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Easy Crock Pot Dal (Slow Cooker Yellow Dal)

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My crock pot dal recipe is an absolute staple in our house! Made with protein rich split chickpeas and a combination of rich, warm spices like turmeric, cumin, and coriander, this slow cooker yellow dal is pure and simple Indian comfort food. Ideal for anyone looking to make a flavor-packed one-pot dinner, or a make-ahead meal!

Crock pot yellow dal served in a white bowl, garnished with cilantro, with naan on the side.Crock pot yellow dal served in a white bowl, garnished with cilantro, with naan on the side.

My husband and kids love it when I make my crockpot dal recipe. Rich, warm spices like turmeric, cumin, and coriander fill my kitchen with the most amazing aroma when I’m cooking dal.

Essentially, dal is a spiced lentil stew made with just about any type of lentil. I like using split chickpeas – or “chana dal” because of their flavor and texture. But I’ve made my crock pot dal with red lentils, small black lentils, even black eyed peas. You can use the same spice combo and switch out your legume and it still works great.

When I make chana dal in the slow cooker, I usually serve it with some sort of “sabji” or stir-fried veggies with Indian spices. But oftentimes I’ll throw veggies like kale or sweet potato straight into the dal and eat it as a one-pot dish like in this sweet potato dahl.

My slow cooker dal recipe is totally delicious! With layers of flavor from the fragrant Indian spices and a creamy, comforting texture, it’s a satisfying and hearty dish that my whole family loves, including my kids.

It tastes like Indian comfort food, but also happens to be pretty good for you too. Split chickpeas are packed with protein and fiber, making it a wholesome meal that keeps you full and energized. Plus, slow cooker chana dal is naturally vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free.

Crock pot dal is simple and affordable to make. You can cook the lentils in the slow cooker and just add the spice mixture at the end, so your “active” time is only 15 minutes! If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can also simmer the lentils on the stovetop until they’re cooked through, but then you’ll have to watch it and stir it occasionally. Which is why I love the slow cooker – so I can “set and forget” it and come back to it when I’m ready to serve!

I also really enjoy customizing this recipe based on my mood or preferences that day. It’s so easy to mix things up. I have used different types of lentils, spices, and sometimes I add in my favorite veggies. Whether you are looking for a one-pot meal or want to serve it with sides, it’s easy to make my crockpot dahl recipe your own.

To top it all off, it stores well in the fridge and freezer. You can make a big batch of slow cooker yellow dal and enjoy it throughout the week, or freeze portions for a quick and easy meal on busy days.

Latest Recipe Video!

🥘 Ingredients

My slow cooker chana dal recipe doesn’t require any fancy ingredients. You can find all of them at most grocery stores or online. Scroll down to the recipe card at the bottom of the post for the exact amounts and nutritional information. 

Ingredients for a crock pot dal recipe all on a marble background.Ingredients for a crock pot dal recipe all on a marble background.

Split Chickpeas (Chana Dal): These legumes form the hearty base of my slow cooker daal. Chana dal has a rich, nutty taste and a firm texture that holds up well during the slow cooking process. Yellow split peas are a good substitute.

Water: Essential for cooking the lentils to the perfect tender consistency.

Tomatoes: Diced fresh tomatoes add a vibrant, tangy flavor that balances the earthy spices. Canned diced tomatoes can be used in a pinch.

Extra Virgin Coconut Oil: Used for sautéing the spices and vegetables. I love the subtle flavor and richness that coconut oil adds to the dish, and it has a high smoke point which works well for toasting the cumin and mustard seeds until they pop. You can use ghee if not vegan.

Red Onion & Garlic: Finely chopped red onions and thinly sliced garlic add depth of flavor. I like the subtle sweetness of red onions, but yellow or white onions can also be used.

Spices: I use a mix of ground turmeric, ground coriander seeds, and cayenne pepper to give the dal its warm, earthy, and slightly spicy flavor. I toast the whole cumin seeds and black mustard seeds in the oil at the beginning, which releases their amazing aromas and adds a lot of depth and complexity to the dish.

