Algae: False Claims and Hype

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Blue-green algae (one of eleven groups of algae) are microscopic plants that grow mainly in brackish ponds and lakes throughout the world. Of the more than 1500 known species, some are useful as food, while others have been reported to cause gastroenteritis and hepatitis. Spirulina entered the limelight in 1981 when The National Enquirer promoted it as an "all natural," "safe diet pill" that contains phenylalanine (an amino acid), which "acts directly on the appetite center." The article also said it was "an incredible 65% protein, making it the most protein-packed food in the world."

These claims are bunkum. The FDA has concluded that there is no evidence that spirulina (or phenylalanine) is effective as an appetite suppressant. The FDA has also noted that the "65% protein" claim is meaningless because, taken according to their label, spirulina products provide only negligible amounts of protein.

MISCORP and Light Force

In 1982, Microalgae International Sales Corp. (MISCORP) and its founder, Christopher Hills, agreed to pay $225,000 to settle charges that they had made false claims about spirulina. The company had claimed that its spirulina products were effective for weight control and had therapeutic value against diabetes, anemia, liver disease, and ulcers.

Light Force, also founded by Hills, marketed spirulina products with claims that they can suppress appetite, boost immunity, and increase energy. Company sales materials claimed that spirulina is a "superfood" and "works to cleanse and detoxify the body." In a 1987 issue of Light Force's magazine, The Enlightener, vice president and corporate attorney Steve Kochen spells out the company's "legal guidelines." These include:

Despite all this, The Enlightener carried reports about users who lost weight or recovered from arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and serious injuries while taking Light Force products. None of these reports is accompanied by significant documentation. In 1996, Light Force merged into Royal BodyCare, a multilevel company with a much larger product line.

K.C. Laboratories and Cell Tech

In 1982, K.C. Laboratories of Klamath Falls, Oregon, and its president, Victor H. Kollman, began selling Blue Green Manna products (derived from another type of alga) with claims that they were effective against a wide range of health problems. In 1983, the FDA began legal action to stop the scheme, but marketing of the products did not stop. Finally, in 1986, at the agency's request, a U.S. District Court judge issued a permanent injunction ordering all parties involved to stop manufacturing, distributing, and selling blue-green algae harvested from Klamath Lake, Oregon. Explaining his decision, the judge said:

At the trial on January 9, 1986, the government introduced additional evidence of the widespread use of blue-green algae Manna products, and of the therapeutic claims that were made for these products. Victor Kollman denied that he had made therapeutic claims. . . . Nevertheless he continued to claim his product has a beneficial effect on the human body . . . as a food, and not a drug. The government showed that taken at the recommended dosage of 1.5 grams, its value as a nutrient is negligible. Further, the cost of the defendant's products, which exceeds $300 per pound, is so high as compared to other sources of the same nutrients that it is apparent that these products are not intended to be used as a food.

In 1985, the judge had ruled that the products were misbranded and unapproved new drugs, and had issued a preliminary injunction against their sale. His 1986 order cited evidence that more than 2,500 people had been distributing Manna products with therapeutic claims that defied the injunction. He also reported that since the injunction was issued, hundreds of distributors had written or telephoned with claims that Manna products had cured them or members of their families of such problems as Alzheimer's disease, heart trouble, skin disturbances, allergies, prostate problems, lack of sex drive, emotional problems, and alcoholism.

At the 1986 trial, the defendants argued that because other algal products are sold as foods or food supplements, they too should be allowed to sell blue-green algae as food-changing the packaging, trade name, and distribution system if necessary. But the judge ruled that "the demand can no longer be controlled, even if the defendants have a desire to do it." Stating that Kollman had attempted to mislead not only the court but also purchasers of the products, the judge concluded that a permanent injunction was necessary to prevent the defendants from "benefiting from their past violations by meeting the demand they had created for their products." In other words, even if questionable claims were stopped, people who believed the previously made claims would still buy the products [1,2].

Although the judge's ruling appears to have ended the sale of Manna products, a similar line called Super Blue Green Algae is still marketed by Cell Tech Inc., a company headed by Kollman's brother Daryl. According to a company promotional tape, "By detoxifying your systems and balancing your nutritional levels, Super Blue Green provides your body and spirit with ingredients that result in experiences of increased energy, mental clarity, dietary control and feelings of overall well-being. This can enable people to deal with the many stresses of this modern world."

Cell Tech's literature states that the products do not provide "cures" for diseases and are not intended as a substitute for medical care. Despite this disclaimer, many distributors have made dubious therapeutic claims in advertisements, at health expositions, and in private sales pitches to prospective customers. In 2003, a California judge ruled that 30 of Cell Tech's claims has been deceptive and ordered the company to stop making them [3].

Possible Toxicity

On May 5, 1999, the Canadian Health Protection Branch warned that products containing blue-green algae may contain toxins harmful to the liver and some species of blue-green algae naturally produce toxins known as microcystins. To determine the extent of this problem, Health Canada, through the Office of Natural Health Products, Therapeutic Products Program, and the Food Directorate of the Health Protection Branch, surveyed products to determine how many are on the market, in what forms they are, and the levels of microcystins they contain. On September 27, 1999, the survey results were announced in a news release:

Results of Health Canada's market survey testing of blue-green algal products show that no microcystins were detected in products made from only one type of blue-green algae, Spirulina blue-green algae, which is generally harvested from controlled ponds.

