Study unlocks muscle-boosting algae magic

With more of us looking for alternatives to eating animals, new research has uncovered a surprising source of protein in the environment – algae.

The University of Exeter study was published in The Journal of Nutrition and is the first of its kind to show that ingestion of two of the most commercially available algal species is rich in protein that supports muscle regeneration in young healthy adults. Their findings suggest that algae may be an interesting and sustainable alternative to animal-derived protein with respect to muscle maintenance and development.

Our work has shown that algae can be part of a safe and sustainable food future. As more and more people try to eat less meat for ethical and environmental reasons, interest in protein that is not derived from animals and is sustainably produced is growing. We believe it is important and necessary to start looking at these alternatives and we have identified algae as a promising novel source of protein.”

Ino Van Der Heijden, Researcher, University of Exeter

Foods rich in protein and essential amino acids have the capacity to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which can be measured in the laboratory by determining the incorporation of labeled amino acids into muscle tissue proteins and translated into a rate over time. Animal protein sources robustly stimulate resting and post-exercise muscle protein synthesis.

However, as animal-based protein production is associated with increasing ethical and environmental concerns, it has now been discovered that an intriguing environmental alternative to animal-derived protein is algae. Cultivated under controlled conditions, spirulina and chlorella are the two most commercially available algae that contain high doses of micronutrients and are rich in protein. However, the capacity of spirulina and chlorella to stimulate myofibrillar protein synthesis in humans remains unknown.

To bridge the knowledge gap, University of Exeter researchers assessed the effect of ingesting spirulina and chlorella, compared to an established high-quality non-animal-derived dietary protein source (fungal-derived mycoprotein) on blood amino acid concentrations, as well as resting and fasting. -exercise myofibrillar protein synthesis rate. Thirty-six healthy adolescents participated in a randomized, double-blind trial. Following a bout of one-legged resistance leg exercise, participants drank a drink containing 25 grams of protein from fungal-derived mycoprotein, spirulina or chlorella. Blood and skeletal muscle samples were collected at baseline and during the four-hour post-feeding and post-exercise periods. Amino acid concentrations in blood and rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis in rested and exercised tissue were assessed.

Ingestion of protein increases blood amino acid concentrations, but most rapidly and with higher responses after consumption of spirulina compared to mycoprotein and chlorella. Protein ingestion increased myofibrillar protein synthesis rates in both resting and exercised tissue, with no differences between groups, but with higher rates in exercised compared to rested muscle.

This study is the first of its kind to show that ingestion of spirulina or chlorella strongly stimulates myofibrillar protein synthesis in resting and exercising muscle tissue, and to an equivalent extent as a high-quality nonanimal derived counterpart (mycoprotein).

In an accompanying commentary, Lucy Rogers and Professor Leigh Breen from the University of Birmingham highlight the strengths and utility of these novel findings, while identifying avenues for future research focusing on diverse populations such as adults

The paper has a title Algae Ingestion Increases Resting and Exercise Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Rates to a Similar Extent as Mycoprotein in Young Adults and published in The Journal of Nutrition.


Journal reference:

van der Heijden, I., et al. (2023). Algae Ingestion Increases Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis at Rest and Exercise to a Similar Extent as Mycoprotein in Young Adults. The Journal of Nutrition.

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