Fresh Cilantro & Salt: Freshly minced cilantro leaves add a burst of freshness and a herbal finish to the dal. I add it at the end to preserve its bright flavor and vibrant green color. Salt is so important to the flavor profile of this dish! It helps to bring out the natural flavors of the ingredients, making my slow cooker yellow dal that much more savory and delicious.

🔪 How To Make Crock Pot Dal

Learning how to make dal in the slow cooker is so easy it’s sure to become your new favorite dish! Just follow my simple 3 step process, and you’ll have a meal on the table with very little effort.

Cook The Lentils: To begin, I add the lentils, salt, and 3 cups of water to my slow cooker. Then I let them cook on high for 4-6 hours.

Chana dal and water added to a crock pot.Chana dal and water added to a crock pot.

Saute The Spices: When the lentils are about done, I heat oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. I add a couple of cumin seeds to see if it’s hot. If they pop, the oil is ready to go!

Cumin seeds toasting in a pot on the stove.Cumin seeds toasting in a pot on the stove.

Add Cumin & Mustard Seeds: Now, I add all of the cumin seeds and mustard seeds to the pot and let them cook for 10-15 seconds until they pop).

Cumin and mustard seeds sauteed in a pot on the stove.Cumin and mustard seeds sauteed in a pot on the stove.

Add The Rest Of The Aromatics: Next, I add the coriander, turmeric, cayenne, onion, tomato, and garlic, and stir for 30 seconds.

Onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices sauteeing in a pot on the stove.Onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices sauteeing in a pot on the stove.

Saute: Finally, I turn the heat down to medium-low and let the mixture cook until the onions become translucent and the tomatoes break down.

Onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices sauteeing in a pot on the stove.Onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices sauteeing in a pot on the stove.

Finish: When ready, I add the tomato spice mixture to the slow cooker and stir to combine. I’ll thin it out with water to achieve the consistency I want.

Slow cooker chana dal in a crockpot.Slow cooker chana dal in a crockpot.

Serve: Then I top with fresh cilantro and serve my homemade slow cooker yellow dal.

Crock pot dal served in a white bowl, garnished with cilantro, with naan on the side.Crock pot dal served in a white bowl, garnished with cilantro, with naan on the side.

My #1 Secret Tip or making my slow cooker dahl is to toast the spices, but don’t burn them! Waiting until the cumin and black mustard seeds start to pop before adding them to the dish releases the essential oils that make this dal so delicious. You want to make sure you’re toasting them on medium-high heat only for a few seconds, stirring so that they don’t burn. Burnt spices will add a bitterness to this dish that we want to avoid!

Other Tips To Keep In Mind:

  • Soak The Lentils: Soak split chickpeas (chana dal) in cold water for at least an hour. This softens the lentils, reduces cooking time, and ensures they cook evenly and become tender.
  • Adjust The Heat: For a milder dal, reduce the cayenne pepper or substitute with paprika for a smoky flavor without the heat. For a spicier dish, add more cayenne or a chopped green chili.
  • Control Consistency: For a thicker dal, cook with the lid off for the last 15 minutes to allow some liquid to evaporate. For a thinner consistency, add a bit more water.
  • Stir Occasionally: If you’re home while the crockpot daal is cooking, give it a stir every now and then. This helps to ensure even cooking and prevents any sticking.

📖 Variations

Moong Dal: For a lighter and slightly sweeter version, make moong dal in the slow cooker. It has a delicate flavor that pairs well with a variety of spices. To make slow cooker moong dal, use mung beans and follow the same recipe but reduce the cooking time to about 3-4 hours on high.

Toor Dal: Also known as split pigeon peas, toor dal is another excellent option that will give you a dish with a creamy texture and mildly nutty flavor. To make slow cooker toor dal, you don’t need to make any changes to my recipe other than the legume.

Dal Tadka: This is a popular Indian dish where cooked dal is tempered with ghee or oil, spices, and aromatics. To make slow cooker dal tadka, follow the base recipe for the dal and, once cooked, prepare the tadka separately. Heat ghee or oil in a small pan, add cumin seeds, mustard seeds, garlic, and dried red chilies until they sizzle and become aromatic. Pour the sizzling tadka over the cooked dal just before serving for an extra burst of flavor.