However, testing indicates that for many non-Spirulina blue-green algal products, harvested from natural lakes, consumption according to manufacturers directions results in a daily intake of microcystins above that considered acceptable by Health Canada and the World Health Organization. Microcystins are toxins which accumulate in the liver and can cause liver damage. They are naturally produced by some kinds of blue-green algae. Blue-green algal products are sold in tablet, capsule, or powder forms as food supplements, often as a natural source of minerals.

Health Canada began its broad sampling of blue-green algal products available on the Canadian market in May 1999, after several blue-green algal products were found to contain unacceptable levels of microcystins. Analytical testing was then performed to measure the levels of microcystins in the blue-green algal products, and the level of risk to Canadian consumers was determined. Based on the results, products made only from Spirulina blue-green algae are no longer considered a microcystin-related health risk.

For non-Spirulina blue-green algal products, follow-up will be done on a case by case basis. Health Canada's Food Directorate has communicated the test results and their health significance to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and has indicated that products on the Canadian market, when consumed according to manufacturers directions, should not exceed the daily intake of microcystins considered acceptable by the World Health Organization and Health Canada. Subsequent compliance measures are the responsibility of the CFIA.

Health Canada recommends that children not be given products containing the non-Spirulina blue-green algae until measures to address any risk have been implemented. Because of their lower body weight, children are at greater risk of developing serious illness from blue-green algal products containing elevated levels of microcystins, especially if these products are ingested for an extended period of time.

Despite recent reports that blue-green algal products can be used as a treatment for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Health Canada has not received any evidence to support such claims, and has not authorized the marketing of any blue-green algal products for any therapeutic purpose. In Canada, the blue-green algal products examined to date are sold as foods, and Health Canada does not allow therapeutic claims for substances sold as foods.

Adult consumers who choose to use products containing non-Spirulina blue-green algae should do so for short periods of time only. Adverse symptoms from long-term use of these products (weeks to months) may not be obvious but could range from a feeling of general malaise or gastrointestinal discomfort, to jaundice. Concerned consumers should contact their health care professionals for advice [4].

In May 2000, the Oregon Department of Health released data from a survey which found that 63 out of 87 samples contained microcystin levels above its regulatory limit of 1 microgram/gram. The published abstract states:

The presence of blue-green algae (BGA) toxins in surface waters used for drinking water sources and recreation is receiving increasing attention around the world as a public health concern. . . . BGA products are commonly consumed in the United States, Canada, and Europe for their putative beneficial effects, including increased energy and elevated mood. Many of these products contain Aphanizomenon flos-aquae, a BGA that is harvested from Upper Klamath Lake (UKL) in southern Oregon, where the growth of a toxic BGA, Microcystis aeruginosa, is a regular occurrence. M. aeruginosa produces compounds called microcystins, which are potent hepatotoxins and probable tumor promoters. Because M. aeruginosa coexists with A. flos-aquae, it can be collected inadvertently during the harvesting process, resulting in microcystin contamination of BGA products. In fall 1996, the Oregon Health Division learned that UKL was experiencing an extensive M. aeruginosa bloom, and an advisory was issued recommending against water contact. The advisory prompted calls from consumers of BGA products, who expressed concern about possible contamination of these products with microcystins. In response, the Oregon Health Division and the Oregon Department of Agriculture established a regulatory limit of 1 µg/g for microcystins in BGA-containing products and tested BGA products for the presence of microcystins. Microcystins were detected in 85 of 87 samples tested, with 63 samples (72%) containing concentrations > 1 µg/g. HPLC and ELISA tentatively identified microcystin-LR, the most toxic microcystin variant, as the predominant congener [5].

The Bottom Line

Algae products contain no nutrients that are not readily available from food or ordinary dietary supplements that cost much less. Studies performed in countries where malnutrition is common have shown that administering spirulina (as food or tablets) can correct deficiencies of the few nutrients that spirulina contains. However, the commercially marketed algae products have no proven value for treating obesity or other human health problem, and some may contain potent toxins.

For Additional Information

References

  1. Barrett S, Herbert V. The Vitamin Pushers: How the "Health Food" Industry Is Selling Americans a Bill of Goods. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 1994.
  2. Ballantine C. The trial of the blue-green algae eaters. FDA Consumer 20(6):33-34, 1986.
  3. Barrett S. Cell Tech loses false advertising suit. Quackwatch, July 25, 2003.
  4. Health Canada announces results of blue-green algal products testing—only Spirulina found Microcystin-free. Health Canada news release, Sept 17, 1999.
  5. Gilroy GJ and others. Assessing potential health risks from microcystin toxins in blue-green algae dietary supplements. Environmental Health Perspectives 108:435-439, 2000.
This article was revised on January 14, 2007.