Manufacturers of Algae Derivative Claim They Could 'Feed the World'

Times Staff Writer

The guests sipped algae cocktails and munched hors d'oeuvres laced with algae while a band played show tunes. A 9-year-old gave a karate demonstration, and videotaped images of blue-green spiral-shaped algae danced on the screen.

Finally, it was time for Christopher Hills to talk about his "vision."

"We can feed the world," the tuxedo-clad Hills, 58, president of Microalgae International Sales Corp., told an enthusiastic crowd of 500 at a recent reception at the Century Plaza. "People are thinking about the problem of world hunger, but not the solution. There is a solution. . . ."

When it was actor Dennis Weaver's turn to take the podium, he described the "opportunity to do something about world hunger" by providing "love coupled with action."

Hills and Weaver were touting the benefits of spirulina, a controversial algae derivative that Microalgae and other companies market as a dietary protein supplement. In an apparent effort to gain good will for spirulina, Microalgae announced it has donated substantial amounts of the powdery substance to an odd mix of anti-hunger crusades.

Company Donations

Amid skepticism from health professionals, Microalgae has given about $500,000 worth of spirulina tablets to Ethiopian famine relief efforts, anti-Soviet moujahedeen "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan and a Los Angeles food bank program for the needy.

Spirulina has been commercially available for less than a decade, though its food history dates back many centuries. Aztec Indians in Mexico, for example, purportedly used the blue-green algae as a substitute for flour.

More recently, spirulina, which tastes like seaweed, has gained popularity among vegetarians, who buy it at health food stores at an average retail price of $49 a pound, according to Microalgae officials. The company is privately held, but Hills estimated that annual sales approach $10 million and said that Microalgae has sold 400 tons of spirulina in the last four years.

The algae is grown by a number of companies in several arid parts of the world, including El Centro, in brackish, shallow ponds, where the organisms multiply at a rapid pace.

"We can feed the world (with spirulina) because it replicates itself in three days," Hills said at the gathering, attended mainly by product distributors. "Nothing else can grow in three days and produce 20 tons per acre. (By harvesting spirulina) we are trapping the sun's inexhaustible light."

Research Plant

Hills said Microalgae, which is based in Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County, imports spirulina from Israel and Taiwan and also operates a $5-million spirulina research plant in Desert Hot Springs, which will eventually produce the algae on a commercial scale.

To produce spirulina, the algae is removed from man-made ponds and then dried and filtered. After processing, the substance is used as a protein additive in food products and multivitamins, sold pure as a powder or taken in tablet form.

Although it is generally acknowledged that spirulina has a high protein value, there is disagreement about whether it contains 65% to 71% protein--as its advocates claim--or merely the same proportion as peanut flour (about 50%), as critics contend.

Spirulina enthusiasts say the algae derivative offers benefits that far exceed those of conventional foods. Some long-distance runners believe it increases energy, while other users say it suppresses appetite. Such claims, however, are purely anecdotal and no scientific studies have been conducted. Hills says he has been unable to get funding to study the effect of spirulina on humans.

False Advertising Suit

In March, 1982, Microalgae International paid $225,000 to settle a suit brought by the California Department of Health Services' food and drug branch, which charged that the company had made unsubstantiated claims about spirulina.

In signing the consent agreement--the largest out-of-court settlement resulting from a false advertising case in the state's history--the company denied any wrongdoing.

"They were making claims that could not be substantiated and that had no basis in fact--such as spirulina was potent and (had) magical qualities, when the potency did not amount to a hill of beans," said Michael Bogumill, program coordinator with the Health Services Department's food and drug branch.

Additionally, health professionals familiar with spirulina feel that it may not be viable for hunger relief efforts.

Louis Grivetti, chairman of the University of California, Davis, graduate program in nutrition, said: "Sending unfamiliar food to starving people is not only callous, it is unnecessary. It's callous because (the donation) is based upon the assumption that starving people will eat anything and that's not true. . . . They won't eat it."