Red Lentil Dal: Red lentils (masoor dal) cook quickly and have a smooth, creamy texture. They don’t require soaking. Simply add them to the slow cooker with the same spices and cook on high for 3-4 hours.

Black Lentil Dal: Also known as urad dal, black lentils have a rich, earthy flavor and a thicker texture. They take longer to cook, so soak them overnight and then cook on high for 6-8 hours.

Mixed Lentil Dal: Combine different types of lentils for a unique texture and flavor. Try mixing chana dal, toor dal, and red lentils. Adjust the cooking time based on the lentil that takes the longest to cook, usually 4-6 hours on high.

Vegetable Dal: Try adding carrots, spinach, zucchini, or bell peppers. Chop them into small pieces and add them to the slow cooker with the lentils.

Curry Coconut Dal: For a creamier, richer crock pot dal, add some curry powder and stir in a can of coconut milk during the last hour of cooking.

🍽 Serving Suggestions

My yellow dal in the slow cooker is a versatile dish that can be paired with a variety of breads, sides, and sauces. These are just a few of my favorites:

With Sides: Serve the dal over a bed of fluffy basmati rice or my instant pot quinoa. It’s also wonderful with my Indian asparagus stir fry or Indian spiced bok choy.

With Breads: I’ll often serve dal with my warm, soft vegan naan bread or flaky Guyanese roti. It’s perfect for soaking up the delicious, spiced lentil stew. For a gluten-free option, I also like it with my homemade gluten free bread.

With Sauces: Mint chutney or tamarind chutney pairs perfectly with the dal, adding a sweet and tangy contrast. A side of yogurt raita is also a refreshing complement to the warm, spiced dal. 

With Indian Dishes: Pair it with other classic Indian dishes like my vegan palak paneer or cauliflower sabji. For a larger spread, feel free to add classic Indian appetizers like my samosas or tandoori cauliflower.

🧊 Storage Directions

Fridge: Once the dal in crock pot has cooled, I put it in an airtight container. It keeps well in the fridge for up to 5 days, making it perfect for meal prepping. 

Freezer: For longer storage, I always freeze the dal. Let it cool completely, then transfer it to a freezer-safe container or heavy-duty freezer bag, leaving a bit of space at the top for expansion. Dal will stay good in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Reheating: For the best results, I warm it up on the stovetop over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it’s heated through. If it has thickened too much, just add a splash of water or vegetable broth to get it back to the right consistency.

For a quick reheat, I will also use the microwave. I’ll place an individual portion of dal in a microwave-safe bowl, cover it with a damp paper towel to keep it moist, and heat on high for 2-3 minutes. If you choose this method, make sure to give it a stir halfway through to make sure it heats evenly.

❓Recipe FAQs

CAN I MAKE THIS DAL RECIPE IN AN INSTANT POT?

Yes, use the sauté function to toast the cumin and mustard seeds, then add the onions, garlic, tomatoes, and other spices. Once fragrant, add the soaked split chickpeas and water. Seal the Instant Pot and cook on high pressure for 15 minutes. Allow for a natural pressure release for 10 minutes, then manually release any remaining pressure. Add the cilantro before serving.

CAN I MAKE THE DAL ON THE STOVETOP?

Yes, just simmer the soaked lentils on the stove for until they’re cooked through. If you’ve soaked them long enough, they should take about 1-2 hours to cook. Then saute the spices, make the tomato mixture, and complete the recipe as stated in the instructions.

WHY DID MY DAL BURN?

Crock pot dal can burn if there isn’t enough liquid in the slow cooker, or if the appliance was set to too high a temperature. Ensure you use at least the recommended amount of water. Also, avoid adding dairy products like yogurt or cream during the initial cooking process as they can thicken and cause burning; add them at the end instead.

WHY AREN’T MY LENTILS COOKED?

If your lentils aren’t cooked, it could be due to insufficient soaking time or incorrect cooking time and temperature. Make sure to soak the split chickpeas for at least one hour before cooking. If using a slow cooker, ensure it is set to high and the cooking time is sufficient (4-6 hours). How long to cook dal in slow cookers can vary, but it will always take at least 4 hours for chana dal.

Slow cooker yellow dal served in a white bowl, garnished with cilantro, with naan on the side.Slow cooker yellow dal served in a white bowl, garnished with cilantro, with naan on the side.

