Algae has proteins that are really good for muscles

Spirulina and chlorella are the two most commercially available algae. They contain high doses of micronutrients and are rich in protein. But not all proteins are the same, some proteins are better for muscles than others. A group of researchers has studied how good algal protein is for muscles. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty good.

Spirulina is typically used as a powder in smoothies or other foods. Photos: Marco Verch.

The research started from ethics. More and more people are trying to reduce their intake of animal protein because it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for animals and it’s also bad for global warming. In fact, reducing meat consumption is one of the most environmentally friendly things most people can do. But if you eliminate meat from your diet, you have to replace it with something.

Plant-based proteins have been established as a healthy option, but we need as many protein sources as possible, especially since plant-based proteins are sometimes different from animal proteins.

This is where the algae come into play. Recently, algae has emerged as a “superfood”, a food rich in fiber, nutrients and protein without major drawbacks. As always, you should be skeptical of any “superfood” claims, but several studies have shown that algae can be a very healthy source of nutrients.

But how good is algae for muscles? A team of researchers from the University of Exeter began to investigate the matter.

Green is good

The study involved 36 healthy young adults who participated in a randomized, double-blind study. Participants performed resistance leg exercises and then consumed a drink containing 25 grams of protein from the fungal mycoprotein, spirulina, or chlorella. Blood and skeletal muscle samples were collected to assess amino acid concentrations and myofibrillar protein synthesis rates. In particular, spirulina showed the fastest and highest spike in blood amino acid levels after consumption.

Overall, the algae’s ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis was largely similar to high-quality non-animal proteins such as mycoprotein. Mycoprotein is a high-quality protein source and one of the best meat alternatives, so this bodes well for the future of algae as a protein source.

chlorella powder
A spoonful of Chlorella powder. Photos: Flickr.

This efficiency equivalence, combined with its environmental benefits, makes algae an attractive option for those committed to reducing meat consumption for ethical and environmental reasons, explains study author Ino Van Der Heijden:

Our work has shown that algae can become part of a safe and sustainable food future. More and more people are trying to eat less meat for ethical and environmental reasons, so interest in non-animal and sustainably produced protein is growing. We believe it is important and necessary to start exploring these options, and we have identified algae as a promising new protein source.

Take it with a grain of salt

However, the study has some limitations. It focused on young adults, meaning the finding may not translate to a more diverse population. In the future, the researchers want to study the effects of algal protein consumption on different populations, including older adults. Such research would further strengthen the potential of algae in various dietary needs and health scenarios.

Nevertheless, algae seem to stand out as a good source of protein and also environmentally friendly. Although more work needs to be done to confirm the findings, it appears that algae are a viable alternative to animal proteins. Several studies have shown that animal protein takes up more land, uses more water and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than basically any other alternative.

This research not only highlights the potential of algae in supporting muscle health, but also its role in shaping the future of more sustainable and ethical nutrition. As the world struggles with the environmental impact of traditional protein sources, algae is emerging as a beacon of hope, offering a path towards a more sustainable and health-conscious future.

The magazine was published in The Journal of Nutrition.

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