Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Spirulina: The Aztec food supplement

Legend has it Moctezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs, had an unquenchable appetite for fresh fish.  Runners relayed a daily supply of fish from the coast, as well as ice from Iztaccihuatl, to the ninth Aztec emperor.  Hernan Cortez, very impressed with the endurance of these runners, asked one of his soldiers to find out what they ate.  The soldier followed the runners to the shores of Lake Texcoco, reporting back,  “They’re barbarians; they eat green mud.”  Little did he know that in the 20th century that “green mud,” the Aztecs called tecuitlatl, now known as spirulina, would be designated the nearly perfect food of the future.

Spirulina, a blue-green algae, contains more protein per ounce than any other food.  It also contains all essential amino acids, is rich in many other nutrients, and is a natural antioxidant.   Last month I interviewed octogenarian jazz musician Larry Russell (see June 25 Charlie's Digs).  I was impressed by his prodigious memory as well as his very active life -- even still performing late night jazz.  Larry attributed both to regular spirulina consumption over the past forty years. With its origins in the Valley of Mexico spirulina seemed an excellent topic to research and share.

Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, from 1545 until his death in 1590, documented everything he could about the vanishing Mesoamerican culture in his "General History of the Things of New Spain", now known as the Florentine codex. The codex contains drawings of harvesting tecuitlatl from Lake Texcoco, making it into cakes eaten by Aztec warriors and runners.  In 1524 Friar Toribio de Bonavente described the Aztecs using fine mesh nets to harvest the algae from the lake, drying it in large shallow pits.  Bernal Diaz de Castillo, traveling with Cortez in 1519 described the marketplaces of the Aztecs and mentioned the highly valued tecuitlatl, “traded in small cakes in the same way Europeans traded cheeses.”  

Though there were a number of lakes in the Valley of Mexico, only Lake Texcoco was a soda lake (highly alkaline salt water lake).  The Aztecs built dams to separate the less saline lakes of Mexico from spilling into Texcoco during flood periods.  The monumental Albarradon de Nezahualcoyotl dike, was built in the 15th century and was 16 kilometers (10 miles) long, 20 meters (60 feet) wide.  Through advanced hydraulic engineering Aztecs protected their capital on the island of Tenochtitlan from flooding, maintained fresh water lakes for crop irrigation, and Lake Texcoco as a source of prized tecuitlatl.  During the conquest the Spaniards destroyed the dikes; Mexico City has been dealing with the consequences ever since.  In addition, with the disruption of Mesoamerican life and culture, spirulina disappeared from the Mexican diet. 

Africa’s Lake Chad has a similar alkalinity to Lake Texcoco.  In approximately 900 A.D., the Kanembu discovered the nutritional value of spirulina which they called dihe.  In 1940, French explorer and botanist Pierre Dangeard enthused about its possibilities but was ignored.  In 1964, Belgian botanist Jean Leonard interested French industrialists in its potential just as French scientists were re-discovering spirulina in Lake Texcoco.

The large earthen spiral settling tank (referred to in Spanish as a "caracol") one sees from the air above Mexico City was originally created by the Mexican company, Sosa Texcoco,  for the production of sodium carbonate. Texcoco’s high concentration of salts are processed by solar evaporation.  In 1969, using the caracol, Sosa Texcoco set up production of spirulina.  At the height of production, the United States reported spirulina contamination and production was shut down.

In the 1970’s spirulina became a popular food supplement, spiking in value in 1981.  By 1976 Japanese had opened spirulina production using man-made ponds.  The largest Japanese-owned spirulina production ponds are now in California. Today, most spirulina for human consumption is laboratory controlled.  Lake-harvested spirulina can be contaminated with microcystins or absorb heavy metals.

University of Maryland Medical Center test tube and animal research results indicate spirulina boosts the immune system and protects against allergic reaction.  They indicate spirulina may also have antiviral, anticancer properties.  To date human testing of these properties has not been completed. There is only anecdotal evidence gleaned from those, like Larry Russell, who believe it a miracle food.  Among other benefits, literature on spirulina touts its effect on weight control.

Malnutrition is found throughout Central Africa.  In Chad, where dihe is part of the diet, malnutrition is negligible.  In 2010 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations began administration of a 1.4 million dollar grant by the European Union to help impoverished women in Chad by increasing production of spirulina while improving control standards.  It is hoped this blue-green algae could help solve malnutrition issues throughout Africa!

I’m a convert.  I won’t be running to Veracruz in search of fish any time soon but I’m taking my tecuitlatl and hope to see a difference.  I’ll let you know.


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