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📋 Recipe Card

Easy Crock Pot Dal (Slow Cooker Yellow Dal)

My crock pot dal recipe is an absolute staple in our house! Made with protein rich split chickpeas and a combination of rich, warm spices like turmeric, cumin, and coriander, this slow cooker yellow dal is pure and simple Indian comfort food. Ideal for anyone looking to make a flavor-packed one-pot dinner, or a make-ahead meal!

Prep Time15 minutes

Cook Time6 hours

Total Time6 hours 15 minutes

Course: Main Course

Cuisine: Indian, Vegan, vegetarian

Diet: Gluten Free, Vegan, Vegetarian

Servings: 4 servings

Calories: 210kcal

Shop Ingredients on Jupiter
  • Add the lentils, salt, and 3 cups of water to a slow cooker. Cook on high for 4-6 hours.

  • When your lentils are close to done, heat oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add a couple cumin seeds to test out the heat of the oil. If they pop, the oil is ready to go!

  • Add all of your cumin seeds and mustard seeds and let cook for 10-15 seconds (until the seeds pop).

  • Then add your coriander, turmeric, cayenne, onion, tomato, and garlic, stir for 30 seconds, and turn the heat down to medium low. Let it cook until the onions become translucent and the tomatoes break down.

  • Add the onion/tomato/spice mixture to the slow cooker and stir to combine. Top with cilantro and serve!

  • Soak The Lentils: Soak split chickpeas (chana dal) in cold water for at least an hour. This softens the lentils, reduces cooking time, and ensures they cook evenly and become tender.
  • Adjust The Heat: For a milder dal, reduce the cayenne pepper or substitute with paprika for a smoky flavor without the heat. For a spicier dish, add more cayenne or a chopped green chili.
  • Control Consistency: For a thicker dal, cook with the lid off for the last 15 minutes to allow some liquid to evaporate. For a thinner consistency, add a bit more water.
  • Stir Occasionally: If you’re home while the crockpot daal is cooking, give it a stir every now and then. This helps to ensure even cooking and prevents any sticking.

Calories: 210kcal | Carbohydrates: 31g | Protein: 13g | Fat: 3.4g | Saturated Fat: 2.9g | Sodium: 581mg | Fiber: 13g | Sugar: 4g

simple slow cooker yellow dal. quick easy healthy recipes, healthy food for picky eaters kids, healthy delicious food recipes, healthy meal ideas for kids, healthy food recipes for weightsimple slow cooker yellow dal. quick easy healthy recipes, healthy food for picky eaters kids, healthy delicious food recipes, healthy meal ideas for kids, healthy food recipes for weight


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Health

Sunscreen Dispensers Make Skin Cancer Prevention Easier

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By John Masson

Sometimes it’s better not to overcomplicate things.

So when students at the University of Michigan Medical School wondered what prevents young people from using sunscreen more often, they simply asked them.

And what they found?

Young people were well aware of the importance of sunscreen and the cancer risk that comes with repeated sunburns – the problem was, though, that sunscreen just wasn’t handy when it was needed.

To the med students, this seemed like an eminently solvable problem.

Their one study led to two developments: first, a successful JAMA Network journal publication for the med school students who conducted it.

Then, perhaps even more significantly, the creation of a program that now places sunscreen dispensers in places around Washtenaw County where young people are likely to need them the most.

“This all started based on findings from the research project we did, where we polled youth ages 14 to 24 throughout the country on their views toward sunscreen and sunburn,” said Olivia Lamberg, M.D., who graduated from the med school this spring.

“We found the main barrier to sunscreen use was access, not education or awareness. So we decided to meet them where they’re at by putting dispensers in places where they may be needed.”

The plan

Beginning in summer 2022, with a $10,000 grant from the Rogel Cancer Center, Lamberg and her fellow med students partnered with Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation, Michigan Athletics, and dispenser and sunscreen supplier Impact Melanoma to strategically place dispensers in places like pools, golf courses and outdoor athletic fields.

In the first two years, 17 dispensers were deployed across 13 locations in Ann Arbor.

About 10,000 applications of sunscreen from the dispensers were made, and an estimated 50,000 people have seen the dispensers and their sun safety messaging.

