For athletes spirulina protein may be more nutritious than the main protein in dairy products

Wouldn’t it be fantastic – and not only for the environment but also for industry – if we started eating spirulina instead of meat. A pond one hectare in size could produce six hundred times as much protein from this edible algae as a hectare of pasture used for cattle. Spirulina is made up of 65 percent protein.

But is that protein good for us? Yes, say Brazilian researchers at the Sao Paulo State University in their 2008 study. It may even be that spirulina is better for your muscles than the dairy protein casein.

The Brazilians did trials with rats, which were thirty days old at the start of the trial. The trial lasted until the rats were ninety days old – the age at which rats become adult.

The researchers divided their test animals into two groups: one group was given a diet in which the proteins – seventeen percent of the total energy intake – came from casein. The other group got their protein from spirulina. Apart from that the diets were identical.

The rats in the spirulina group ate a little less than the rats in the casein group, but the difference was not statistically significant.

When the researchers examined the rats’ muscles, they did notice differences. The production of muscle protein in the soleus muscle was higher in the spirulina group. The graph below shows this.

Spirulina protein vs casein protein

In another calf muscle, the gastrocnemius, the rats in the spirulina group had also built up more of the motor protein myosin. See the graph below.

Spirulina protein vs casein protein

On the other hand, spirulina increased the rate of muscle breakdown, although the effect was not statistically significant.

You’d expect that the rats in the spirulina group had built up more muscle, but the Brazilians couldn’t say anything about this as they had not looked at this aspect. They did measure how much protein, fat and water the rats’ bodies contained, but the analyses showed no difference between the groups. [More protein can also mean that the organs are larger.]

To be able to say something about the anabolic effect, the researchers would have to measure for example how much nitrogen the rats retain or they would have to weigh muscles. They are working on further studies. Once the results are there we’ll know whether we can expect spirulina shakes to turn up in supplements stores.

In the sports world animal protein is regarded as sacred. There’s a reason for this: amino acids in dairy, meat and egg protein exactly match human amino acid requirements. The biological value of animal proteins is high, as they put it.

On the other hand, there are studies – mainly animal studies, we have to admit – in which non-animal proteins also come out not too badly at all. Protein from buckwheat stimulates muscle growth in rats, according to one such study. It’s mighty difficult to get hold of buckwheat protein for the average consumer, although it is an ingredient in some sports supplements. But whether these really work we don’t know.

© Willem Koert |

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