The guests sipped algae cocktails and munched hors d'oeuvres laced with algae while a band played show tunes. A 9-year-old gave a karate demonstration, and videotaped images of blue-green spiral-shaped algae danced on the screen.
Finally, it was time for Christopher Hills to talk about his "vision."
"We can feed the world," the tuxedo-clad Hills, 58, president of Microalgae International Sales Corp., told an enthusiastic crowd of 500 at a recent reception at the Century Plaza. "People are thinking about the problem of world hunger, but not the solution. There is a solution. . . ."
When it was actor Dennis Weaver's turn to take the podium, he described the "opportunity to do something about world hunger" by providing "love coupled with action."
Hills and Weaver were touting the benefits of spirulina, a controversial algae derivative that Microalgae and other companies market as a dietary protein supplement. In an apparent effort to gain good will for spirulina, Microalgae announced it has donated substantial amounts of the powdery substance to an odd mix of anti-hunger crusades.
Amid skepticism from health professionals, Microalgae has given about $500,000 worth of spirulina tablets to Ethiopian famine relief efforts, anti-Soviet moujahedeen "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan and a Los Angeles food bank program for the needy.
Spirulina has been commercially available for less than a decade, though its food history dates back many centuries. Aztec Indians in Mexico, for example, purportedly used the blue-green algae as a substitute for flour.
More recently, spirulina, which tastes like seaweed, has gained popularity among vegetarians, who buy it at health food stores at an average retail price of $49 a pound, according to Microalgae officials. The company is privately held, but Hills estimated that annual sales approach $10 million and said that Microalgae has sold 400 tons of spirulina in the last four years.
The algae is grown by a number of companies in several arid parts of the world, including El Centro, in brackish, shallow ponds, where the organisms multiply at a rapid pace.
"We can feed the world (with spirulina) because it replicates itself in three days," Hills said at the gathering, attended mainly by product distributors. "Nothing else can grow in three days and produce 20 tons per acre. (By harvesting spirulina) we are trapping the sun's inexhaustible light."
Hills said Microalgae, which is based in Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County, imports spirulina from Israel and Taiwan and also operates a $5-million spirulina research plant in Desert Hot Springs, which will eventually produce the algae on a commercial scale.
To produce spirulina, the algae is removed from man-made ponds and then dried and filtered. After processing, the substance is used as a protein additive in food products and multivitamins, sold pure as a powder or taken in tablet form.
Although it is generally acknowledged that spirulina has a high protein value, there is disagreement about whether it contains 65% to 71% protein--as its advocates claim--or merely the same proportion as peanut flour (about 50%), as critics contend.
Spirulina enthusiasts say the algae derivative offers benefits that far exceed those of conventional foods. Some long-distance runners believe it increases energy, while other users say it suppresses appetite. Such claims, however, are purely anecdotal and no scientific studies have been conducted. Hills says he has been unable to get funding to study the effect of spirulina on humans.
False Advertising Suit
In March, 1982, Microalgae International paid $225,000 to settle a suit brought by the California Department of Health Services' food and drug branch, which charged that the company had made unsubstantiated claims about spirulina.
In signing the consent agreement--the largest out-of-court settlement resulting from a false advertising case in the state's history--the company denied any wrongdoing.
"They were making claims that could not be substantiated and that had no basis in fact--such as spirulina was potent and (had) magical qualities, when the potency did not amount to a hill of beans," said Michael Bogumill, program coordinator with the Health Services Department's food and drug branch.
Additionally, health professionals familiar with spirulina feel that it may not be viable for hunger relief efforts.
Louis Grivetti, chairman of the University of California, Davis, graduate program in nutrition, said: "Sending unfamiliar food to starving people is not only callous, it is unnecessary. It's callous because (the donation) is based upon the assumption that starving people will eat anything and that's not true. . . . They won't eat it."
Grivetti also said that administering concentrated amounts of protein via spirulina to severely malnourished individuals is likely to tax weakened kidneys and may prove fatal.