Starting this summer, the program is expanding to high schools in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

“Certainly, when teens leave the house they are not first and foremost thinking of skin cancer prevention. Athletes are packing athletic gear, not sunscreen,” said Svati Pazhyanur, a medical student who will oversee the program in the coming year since Lamberg graduated.

“One advantage of this project is building a habit and building awareness. In that way, I think it’s been really beneficial.”

Tammy Chang, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at Michigan Medicine, has been involved with the students’ efforts from the beginning.

“This is such a wonderful example of how students are participating in research that can improve the health of their own communities,” Chang said.

“It turns out, young people actually have a lot of knowledge about the dangers of sun exposure. The problem really was operationalizing that knowledge.”

Chang adds that one of the keys to long term skin health is early and consistent use of sunscreen, and that doing so can pay huge dividends for years to come.

“Young people have this potential to change their behavior in ways that can benefit them for the remainder of their lives,” Chang said.

“The potential to impact health and improve the lives of young people is enormous.”

That realization helped drive the medical students’ participation in the program, which includes educational visits to Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation’s summer camps.

During the visits, medical students taught more than 250 youngsters about sun safety, using a combination of games to bring the lessons home.

“We’d do a lot of different games – relay races, have teams pick through different types of clothing to see which types are best in the sun, or have them dress up a teammate in sun safety clothing,” Lamberg said. “We have beads that change color in UV light, so we made bracelets and necklaces out of those,” said Lamberg, who stated it visually highlights the difference between playing in the shade and playing in the sun.

For Pazhyanur, who now dedicates an estimated three to five hours a week to the project, the efforts are well worth it.

“We’re building a habit and building awareness, and in that way I think it’s been beneficial,” Pazhyanur said.

Because of Pazhyanur’s Indian heritage, the work has extra meaning for her: people of color, although typically less prone to skin cancer, tend to have worse outcomes because darker skin means melanoma is often detected later.

“The prevalence is lower than in people with lighter skin,” Pazhyanur said.

“But skin cancer is often caught later, and there’s a higher melanoma mortality among people of color.”

Chang says the heart of the program – and its greatest strength – is its roots in the community.

“The strongest aspect of this program is that it’s community driven,” Chang said.

“The idea came from young people who live and work in this community, and that’s why it works. Communities know best what is good for them.”

It doesn’t hurt, either, that it’s really pretty simple, she says.

“It’s not a fancy, complicated program,” Chang said.

“But sometimes the most simple programs, focused on what the community really wants, are the most effective.”

Previously Published on michiganmedicine.org with Creative Commons License

***

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Health

Sea Moss Supplement by Holistic Vybez: A Family-Owned Wellness Revolution

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Established by Naeem and Ashley Akbar, Holistic Vybez is a family-run firm that has grown quickly to become a major force in the holistic health sector. Holistic Vybez, which was founded on vegan principles and was influenced by Dr. Sebi, was started during the pandemic to cater to the growing interest of consumers in wellness and health. This piece examines their path, the difficulties they encountered, and their goals going forward.

Both Dr. Sebi’s disciples Naeem and Ashley Akbar were devoted vegans. They founded Holistic Vybez during the pandemic because of their steadfast commitment to natural health and wellness. They decided to go all in and sell goods meant to improve immunity and general well-being, such as their well-liked sea moss supplement, after realizing that consumer attention was shifting toward health.

Sea Moss Gel Challenges: Perseverance Amidst Adversity

Starting a sea moss gel and health company during the pandemic’s peak meant overcoming several challenges:

  • Pandemic challenges: Products were lost and reshipping costs incurred a loss of almost $7,000.
  • Customer communication: To establish their superior level of customer service, Naeem and Ashley personally contacted each consumer to explain the circumstances.

Seamoss Store: Scaling Up

Holistic Vybez showed tenacity and dedication by expanding from a basement operation to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in just two years. Their commitment to delivering a high-quality sea moss supplement and upholding stellar client relations drove their quick development.

Health With Intention

  • Emphasis on health benefits: Holistic Vybez places a higher priority on health benefits than flavor. Every newly released sea moss supplement producthas an ever-expanding list of therapeutic benefits.
  • Novel goods: To provide extra value for their customers, every new flavor or product, like their sea moss gel, is carefully chosen for its health advantages.

