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Study: If you care about your gut health, start eating algae now

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

Researchers at the University of California have completed the first analysis on the effects of the world’s most studied Algae consumption and have shown that it improves irritable bowel syndrome problems

The fast-growing, widespread plant called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is famous in scientific laboratories for its position as the most studied Algae in the world.

For decades, the green unicellular organism, which grows primarily in moist soil, has served as a model species for research topics ranging from algae-based biofuels to plant evolution. While other species have been used as dietary nutraceuticals that provide beneficial oils, vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, antioxidants, and fiber, the benefits of consuming C. reinhardtii have not been previously explored.

Researchers at the University of California (UC) in San Diego have recently completed the first study that examined the effects of its consumption and have shown that this species improves human gastrointestinal problems associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) such as diarrhea, gas and bloating.

The integration of high-quality functional foods into the modern diet has been reinforced by a growing awareness of the interaction between diet and overall health. The functional foods, sometimes called nutraceuticals, provide additional benefits beyond its nutritional value and caloric through the incorporation of bioactive compounds that are associated with a better state of wellness. Factors such as rising health care costs, increasing life expectancy and the desire to improve quality of care have driven demand for more natural ingredients, as documented by Swedish researchers Beat Mollet and Ian Rowland in the journal ‘Current Opinion in Biotechnology’.

Functional ingredients

Algae, a highly diverse polyphyletic group of photosynthetic microbes and seaweed, are an attractive source of functional ingredients, offering an almost limitless range of naturally derived products. The incorporation of algae biomass in food can be used to improve the nutritional quality of food due to the nutrients they provide (vitamins, proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, antioxidants and fiber), according to a study published in ‘Alga Research’.

The addition of algae biomass and compounds derived from them to food has been shown to be beneficial for human and animal health, with specific studies investigating the incorporation of microalgae or marine algae to the diet to potentially reduce the appearance of cancer and combat the effects of aging, prevent disease, control obesity, and mitigate inflammation.

Although algae have been cultivated for centuries, recent advances in production technology have enabled large-scale cultivation of microalgae in open ponds, photobioreactors, and fermentation tanks. These cultivation techniques allow optimal control over the quality of the product, since the chemical composition of the algal biomass largely depends on environmental factors such as water quality, temperature, salinity, pH and nutrient content.

Of the thousands of microalgae genera, only a few have been targeted for commercial production as food or food ingredients, notably: Arthrospira (spirulina), Chlamydomonas, Chlorella, Dunaliella, Euglena, Haematococcus, Isochrysis, Nannochloropsis, Phaeodactylum, and Porphyridium.

At the time of this study, whole cell biomass from 6 species is currently recognized by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for human consumption. The latest GRAS approved species is Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, the main subject of this work.

“People have been observing these algae for decades, but this is the first study to show what many of us suspect: it is good for you,” said lead researcher Stephen Mayfield. And he insists that “this is exciting because it shows a clear effect: if you have similar symptoms of IBS, this is beneficial.”

For years, researchers in the Mayfield lab have been exploring C. reinhardtii as a profitable and sustainable source of valuable plant-based products, specifically pharmaceuticals and biofuels. Now working with several collaborators, including John Chang (UC San Diego School of Medicine), Rob Knight (School of Medicine, Jacobs School of Engineering and Center for Microbiome Innovation), and San Diego-based startup Triton Algae Innovations, turned their attention to the investigation of algae as a nutritious food additive to improve human health.

Algae biomass

The C. reinhardtii biomass used in the study, which was grown by Triton Algae Innovations, underwent rigorous safety testing and was designated GRAS by the FDA, thus giving the green light for its use in a human study.

Preliminary data in mouse trials demonstrated that consumption of C. reinhardtii significantly reduced the rate of weight loss in rodents with acute colitis, which is generally related to inflammation of the digestive tract. From these data, the researchers set out to test a similar effect when the algae were consumed by human volunteers, including those with and without symptoms associated with IBS. Volunteers consumed scoops of powdered C. reinhardtii biomass daily and reported their gastrointestinal health for one month. Of the hundreds of participants interested in the project, the data of 51 volunteers they met the study requirements for inclusion in the final data analysis.

The results showed that participants who had a history of frequent gastrointestinal symptoms reported less intestinal discomfort and diarrhea, as well as less gas or bloating and more regular bowel movements.

“The benefits of consuming this species of algae were immediately obvious when examining data from mice and humans suffering from symptoms,” said Frank Fields, a research scientist in Mayfield’s lab and lead author on the paper. “I hope this study helps destigmatize the idea of ​​incorporating algae and algae-related products into your diet – it is a fantastic source of nutrition and we have now shown that this species has additional health benefits.”

Bioactive molecules

The researchers say that much more testing is needed with larger groups of participants over longer periods of time. At this point, they are unclear on how algae work to improve gastrointestinal health. Scientists believe that the benefits could be attributed to a bioactive molecule in algae or perhaps to a change in the gene expression of gut bacteria caused by its consumption.

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