largely marketed as small capsules or tablets. As such, they are usually very expensive and contain no nutrients that cannot be found in other foods at considerably lower costs. Consequently, they are typically consumed not as food but in small amounts for their alleged drug-like health benefits.
Although sold for its alleged nutritional value, it is usually packaged and used like a pharmaceutical.
The idea that it is all about perfect nutritional balance that will allow the body to heal itself also means Spirulina doesn’t have to meet the rigours of government approval, which requires going through the time and expense to prove scientifically that one’s claims are actually true.
Nevertheless, proponents often claim Spirulina’s health benefits have been demonstrated with scientific research. Unfortunately, this conflates basic science research with clinical research. The first happens in the laboratory while the latter actually looks at the results on human subjects. The problem is that basic research alone is a very poor predictor of the final health effects of a substance on the human body. Human physiology is far too complex to make such extrapolations with confidence, and the last century of medical research has demonstrated that only a very small minority of substances that look promising in the test tube actually prove beneficial to people.
Another sales pitch is that Spirulina is packed with vitamins, but nutritionists say you’ll get more vitamins from normal servings of broccoli and other green vegetables. And because it has a considerable amount of vitamin B12, Spirulina is usually recommended to strict vegetarians who can’t get this vitamin from plant sources. But Dr. Varro Tyler, a world renowned authority on herbs at Purdue University, has said Spirulina’s vitamin B12 content is due mainly to contamination with insect or animal faecal matter. This is not surprising as the algae often grows on open lakes and ponds before it is dried.
In Health Schemes, Scams and Frauds, Dr. Stephen Barrett wrote that an FDA analysis of one of the earlier Spirulina lines, called Blue Green Manna, contained “15 whole or equivalent adult flies, 164 adult fly fragments, 41 whole or equivalent maggots, 59 maggot fragments, one ant, five ant fragments, one adult cicada, one cicada pupa, 763 insect fragments, nine ticks, four mites, 1,000 ostracods, two rat or mouse hairs, four bird feathers, six bird-feather barbules, and 10,500 water fleas.”
Of course, Penh Pal has no way of knowing if the “Swiss NGO” has recognised and addressed these issues. It appears from their video that the algae is grown on purpose-build ponds that are covered to prevent contamination, for example. If the Spirulina they produce is added in significant quantities to other foods and then sold in quantities and at prices poor people can afford – and evidence is then demonstrated this successfully addresses deficiencies in the diet of poor Cambodians – we say good luck to them.