Career Highlights

  • Rapid growth: In just four years, Holistic Vybez has scaled to an $8,000,000 business.
  • Customer loyalty: Their commitment to quality and customer service has earned them a loyal customer base.

Expanding Sea Moss Gel and the Holistic Vybez Brand

Holistic Vybez aims to become a leading brand in the holistic health industry. The Akbar’s dream of opening physical stores to reach and support more communities, making it easier for customers to buy sea moss online or visit a nearby seamoss store.

The Heart of Holistic Vybez and Sea Moss Supplements

A tribute to the Akbars’ commitment to infusing family values into every facet of their business is Holistic Vybez. Because they are a family-run, black business, they make sure that all of their employees are treated as members of their extended family, which fosters a friendly and cooperative work atmosphere.

Image sourced from the Holistic Vybez website.

Naeem and Ashley Akbar have made it a point to conduct their business in an environmentally responsible manner. They use food from sustainable farms and utilize recyclable packaging materials. Their commitment to environmental preservation is a reflection of their holistic wellness concept, which takes into account both the health of the environment and their clientele.

Holistic Vybez is distinguished not only by its superior sea moss supplements and goods but also by its everlasting dedication to family, health, and customer support. The goal of a healthy world is progressively coming to pass thanks to Naeem and Ashley Akbar’s ongoing innovation and growth.

This content is brought to you by Noan Noah

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Plasma You Sell in East Kansas City Could End up in Medicine an Ocean Away

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By Suzanne King

Michael Mullen donates blood plasma every Tuesday and Thursday. He has for 12 years.

Takeaways
  1. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that lets people sell plasma.
  2. Plasma donation centers in the United States, including 11 in Kansas City, supply 70% of the world’s plasma.
  3. Drug therapies made from the plasma are life-saving to people with rare, chronic diseases.
  4. But critics worry that the effects of frequent, long-term donation are unknown.

The money it brings in — a little over $100 a week — augments what he makes as a chef. He’s come to rely on it.

“It helps supplement bill paying,” he said recently, smoking a cigarette outside the Biomat USA donation center on East 63rd Street where he’d just spent an hour and a half in the donation chair. “If I didn’t have it, I don’t know. I don’t know what would happen.”

Kelcey Gordon is out of work and said he’d struggle without the money he makes donating twice a week. Standing outside the same for-profit plasma donation center, one of 11 in the Kansas City area, he said he is grateful for the extra cash it represents.

In the $35 billion plasma pharmaceutical industry, Mullen, Gordon and some 3 million other U.S. adults supply the raw material the industry counts on.

The plasma they deposit every week is tested, processed and separated into protein parts that become medicine to treat rare, chronic conditions like immune deficiencies, autoimmune diseases and bleeding disorders.

Their plasma, collected at a storefront that shares a shopping center with a Thriftway and lies just a block east of Cash America Pawn, will end up in medicines sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars a dose. It will likely treat patients on the other side of the world.

Thanks to regulations that make the United States one of the few countries to let companies pay for plasma, and because people here can donate as often as twice a week, the U.S. supplies about 70% of the world’s plasma.

“This is the world basket of plasma,” said Peter Jaworski, a Georgetown University professor who studies the plasma economy.

The industry — with the enthusiastic backing of organizations that advocate for people suffering from the diseases that plasma therapies treat — says the system works. If people weren’t paid to donate, they argue demand could not be met. That would mean thousands of people would die or be unable to live normal lives.

The plasma centers, most of them owned and operated by pharmaceutical companies based overseas, say their business models also inject money into local communities.

Donation centers employ phlebotomists, security guards and screeners. And the payments made to donors — which vary based on how often someone donates and, in some cases, how much a donor weighs — go back into the local economy.

But doctors and public health experts caution that no one really knows what frequent plasma donations over many years could mean for donors’ health.

And they worry that poor people provide a bulk of U.S. donations at plasma centers. Plasma centers tend to set up in disadvantaged neighborhoods and rely on incentive programs designed to make donors give again and again.

