Any time you're looking for a green superfood to take as a supplement or dietary additive, you're going to run into a few of the common names.
- Barley Grass
Among these, three of the most common are chlorella, spirulina, and chlorophyll. So what are they, and what is the difference between them?
What is Chlorophyll?
First up, let's start with chlorophyll. Why start with chlorophyll? It's unlike the other ingredients on the list.
Chlorophyll, if you remember your grade school biology lessons, is a molecule and pigment found in plants. It's responsible for giving plants – everything from grass, trees, leafy vegetables, and wildflowers to kelp and algae – their green coloration.
Chlorophyll exists for one purpose: to absorb sunlight. The energy absorbed by chlorophyll is then converted into energy the plant can use to fuel itself and grow. This is the process of photosynthesis, and you can read about it in greater detail here. It gets pretty scientific, though, so don't worry too much about it if you don't actually care.
As a dietary supplement, chlorophyll has a lot of potential benefits. These include:
- Skin healing. Chlorophyll has shown benefits in wound healing by reducing inflammation, as well as having some antimicrobial properties to keep a wound disinfected.
- Acne. Chlorophyll might have the ability to help reduce acne and the inflammation that comes with it.
- Blood support. Chlorophyll has a similar structure to hemoglobin in your blood and may have the ability to help your body produce more red blood cells, fighting anemia.
- Some cancer benefits. Chlorophyll is not a cancer cure, but it may help inhibit certain kinds of pancreatic cancer, possibly by stopping your body's ability to absorb certain cancer-causing compounds.
- Deodorant. One of the oldest uses of chlorophyll is as a natural deodorant; ingesting it can help reduce the odor produced by sweat and other bodily excretions.
If these potential benefits interest you, be sure to check out our brand of chlorophyll supplements such as our liquid chlorophyll!
It's worth mentioning that these benefits may or may not be shared between chlorophyll and chlorophyllin, a synthetic version of chlorophyll that is most commonly found as a supplement. More study is necessary to determine which one is better for which condition, and how the body actually uses the molecule.
Chlorophyll is found in any green plant but in relatively small quantities. You can get a "full" dose of chlorophyll through vegetables, but a lot of that chlorophyll will be broken down or destroyed before it gets to your system. This is why so many people choose to take a concentrated chlorophyll supplement, in the form of a drop, powder, or liquid. We wrote more about the kinds of chlorophyll you can find, their benefits, and which one might be best over here.
Luckily, chlorophyll has very few drawbacks. You can take the supplement with relatively little issue. Some people experience digestive issues, and others might be disconcerted by the coloration of feces that the potent green pigment causes, but chlorophyll is not toxic and will not hurt you outside of extreme cases.
What Are Chlorella and Spirulina?
Chlorella is a kind of algae. Yes, algae; that green slimy stuff that forms on stagnant ponds and lakes. Now, it's a much more controlled and purified version of algae, it's not just scooped up from a pond and put in a bottle for you to drink.
Algae is a plant, technically, and it contains chlorophyll to give it its green pigment. However, it is not a plant in the traditional sense; it does not have stems, leaves, or roots. Instead, it's more of a mass of interconnected cells.
Spirulina, like chlorella, is also an alga. It is a slightly different kind of algae, however, and the differences between the two are quite interesting.
Cell Structure. Chlorella is a single-celled alga. This means each individual cell is an organism of its own, similar to bacteria. They're self-contained and reproduce as individual organisms. Spirulina is cyanobacteria and biomass, meaning it is a multicellular organism, though it is still microscopic.
Color. Chlorella is classified as a green alga. It is pure green in color, and it is rich in chlorophyll. Spirulina, meanwhile, is classified as a blue-green alga. It doesn't have as much chlorophyll in it as chlorella.
Ease of Digestion. Spirulina, as a multicellular organism, is easy to digest. You can, if you're careful, simply pull it from the water and eat it as-is. It won't hurt you as long as the water it grows in is safe, but it can pick up toxins from the environment so we don't recommend it.
Chlorella is a little different. Each individual cell of chlorella is coated in a hard shell of cellulose, or plant fiber. This makes it much harder to digest. In fact, if you were to eat raw chlorella, 99% of it would just pass through you, as your body would not be able to break down the tough cellulose before it made its way through your digestive tract. Chlorella supplements you find on the market are processed to remove this cellulose wall before the sale.
If you're interested in buying chlorella as a supplement, make sure you get "cracked cell" or otherwise processed chlorella. "Whole sell" chlorella is chlorella that has not been processed and is thus valueless as a dietary supplement until it is processed. You likely won't be able to do this at home (it typically requires a high-pressure environment) but, if you want to use it for another reason, like growing it or experimenting with it, this form is fine.
Nutrients. The nutritional profile of chlorella and spirulina is quite different, given that they're entirely different organisms only loosely grouped by class.
Chlorella has a lot of vitamin B1, biotin, and vitamin D. These nutrients help promote energy levels, metabolism, and immune health. It is also rich in chlorophyll.
