Algae are non-flowering water plants that lack differentiation of plant body into true roots, stems and leaves. Algae, along with other non-flowering plants comprise approximately half of herbal kingdom. Algae grow in every drop of water in nature and every gram of fertile soil. Algae can range in size from microscopic unicellular structures to over 60 meter multi cellular structures. Collectively, algae are responsible for 90 percent of t he earth’s oxygen and 80 percent of its food supply.
There are two broad categories of algae:
- 1) Ancient Plankton or blue-green algae, which consists of a single cell that lacks a defined nucleus, and
- 2) True Algae, which may be a single cell or a large mass of undifferentiated cells having clearly defined nuclei. Algae are classified mainly by their pigmentation which corresponds to specific water levels that filter out (or trap) specific colors from the light spectrum.
There are six color groups:
- 1) yellow-green. Most live in fresh water ponds and muddy ditches. They store reserve foods in the form of oil (as opposed to starch). One example is Vaucheria.
- 2) blue-green (ancient plankton). This is the simplest of all algal forms, similar in many ways to beneficial bacterial forms, but capable of building up their own food from inorganic substances. One example is Chlorella.
- 3) green. This form shows a varied pattern of body types resembling multicellular organisms. Green algae posses cellular cell walls and store their excess food in the form of starch. One example is Sea Lettuce.
- 4) golden. The cells in this group are surrounded by membranes or walls containing small amounts of silica. Most species are found in fresh water lakes and ponds. One example is diatomaceous earth (fossil diatoms).
- 5) red. In this group are included the small bodied plants that appear mainly in salt water. Cells are either in flat sheets or in hair-like filaments. A holdfast attaches them to the ocean floor or to rock formations. Their red pigment enables them to thrive in deep water as it allows them to trap blue and green light which penetrates greater depths. Red algae stores carbohydrates as chloridian starch and has a cell wall mixed of cellulose and pectin. One example is Irish Moss.
- 6) brown. This algal group shares a number of features that are common with more modern land plants. They have vascular tissue which carries sugars from photosynthetic blades down to the deep parts of the plants which grow below light penetration They are common in cool salt water. One example is Bladderwrack (Fucus sp s.)
By totaling their numbers we find the algae kingdom to be quite large, with more than ten thousand species recorded but with numerous other species still unidentified. It is incredible to note that out of this high number only a handful of algae are found to be toxic to human beings — these being from the blue-green group and from species found in the warm waters of the tropics. Most algal forms provide all the nutritive substances required to sustain most life forms. They are especially abundant in minerals and vitamins and are oxygen rich due to the high amounts of chlorophyll that most species contain. Because their carbohydrates are indigestible, they offer only a minimal amount of fat.
Historical documents show that algae were consumed by the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Polynesians, Hawaiians, Europeans, North and South Americans, Africans, and Australians. According to recent surveys, people living in areas where large quantities of algae were consumed were to have lived longer and had a lower incidence of hypertension and arteriosclerosis.
Numerous other medical benefits are also attributed to a variety of specific algal forms. Bladderwrack (fucus sps.) has been successfully employed for obesity, fatty degeneration of the heart, stomach and intestines, and has been used externally for the healing of wounds. Fucus extract has also been found effective for numerous respiratory complaints, dyspnea, and has been used successfully as a replacement for Synthroid for thyroid problems and as an alternative replacement as a blood anticoagulant with an effect to that of the drug Heparin. Warm water extracts from various species of Sargassum and the sulfated polysaccha ride fraction of Codium pogniformis have proven antitumor properties. Chrondria littoria has been found to contain fatty acids that have a wide spectrum of antibacterial and antifunfal actions. Digena simplex and Aasidum helminthocorton have been successfully used for the elimination of pinworms and roundworms. It has also been observed that the laxative action from the above two species also has application in a treatment for hard fibromas. Controlled studies of Spirulina suggests that it promotes self-healing abilities and is proven useful for allergies, anemia, liver disease, diabetes, pancreatitis , visual complaints, senility, heavy metal poisioning and in the recovery from radiation and chemotheapuetic treatments of cancer.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) certain forms of blue green algae are a proven source of beta carotene, vitamin B12, gamma linolenic acid and protein. In addition, WHO has used spirulina in its feeding programs for malnourished children in India: It found that consumption of 1 gram of spirulina daily resulted in decreased incidence of Bitot’s spot, a form of blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. The daily dose provided beta carotene that increased vitamin A levels.
Most species of algae are flavorful but many people who are not familiar with their somewhat slippery texture may find them somewhat difficult to adjust to at first. This is a result of the conditioning of our modern palate that is biased to a limited species of land plants. With time, however, one can soon learn to love these ancient plants that contain valuable numerous trace elements that are sorely lacking in our modern diet. Algae can be added to soups, mixed in with salad greens, steamed or sauteed with land vegetables, dried and made into table condiments, or deep fried like chips.
None of the seaweeds are difficult to harvest but it is important to note that they need to be dried in direct sunlight, and stored away from moist air (do not lea ve out overnight when air drying). Only those species that are still attached to the ocean floor should be used. Algae found floating or washed ashore, or from polluted waters should not be consumed. They can however be ground up, along with other tide line wash ups (flotsom and jetsum) into effective sitz bath ingredients, especially useful for female disorders of the vagina, fallopian tubes, womb and ovaries. Various species of edible algae can also be purchased from Oriental food shops and health food or specialty food stores.
From a macrobiotic perspective, algae are primitive foods and should not be used in excess. They are representatives of the ancient ocean from which we evolved and form an important part of our biological make-up and dietary needs. In terms of yin and yang, they (as a group) fall more under the dominance of yin and are cooling and damp. Algae can and should be eaten daily but their amount should not exceed more than ten percent of the entire meal.