Dangers Cited

Grivetti also said that administering concentrated amounts of protein via spirulina to severely malnourished individuals is likely to tax weakened kidneys and may prove fatal.

"The standard practice for treating acute famine is rehydration therapy. It is a terribly long process and must include a balance between protein and carbohydrate intake, gradually bringing up calories to a manageable level," Grivetti said. "If you just jam in calories then (the patients) often die."

Hills called Grivetti's assessment "absolute rubbish." "There is no basis in fact to make such a statement and . . . I will give $10,000 to any one in the world that can prove that," he said.

The agency that received Microalgae's spirulina donation and will transport the product to Ethiopia is Direct Relief International, which is headquartered in Santa Barbara. Randall Luce, the group's program coordinator for Africa, said he was pleased with the donation but noted that no one product can eliminate world hunger.

Medical Supervision

To avoid distribution problems in Ethiopia, Microalgae officials said the spirulina donations will be consumed as part of an overall medical program staffed by health care workers. There will also be medical supervision available to the Afghan rebels who will receive 1,900 pounds of spirulina tablets.

Hills said spirulina has already been used in Afghanistan to give moujahedeen rebels the energy to climb steep mountain passes, some as high as 19,000 feet, in their guerrilla war against Soviet military forces.

"(The moujahedeen) can march for days on just a few ounces (of spirulina)," Hills said, citing a letter from a U.S.-based representative for the Union of Afghan Moujahid Doctors.

Dr. B. A. Zikria, clinical professor of surgery at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, said he is aware of this claim. "We have heard reports where (the Afghan rebels) don't have any bread or tea--where they are held up by Soviet forces, pinned down by gunfire and have subsisted on spirulina tablets and water from melted snow.

"But I can't say that you can live on this (spirulina) and water alone. That has not been established from our experience."

'Publicity Gimmick'

Wayne R. Bidlack, USC associate professor of nutrition, also expressed skepticism about whether spirulina could sustain the Afghan rebels and described the donation to the moujahedeen as a "publicity gimmick."

"There is nothing better than burning carbohydrates for energy," Bidlack said.

Locally, Microalgae has donated $260,000 worth of spirulina tablets to Love Is Feeding Everyone, an organization founded by Weaver that distributes donated food to various charitable groups throughout Los Angeles County. Carolyn Martinez, a nutritionist, said the group plans to conduct a controlled experiment by giving spirulina tablets to residents of a West Los Angeles drug treatment program.

"I'm partially responsible for suggesting the research," said Weaver, who regularly uses spirulina. Weaver said future spirulina use in his organization's food programs will be "somewhat contingent" on the results of the study.

In addition to making product donations, Microalgae's theme is that spirulina could easily be produced in the poverty-stricken desert areas of the world, such as Chad, Ethiopia and Kenya, where the algae already thrives in shallow lakes.

Found in Ethiopia

"We firmly believe that spirulina, which grows in Ethiopia, is what (the starving there) need," said Deborah Rozman, vice president of Microalgae. "It grows naturally there and is now rotting in the lakes. Our point is to get people there familiar with their own resource and food. . . . The fact is that (this food) is growing in Africa where people are starving."

Microalgae markets spirulina through a nationwide network of 15,000 distributors. The company acts as a wholesaler and encourages sales by offering discounts and incentives to individuals who sell large volumes of product or develop their own network of distributors.

The sales force employs a person-to-person approach because, as one company official explained, the notion of algae as a food product can be "confusing."

"It's not easy to go up to someone with a strange green pill and say this is good for you," Hills said.

The company is also encouraging its distributors, one-third of whom are in California, to continue donations to anti-hunger efforts.

"Every bottle (of spirulina) sold helps a hungry person. (By selling spirulina) you are helping your spiritual and economic self," Hills told his distributors at a recent reception. "As you get rich you're helping others get rich."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World