Plasma centers push people to give as often as possible, but they don’t disclose the unknown risks of frequently extracting plasma from their blood for many years.

“People perceive it as a better alternative than high-cost loans that lead to debt,” said Emily A. Gallagher, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Colorado. She co-authored a study about the intersection between plasma donors and payday loan customers.

“Without knowing the longer-term health consequences,” she said, “it’s analogous to a loan against your future house with an unknown interest rate.”

Therapies from donated plasma

The blood running through your veins includes red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma. Plasma — a yellow-tinged liquid — accounts for more than half of your blood.

It is 90% water, but also contains proteins vital to living a normal life. When someone has plasma that lacks  — or is short on — certain proteins, they end up with rare and chronic diseases. Medicines made from healthy human plasma treat those diseases by supplementing the lacking plasma.

For someone with primary immune deficiency, a condition in which a person’s immune system doesn’t function properly, it takes 130 donations to cover a year’s worth of treatment. For a person with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a potentially fatal disease that can lead to organ damage, that number jumps to 900 donations a year. And for someone with hemophilia, a blood clotting disorder, it takes 1,200 donations of plasma to make a year’s worth of medicine.

Scientists have known about blood circulation since 1628, and blood transfusions began almost that long ago. In 1665, a British doctor figured out how to keep a dog alive by transfusing blood from other dogs.

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists began to figure out that different people had different blood types. And by World War II the value of blood plasma was well understood.

In 1940, researchers developed a process to break plasma down into individual components to treat patients. That’s essentially what happens to plasma donated today.

Wild west of plasma collection

Donated plasma goes through a process known as fractionation, which separates plasma into various protein parts. Once it is tested and cleaned — a process that can take up to a year — those proteins are pooled with other donors’ plasma and made into therapies.

Plasma therapies for patients on the receiving end are considered extremely safe today. Tests designed to find plasma tainted by disease are highly effective. And plasma pharmaceutical makers won’t use plasma until a donor has given at least twice and the donor has passed a health screening. In addition, plasma is treated to kill any lingering virus before it is used in medicine.

But in the 1980s, before it was understood that viruses like HIV could be transmitted through blood, plasma transfusions proved deadly.

In the United States, 63% of hemophiliacs contracted HIV after receiving plasma from infected donors. Others contracted hepatitis B and hepatitis C, diseases that are also transmitted through blood.

After those “wild west days of plasma collection,” Jaworski said, the industry underwent drastic changes. That included pharmaceutical companies taking over independent donation centers. In recent years, those centers have multiplied.

Pharmaceutical companies operate a combined 1,000 collection centers in the United States. That’s compared to 300 in 2005.

The business of taking human plasma and turning it into medicine is worth about $35 billion this year. And that could nearly double by 2032, according to Fortune Business Insights, a market research firm.

Growing demand for plasma donations

Kansas City-area donation centers are all owned directly by the companies that make the plasma-derived drugs.

They include the Biomat on 63rd Street, owned by Grifols S.A., a Spanish company. Other Kansas City donation centers are owned by CSL Ltd., based in Australia, Takeda Pharmaceuticals from Japan and Octapharma Plasma, out of Switzerland.

Experts say the influx of new donation centers in recent years follows growing demand for plasma therapies. That’s because scientists are figuring out that more diseases can benefit from plasma medicines. During the COVID pandemic, plasma transfusions from previously infected donors were tried as a treatment, but its effectiveness isn’t understood because scientific testing was lacking.

Demand for plasma therapies is also up because more people are being diagnosed with diseases that could benefit from them.

For example, improved newborn screenings mean more people know they have primary immune deficiency, diseases that affect an estimated 500,000 people. But according to the Immune Deficiency Foundation, “tens of thousands” of others remain undiagnosed.

Only the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic and a few other countries allow payments for plasma donations. The countries that restrict payments have to rely on imports, primarily from the U.S. There is no synthetic alternative to human plasma.

That’s why Jaworski wants more countries to allow paid plasma.

“There isn’t a single country in the world that collects enough plasma to meet demand unless they compensate donors,” he said. “The most important moral mission for a system of blood and plasma collection is to meet the needs of patients.”

By that standard, he said, the American system is unquestionably succeeding.