Spirulina is lower in chlorophyll and in the above nutrients. However, it is higher in vitamin B2, vitamin B6, and selenium. These vitamins help promote mental acuity, metabolism, and iron processing. Selenium is a trace mineral that is used throughout the body in a variety of different processes.
Use as Food. In the 40s and 50s, worries over the growing population of the world rose to a fever pitch, and alternative food sources were investigated. Chlorella was one such food source, investigated as an energy-dense and nutritionally complete source. It's highly efficient at photosynthesis, and it's very easy to cultivate. Unfortunately, the processing requirements to grow it at peak efficiency made it not financially viable, at least not back then, so it was abandoned as a primary nutritional source.
That said, you can still find chlorella as a food source as well as a supplement. It is high in protein, healthy fats, fiber, and other macronutrients.
Spirulina, meanwhile, is both an older and a more recent option. It's older because it was used as a food source by the ancient Aztecs, where it was known as "Tecuitlatl". It's more recent because it is currently being investigated as a whole food and an ecologically sound protein source that could be used in areas where malnutrition is a concern, as well as in areas where food is difficult to cultivate, such as potential missions to Mars.
What Are the Health Benefits of Algae?
Chlorella and spirulina are both very similar in terms of the health benefits they bring to the table. Keep in mind that many supplement sellers will promise the moon and that the supplements won't actually cure diabetes or cancer, or single-handedly solve world hunger. However, they do have some tangible benefits, and more study is being performed even as we speak.
Lower bad cholesterol. Both forms of algae can help lower your bad cholesterol levels. Doses that showed a therapeutic effect range from 2 to 10 grams each day. They help lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, which helps minimize the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Potential diabetes benefits. Taking these algae supplements showed, in some experiments, that it could help increase insulin sensitivity (thus reducing blood sugar levels, keeping them in a healthier range) in people with diabetes. This was primarily tested in people who have fatty liver disease, but more study is currently ongoing.
Antioxidant properties. Both forms of algae include antioxidant ingredients. Any antioxidant is good for you because oxidative stress is one of the primary forces that damages and breaks down parts of your body over time. The more antioxidants you consume, the better off you'll be.
Presence of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is, as mentioned above, the chemical primarily responsible for the green color in plants. Chlorella is very high in chlorophyll, whereas spirulina is lower, but contains an adjacent molecule that is responsible for the blue tint and also helps the body.
Nutritious. Both forms of algae are highly nutritious and healthy to consume. Just like chlorophyll, they are non-toxic and can be consumed in large quantities, the same way a pure vegetable can be consumed in bulk.
Side Effects and Risks
Chlorophyll is a healthy molecule and is free of side effects in all but the most extreme cases. In some cases, consuming large amounts of it may cause digestive distress, but it's relatively minor compared to many other supplements.
Chlorella is generally considered safe but may have some side effects when taken for the long term. These side effects include nausea and digestive distress, flatulence, and stomach cramping. Some people also experience increased photosensitivity. That is, they become more susceptible to sunburn and sun damage. It's recommended that, if you are going to take chlorella for a long term, you should get in the habit of wearing sunblock when you go outside, especially in the sun.
Spirulina may have some side effects, but they are generally mild. They can include headaches, nausea, digestive distress, and dizziness. Low doses are safer for long-term use, while high doses should only be used for a few weeks or months at a time.
There are also two potential risks you might encounter.
With chlorella, the biggest risk is an "empty" supplement. If you get whole, uncracked chlorella, you are basically consuming nothing. Your body can't process it, and so it goes right through you without benefitting your system at all. As far as risks go, this is minor, but it's still a waste of time and money.
Spirulina is slightly riskier. Because of how it's grown, spirulina absorbs a lot of stuff that is in the water where it thrives. If the algae are farm-raised and in controlled conditions, this is fine.
However, if the water is contaminated, the spirulina will pick up those contaminants. These can be quite dangerous.
- Microcystins and harmful bacteria can contaminate spirulina and cause liver damage as your body tries to process them.
- Heavy metals can build up in your body and cause all manner of issues with poisoning.
- Chemical contaminants can do all manner of damage depending on the kind of chemical in the water.
As with any supplement, this simply means that you need to watch where you get your supplement from and make sure you trust the source. Additionally, if you experience side effects, discontinue use. If side effects persist, consider talking to a medical professional to make sure you haven't picked up a dangerous bacterial infection or another systemic issue.
Which Supplement is Best?
If you're trying to choose between chlorophyll, chlorella, and spirulina, it can be quite difficult.
Concentrated chlorophyll has some tangible benefits, but might not be a very nutritious supplement. Chlorella and spirulina are both more robust and nutritious. Chlorella contains more chlorophyll, while spirulina contains more protein. In general, however, the supplements are all close enough that you can consume them in whatever quantities you want without too many issues.
The best supplement is the one you enjoy the most. We recommend trying different types of each to see which one works best for you, and going from there.