History Of Human Use As Food

Algae, especially the macroalgae, have been used as food since prehistoric times and still play a prominent role in the food traditions of many countries, particularly in Asia. The use of microalgae as food is fairly recent. Jasby14 cites numerous examples of traditional use of microalgae as food spanning over four continents though the majority of the cases are from Asia as in the case of seaweeds or macroalgae.

The first recorded history of the use of Arthrospira (Spirulina) as food comes from Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a member of Hernan Cortez's troops who reported in 1521 that Spirulina maxima (A. maxima) was harvested from Lake Texcoco, dried, and sold for human consumption in a Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) market. Bernal Diaz de Castillo described what he saw in the market as"... small cakes made from some sort of a ooze which they get out of the great lake, and from which they make a bread having a flavor something like cheese." A few years later a Franciscan friar, Bernardino da Sahagun, described the food, then called Tecuitlatl, as "neither grass nor earth, rather like hay „.of clear blue color ... ."15 There was no mention of Tecuitlatl after the sixteenth century, though perhaps not surprisingly, the first commercial production of Spirulina started in Lake Texcoco in the 1970s. An interesting description of the history of Spirulina during the Aztec civilization is given by Farrar.16

The present Republic of Chad in Africa, about 10,000 km away from Lake Texcoco, provides additional evidence for the use of Spirulina as food. People have probably being using it for centuries, though it is not clear exactly since when. The recent historical evidence goes back to 1940 when the French phycologist, Dangeard17 published a paper about a cake called "dihe" and consumed by people of the Kanembu tribe, near Lake Chad in Africa. This report, which stayed unnoticed until the 1960s, described dihe as "a true filamentous, spiral shaped blue alga."15 The alga described was Arthrospira (Spirulina) platensis that was also known to Dangeard to grow abundantly in the East African Rift Valley lakes where they represented the main source of food for the lesser flamingoes. Dihe was rediscovered 25 years later in 1966 by J. Leonard, who was attracted by a "curious substance green bluish, sold as dried biscuits" around Fort Lamy.15 Leonard confirmed that dihe was composed almost exclusively of dried mats of S. platensis (A. platensis). It was collected from the waters of the alkaline lakes in the Kanem area, northeast of Lake Chad.18-19 Arthrospira still makes a large portion of the daily protein diet of the Kanembu tribe in the Lake Chad area and contributes significantly to the local economy.20 It was at about the same time that the French Petroleum Institute got interested in some samples of Spirulina (S. maxima) that grew abundantly in Lake Texcoco near Mexico City. The subsequent studies by the French group culminated in the establishment of the first commercial production of Spirulina in the world in the 1970s.

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