“America not only collects enough for its own citizens,” he said, “it also collects enough for the rest of the world.”

Is donating plasma twice a week safe?

Through a process known as plasmapheresis, the plasma collected at for-profit centers is taken out of a donor’s arm as whole blood, pumped into a machine that separates out plasma and returns red blood cells and other components of blood to the donor.

That process, known as source plasma collection, is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and also overseen by the countries that import the plasma. Donors spend about 90 minutes in the donation chair.

Nonprofit blood centers like the Community Blood Center of Greater Kansas City collect plasma through whole blood donations. Plasma is separated out once blood has been donated. But that process yields much less plasma.

Nonprofit blood banks don’t pay for donations. For one thing, hospitals won’t accept blood from a donor who has been compensated. And the World Health Organization advises against paying for donations. It’s considered risky because donors who give blood because they need money could be more likely to misrepresent their health history — essentially hiding the likelihood that they’re carrying blood-borne infections.

Because plasma used in pharmaceuticals is so thoroughly processed, the risk posed by paid donations is lower. Jaworski said it’s proved to be extraordinarily safe for 30 years. He argues that objections to paid plasma donations are unrealistic when so many people rely on plasma therapies.

He compared paying people for their plasma to hiring firefighters rather than relying on volunteers. The payment doesn’t diminish the good act, he said.

“At some point, you get too many fires and you have to pay people to put out the fires,” he said. “We hit that tipping point (for plasma) more than 20 years ago.”

People who rely on the therapies created from paid-for plasma are actively campaigning to be sure paid donations continue.

The Immune Deficiency Foundation has a program meant to recruit more paid donors. “Your work will encourage donors to continue donating and, in turn, encourage their friends and family to donate plasma as well,” the organization’s web page says.

But while plasma-derived therapies are critical for the patients relying on them to live a normal life, some doctors worry about what plasma donation could do to donors.

Plasma collection centers advise donors to drink lots of water, get sleep and have a healthy meal before donating. In the near term, donors are told to be prepared for certain temporary side effects like dehydration, dizziness and fatigue.

On its webpage, CSL Plasma also warns about the possibility that donating frequently for a long period of time can deplete immunoglobulin levels, which can lower a person’s ability to fight off infections.

What is the downside to donating plasma?

Dr. Morey A. Blinder, a hematologist at Washington University, said that’s definitely something frequent plasma donors should worry about. Long-term studies, looking at people who donate plasma twice a week, year after year, simply haven’t been done, he said.

“You’re depleting a person’s proteins in their bloodstream,” he said. “And it’s hard to know what the effect of that is.”

Proteins regenerate, he said, so in the short term, people can keep up. But it’s unclear what happens over time.

And while the plasma collection centers monitor donors’ health, their incentive isn’t to limit donations. It’s to collect as much plasma as possible.

“There are financial incentives to these donors to stay on schedule and keep donating,” Blinder said.

Many doctors would feel more comfortable, he said, if that pressure were reduced. Blinder also would like to see more frequent checks of donors’ blood levels, and a weekly, rather than twice weekly, donation limit.

“People in this field would say that would be an advantage,” he said.

Blinder also questions whether the pharmaceutical companies are paying donors fairly. Donors take home around $50 per donation, but the medicine it’s eventually turned into can cost $200 a gram, perhaps $16,000 per treatment dose, depending on the illness.

“We don’t have a good sense of the margins they earn on the plasma,” said Gallagher, the University of Colorado professor.

Right or wrong, the paid plasma business has become a reasonably big thread in the country’s social safety net. Gallagher found that people tend to donate plasma so they can get extra money and avoid taking out high-interest loans to make ends meet. Donors range from college students to single parents to low-wage earners who just need extra cash.

BioLife Plasma Services is promising new donors “up to $800.” And CSL Plasma advertises new donors “over $700 your first month.”

Whether or not donors are getting a fair payment, selling plasma is tempting a growing number of Americans. And, like Mullen and Gordon, they’re relying on the extra cash.

That’s why most mornings, before CSL Plasma’s donation center at 37th and Broadway opens for business at 6 a.m., a line of ready donors is already waiting outside.

This article first appeared on Beacon: Kansas City and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.

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