Historical Use of Spirulina



In the sixteenth century, when the Spanish invaders conquered Mexico, they discovered that the Aztecs living in the Valley of Mexico in the capital Tenochtitlan were collecting a “new food” from the lake (Sasson, 1997). Spanish chroniclers described fishermen with fine nets collecting this blue coloured “techuitlatl” from the lagoons and making a blue-green cake from it. Other legends say Aztec messenger runners took spirulina on their marathons.

Aztecs harvesting Spirulina for Food

Techuitlatl was mentioned by naturalists until the end of the sixteenth century, but not after that, probably reflecting the loss of the lakes as they were drained for urban and agricultural development. The only remnant today, Lake Texcoco, still has a living algae spirulina population.

The Kanembu population living along the shores of Lake Chad collects the wet algae in clay pots, drain out the water through bags of cloth and spread out the algae in the sandy shore of the lake for sun drying.  The semi-dried algae is then cut into small squares and taken to the villages, where the drying is completed on mats in the sun (Abdulqader, Barsanti and Tredici, 2000). When dry, women take these algae cakes for sale in the local market. Dihé is  crumbled and mixed with a sauce of tomatoes and peppers, and poured over millet, beans, fish or meat and is eaten by the Kanembu in 70 percent of their meals (www.spirulinasource.com). Pregnant women eat dihé cakes directly because they believe its dark colour will screen their unborn baby from the eyes of sorcerers (Ciferri, 1983).

Spirulina is also applied externally as a poultice for treating certain diseases. Abdulqader, Barsanti and Tredici (2000) further noted  that the local trading value of the dihé annually harvested from Lake Kossorom in Chad (about 40 tonnes) amounts to more than US $100,000, which represents an important contribution to the economy of the area.


Rediscovery of Spirulina

In 1940, a French phycologist Dangeard published a report on the consumption of dihé by the Kanembu people near Lake Chad (Dangeard, 1940). Dangeard also noted these same algae populated a number of lakes in the Rift Valley of East Africa, and was the main food for the flamingos living around those lakes.

Twenty-five years later during 1964-65, a botanist on a Belgian Trans-Saharan expedition, Jean Léonard, reported finding a curious greenish, edible cakes  being sold in native markets of Fort-Lamy (now N’Djamena) in Chad (Léonard, 1966). When locals  said these cakes came from areas near Lake Chad, Léonard recognized the connection between the algal blooms and dried cakes sold in the market.

Kanembu women collect spirulina in Lake Chad 

In 1967 spirulina was established as a “wonderful future food source” in the International Association of Applied Microbiology (Sasson, 1997).  Analysis of the nutritional properties of spirulina showed first and foremost an exceptionally high protein content, of the order of 60–70 percent of its dry weight; it also showed the excellent quality of its proteins (balanced essential amino acid content). This first data was enough to launch many research projects for industrial purposes in the 1970s, because micro-organisms (yeast, chlorella, spirulina, some bacteria and moulds) seemed at that time to be the most direct route to inexpensive proteins – the iconic “single cell proteins”. 

At the same time when Léonard rediscovered spirulina in Africa, a request was received from a company named Sosa-Texcoco Ltd by the “Institut français du pétrole” to study a bloom of algae occurring in the evaporation ponds of their sodium bicarbonate production facility in a lake near Mexico City. As a result, the first systematic and detailed study of the growth requirements and physiology of spirulina was performed. This study, which was a part of Ph.D. thesis by Zarrouk (1966), was the basis for establishing the first large-scale production plant of spirulina (Sasson, 1997). 


While finally no micro-organism fulfilled its promise of cheap protein, spirulina continued to give rise to research and increasing production, reflecting its perceived nutritional assets (Falquet, 2000). Ref1.


Today, Spirulina is being produced in more than 22 countries and used in over 77 countries.

 While finally no micro-organism fulfilled its promise of cheap protein, spirulina continued to give rise to research and increasing production, reflecting its perceived nutritional assets (Falquet, 2000).

Today there is a thriving Spirulina economy throughout the world, publishing its own Algae Industry Magazine with Spirulina and other algaes now being considered for use in:

  • nutritional supplements
  • high end cosmetics
  • algal oils
  • water purification
  • algae biofuels


Ref. 1 This information is excerpted from the World Food And Agriculture Organization's Review On Culture, Production And Use Of Spirulina As Food For Humans And Feeds For Domestic Animals And Fish 

Habib, M.A.B.; Parvin, M.; Huntington, T.C.; Hasan, M.R.

FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular. No. 1034. Rome, FAO. 2008. 33p.