Can Algae Solve our $200 Billion Health Problem – Diabetes?

by Dr. Mark Edwards

The cost of diabetes in the US approaches $200 billion annually. A new study released at the “Weight of the Nation” conference in Washington DC in April 2012 predicts 42% of Americans will be obese by 2030. Either we solve diabetes or our society, as we know it will fail. These costs do not include the drag on education and social systems for obese children and elderly who have no energy and whose brains are dull and slow.

An algae-based food system could moderate diabetes significantly. Algae offer a set of diabetes avoidance or management characteristics not found in modern industrial foods, including:

  • Higher nutralence, nutrient density, which ends empty calories and provides more essential micronutrients per bite.
  • Algae offer substantially more soluble fibers per bite, which slows the release of blood glucose after a meal.
  • Algae create a feeling of satiety, which substantially diminishes the nosh drive.
  • Algae are low in fat and cholesterol, which helps avoid obesity.
  • Algae nutrients are immediately bioavailable, so consumers can eat less food.
  • Algae polysaccharides improve digestion.
  • Algae moderate hypoglycemic effects and glucose uptake in the liver and soleus muscles.

An algae-based food system could save the US around $200 billion annually. Robert Henrikson wrote a series for Algae Innovations Media on Algae Microfarms that could enable all people to grow the healthy and affordable foods that avoid obesity and diabetes. Freedom Foods describes the value proposition for algae-based foods that free consumers to make healthy food choices that avoid obesity and diabetes.

Algae’s beneficial characteristics

Algae are the oldest photosynthetic organisms on Earth, having survived 3.5 billion years. This tiny plant developed incredible survival strategies in order to flourish through climatic cycles, temperature spikes and fierce electrical storms. Marine algae must live with pounding ocean waves and violent currents. The plant may have evolved fibers to sustain itself in the littoral zone at the margins of estuaries and oceans.

Algae assumed its long-term role to provide food at the bottom of the food chain. Plants and animals that evolved later depended on algae to provide the essential nutrients, vitamins and trace elements for an active life. Systemic obesity and diabetes would have terminated animal evolution eons before early hominoids appeared. Therefore, algae had to offer dietary nutrients that moderated obesity and diabetes.

Plant, animal and human fossils reveal that algae, especially sea vegetables and other seafood provided the essential nutrients required for early hominid growth and development. The rich omega-3 fatty acids available only in algae were probably responsible for encephalation, brain expansion two million years ago, from 400cc (similar to a Chimpanzee brain) to our current 1600 cc brain.

Algae mechanisms

Algae offer a rich set of bioactive agents that facilitate efficient and healthful metabolic processes.  The fibrous components of algae add bulk to the digestive tract reducing hunger, transit time, and intestinal pathologies. Algae deliver compounds that create a feeling of satiation – fullness – that moderates hunger pains and the desire to eat beyond basic needs.

The fibrous bulk reduces hunger pains by creating a feeling of satiety. Avoiding hunger pains reduces the urge to find another bite to eat. Research shows that the fibers attenuate the blood glucose response after a meal. In long-term studies, algae fibers improved control of diabetes.

Sodium alginate. Right: Spirulina

Sodium alginate induces significantly lower postprandial rises in blood glucose, serum insulin and plasma C-peptides. The diminished glucose response, after the addition of sodium alginate in the diet, may lead to the delayed gastric emptying rate, induced by the fiber. Algae polyphenol extracts have anti-diabetic effects through the modulation of glucose-induced oxidative stress. The extracts also slow starch-digestive enzymes such as alpha-amylase and alpha-glucosidase.

The plentiful soluble dietary fibers in algae help avoid obesity and diabetes. The total fiber content of several algae species, (~6 g/100g), is greater than that of fruits and vegetables promoted today for their fiber content:  prunes (2.4 g), cabbage (2.9 g), apples (2.0 g), and brown rice (3.8 g).

Some algae such as the blue-green spirulina have no cell walls, which aid digestion and nutrient absorption. Studies have demonstrated digestion rates 95% for essential amino acids. Algae provide higher quality protein than red meat. Unlike meat, algae contain all eight essential amino acids required for human body. Algae also pack a variety of essential vitamins including A, C, D, E, and b-carotene, biotin, folic acid, pantothenic acid and creatine. Vitamin E and B-carotene content is the best antioxidant and helps the body stave off free radical damage. Algae also deliver the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin, which scavenges free radicals and protects the body against oxidative damage.  Astaxanthin moderates the lipids that raise LDL-cholesterol. helps strengthen and maintain cells, their membranes, and tissues.

Algae polysaccharides are gums derived from brown seaweeds, such as alginates, and red seaweeds, such as agar and carrageenan, which is also known as Irish moss. Alginates form insoluble gels that are used as emulsifiers, thickeners, and binders in food production. Polysaccharides demonstrate anti-atherosclerotic functions, reducing blood LDL cholesterol concentrations and cardiovascular disease risk. These soluble polysaccharides may act as prebiotics, stimulating growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. 

The effect of soluble fiber on the blood glucose response seems related to its ability to increase the viscosity of a meal. Viscous fibers slow the gastric emptying rate of a meal in subjects with and without diabetes. Alginate fiber offers a source of viscous dietary fiber in algae-based foods. The main constituents of alginates are uronic acids (mannuronic and guluronic acids), which give the alginate characteristics similar to pectin (galacturonic acid).

Alaria, Right: Palmaria

Other research has investigated algae’s ability to moderate hypoglycemic effects through enhancement of glucose uptake in the liver and in soleus muscles. Improved insulin sensitivity after algae treatment could be also due to lower serum non-esterified fatty acid levels. Insulin sensitivity tends to blunt elevated non-esterified fatty acids in diabetes. Phenolic-rich extracts from edible marine macroalgae – Ulva, Ascophyllum, Alaria, and Palmaria – were found to offer biological components that inhibit replication of cultured colon cancer cells. These studies confirmed that phenolic extracts inhibit digestive enzymes and achieve anti-diabetic effects.

Lipid reduction

Several studies have shown algae’s ability to decrease lipids, lower blood sugar and improve diabetic symptoms. Research confirms that algae reduce triglycerides and low-density proteins in blood cholesterol, which helps regulate lipids, and offers other health benefits.

Most algae offer low-fat proteins that often have nutrient profiles superior to land-based crops, dairy or meat. The next generation of food processing will incorporate the low fat, nutrient rich algae components throughout the food system to improve health and reduce obesity.

Why not today?

Algae-based foods are far lower on the food chain than land-based vegetables, so they are healthier for people, producers and our planet. Producers are gearing up to grow algae food, feeds, nutrients and medicines, but the algae industry is not ready yet. The Algae Biomass Organization standards committee is only now beginning the process to define healthy algae food and feeds.

Algae polyphenol and other extracts are likely to become a universal health ingredient in thousands of functional foods in the future. Algae offer strategic solutions to the expensive and devastating war against obesity, diabetes and the many associated diseases.

Next time you talk with a person plagued with diabetes or pre-diabetes, now over 36% of the US population, suggest they evaluate algae foods.