4 Types of Edible Algae With Superfood Potential

What is chlorella, anyway?

Green chlorella algae powder
Photo: Madeleine Steinbach/Adobe Stock

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word algae might be pond scum or that greenish stuff that collects on the surface of underused pools. (Gross.) But did you know there are several other types of algae that are edible and extremely healthy, too? And they're not just kind of healthy—nutritionists have named aquatic greens (like algae, seaweeds, and sea moss) as one of the hottest new superfoods.

Algae vs. Seaweed

The terms "algae" and "seaweed" are often used interchangeably, but there's an important distinction between the two.

  • Seaweeds are a type of multicellular marine algae, meaning they're only found in salt water, like the sea (hence, the name).
  • Algae are aquatic organisms (they're not technically plants!), including seaweeds, that can be found in all types of bodies of water, fresh and salty.

While both seaweed and algae grow in aquatic environments, and seaweed is considered a type of microalgae, the two have cellular and other differences that lead experts to consider them in separate categories.

Algae Are Packed With Nutrients

"Algae is very efficient at synthesizing and making bioactive compounds," says Ralph Esposito, ND, LAc, naturopathic physician, functional medicine practitioner, and acupuncturist specializing in integrative urology, endocrinology, and nutrigenomics (the study of how food/nutrition impacts genes).

In layman's terms, this means that algae can take in sunlight and nutrients from the environment and transform them into nutrients and compounds our bodies can use. "This includes things like omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin K, zinc, magnesium, and, interestingly, it can make methylated (active) forms of B vitamins like B12 and folate," Esposito explains.

What to Look for in an Algae Product

It's not recommended to harvest your own algae for consumption, since many types can be toxic. While most edible algae is found in dietary supplement form, certain seaweeds can be found in their raw form.

Do your homework. Esposito cautions not to take any supplement blindly and to look for algae products that come from clean waters without any metals, contaminants, or other environmental pollutants.

Look for proper testing certifications. "Two things to look for are NSF certification and third-party testing," he says. "Remember, a company can get a third party to test their product, but it doesn't mean they always pass. NSF certification confirms they are tested and they pass."

Ask your doctor first. Most importantly, always consult your doctor before starting any new supplement, and remember that eating whole, healthy foods and a balanced diet is the best way to fuel your body, rather than relying on under-regulated supplements.

Types of Edible Algae and Their Nutritional Benefits

The world of edible algae extends well beyond your favorite spicy tuna roll to include varieties like chlorella, spirulina, and sea moss. These aquatic microplants are rich in nutrients and thought to deliver a host of healthy benefits. Here are four varieties of edible algae to know about.

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You may be familiar with eating seaweed already, thanks to delicious menu items like nori-wrapped sushi and refreshing wakame salad (pictured above). And this tasty category of sea plants isn't just a great addition to comforting miso soup—it's adding far more to your dishes than a briny, green bite.

Seaweed Health Benefits

Health-wise, seaweeds like nori, kombu, wakame, and dulse have been shown to be beneficial sources of protein, fiber, minerals, and fatty acids. Working together, the compounds and nutrients present in seaweeds are helpful for everything from reducing inflammation at the cellular level (a main culprit of chronic disease), to improving thyroid function due to high iron content.

Because of this, however, it's important for people who have hyperthyroidism to monitor their intake of seaweed to avoid aggravating their condition. In addition to wrapping sushi, add seaweed to miso soup, toss it into fried rice, or munch on crunchy, salted seaweed sheets (found in most grocery stores) between meals for a savory and satisfying snack.

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According to Esposito, chlorella—a type of nutrient-dense, single-celled, green algae that lives in freshwater—is a real superstar of the algae family in terms of its health properties.

Chlorella Health Benefits

Chlorella has been found to provide both macronutrients (namely protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals like vitamin C and iron).

It's also a powerful natural detoxifier. "Chlorella's superpower is its ability to assist the body in detoxification, especially of persistent environmental pollutants like dioxins," Esposito says. "One of the more common dioxins is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are becoming more prevalent in our water supply and contaminating many of our freshwater ecosystems, including the fish that live there. Because nature is very intelligent, it's no surprise that chlorella (which is found mostly in freshwater) has been shown to reduce the absorption of dioxins and help us eliminate them."

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Similar to chlorella, spirulina is a blue-green algae that rivals the former for its antioxidant properties. Unlike chlorella, spirulina can be digested by the human body in its whole food form, however, it's still most commonly found as a powder or in tablet form. Spirulina has a fairly mild flavor and goes well in smoothies with tropical ingredients like a coconut, kale, ginger, and mint combo.

Spirulina Health Benefits

Spirulina is very rich in B vitamins, especially B12, and has a slightly higher protein content than chlorella does, which makes it a popular choice among plant-based eaters. Both protein and B vitamins can be trickier to get enough of without consuming animal proteins (think: dairy, poultry, eggs), but spirulina is one of the few plant-based exceptions offering these important nutrients. Another benefit that spirulina and chlorella share is the potential to boost heart health by lowering triglycerides and LDL ("bad") cholesterol among those who consume them.

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Sea Moss

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This form of red seaweed has gained popularity in wellness circles recently—though more scientific studies are needed to understand just how healthy it is to consume (including the risks). There are two types of sea moss: Irish sea moss and regular sea moss, and both species offer similar health benefits.

Sea Moss Health Benefits

A "mucilaginous" food, sea moss is slimy in texture and can act as a soothing agent in the gut, helping with digestive issues. Like other seaweeds, sea moss is also a good source of minerals including iodine, which the thyroid needs to make hormones, regulate metabolism, and more important functions. But note that you can consume too much iodine, so don't start going crazy with the sea moss before talking to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian.

Sea moss is usually sold in powdered form, but can also be found raw in health food stores and online. If you're planning to mix it into a smoothie, be warned that it can taste a little fishy, so prepare to include other tasty add-ins.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are algae plants, fungi, or bacteria?

    The short answer: None of the above. Algae belongs to the protist kingdom, a category of organisms that are not plants, fungi, bacteria, or animals. Algae, of which there are more than 8,000 species, are sometimes considered plants, however, because some types do closely resemble certain land plants.

  • Can everyone eat algae?

    Algae is not safe or advisable for everyone to consume. You should never consume a new dietary supplement without consulting your doctor, as there may be potential side effects and interactions with medications and existing health conditions.

  • What are the best ways to consume edible algae?

    This depends on the type of algae. While most edible algae can be found online or in health food stores in dietary supplement, tablet, or loose powder form, certain seaweeds can be found in their raw form. Powdered spirulina, chlorella, and sea moss can be blended into smoothies or lattes, mixed into homemade protein or energy balls, and more. Raw or dried seaweed is a common ingredient for sushi, salads, soups, and more recipes.

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