Health food or hype?
Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon
Photograph courtesy Power Organics
Upper Klamath Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Oregon, and some claim that it contains one of the earth’s greatest superfoods, a microscopic plant known as Aphanizomenon flos-aquae or AFA.
Although this type of blue-green algae is found in many lakes and ponds, it is commercially harvested at Upper Klamath Lake, then freeze-dried and sold in capsule, tablet, and powder form. Several companies manufacture and distribute AFA, including Power Organics, Simplexity Health, and Klamath Algae Products.
Like spirulina, another type of blue-green algae, AFA contains an abundance of vitamins and essential minerals. It is a complete protein and contains beta-carotene, B-12, and antioxidants.
Proponents of blue-green algae say that it supports immune function, raises energy levels, and improves mental function. Some claim that it can aid in weight loss and detoxification, and even prevent cancer and heart disease.
Others, including Dr. Stephen Barrett who runs the website quackwatch.org, cite the dangers of ingesting AFA. Since it is harvested from a natural lake, it is easily contaminated with toxins such as microcystins and heavy metals, which accumulate in the liver and can result in liver damage. Barrett also states that unless someone eats huge amounts of AFA, the algae is a negligible source of nutrients.
Health Canada, the Canadian regulatory agency akin to the United States’ Food and Drug Administration, warns against administering AFA to children, and says that adults who consume blue-green algae products should do so only for short periods of time. The agency cites possible symptoms of liver toxicity ranging from gastrointestinal discomfort to jaundice.
Sales manager Gabriel Diamond of Power Organics, which markets the product Klamath Blue-Green Algae, says customers do not typically have a negative reaction from taking AFA, but some have complained of an upset stomach after ingesting the algae.
Diamond believes the strength of his company’s product lies in its harvesting methods. He says that Power Organics’ blue-green algae is extracted from the cleanest part of Upper Klamath Lake by a company called A.F.A. Inc., which uses a 4,000-square-foot harvester that rests on a floating barge to “scoop” the algae from the lake. Once the algae is on board, it’s tested for contaminants. The algae is then stored in on-board refrigerators and eventually freeze-dried.
Is it worth the risk to consume blue-green algae? As with most nutritional supplements, your best bet is to talk to your healthcare provider to get his or her take on the subject.