Depending on where you live and your life experiences, the word algae might conjure images of jewel-green, goopy ponds; tangled, brown coastal seaweed; or deep-red coral reefs. If you are a follower of nutrition trends or environmental-sustainability efforts, however, you might also regard algae as an ingredient whose time has come: an abundant, plant-based, sustainably produced and harvested food and supplement source with the potential to feed and nourish the masses.
First, an overview of algae’s characteristics, its many forms, and its place in the world ecosystem. Algae are simple, nonflowering plants of a large group that includes seaweed and many single-celled forms. These plants contain chlorophyll and other pigments for performing photosynthesis, but structurally, they lack roots, stems, leaves, or vascular tissue. In nature, algae tend to be found in or near both salt water and fresh water, and they range from one cell in size, such as planktonic algae in freshwater ponds, to enormous, sprawling multicellular organisms, such as giant kelp. The plant’s color ranges from bright green to gold to brown to red.
Historically, certain varieties of algae have been consumed as whole foods mainly in Asian countries, such as Japan, which processes various seaweeds (including nori, wakame, hijiki, and konbu) into snacks, side dishes, and garnishes. Some European cultures have a tradition of eating algae as well, such as in Norway, France, and Ireland. In the United States, however, algae consumption has generally stayed far out of the mainstream—but that is changing, now that the plant is being recognized for its versatility and value as a food additive, a supplement ingredient, a functional-food and -beverage ingredient, and a superfood.
Nourishing a Growing Global Population with…Algae?
Among algae’s many advantages, according to its champions, is its potential as an abundant source of vital nutrients. “As the world struggles with feeding an increasing population in a sustainable manner,” says Bob Capelli, EVP global marketing for AlgaeHealth (Irvine, CA), a division of BGG, “algae looks to be one viable solution. And the variety of algae that can be grown runs the full gamut from protein-rich superfoods like spirulina to concentrated supernutrients like astaxanthin.”
Tryggvi Stefánsson, science manager for Algalif (Reykjanesbaer, Iceland), even refers to algae as “a dream nutritional ingredient.” For starters, he says, it’s a protein source more consumer-friendly than other alternative protein sources, such as insects. It’s also a source of “high-value functional compounds” for human nutrition, such as astaxanthin, beta-carotene, phycocyanin, and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Stefánsson also points to algae’s high production yield, because, unlike conventional crops, it requires very little to be kept alive. Furthermore, he says, algae poses no competition to agriculture because it doesn’t need fertile land.
Walter Rakitsky, emerging business lead, algae ingredients, Corbion (Lenexa, KS), calls algae “earth’s original superfood,” citing its macronutrients, micronutrients, fiber, and healthy fats. “Our AlgaVia and AlgaWise algae ingredients can really transform the foods we eat in terms of nutrition, sustainability, taste, texture, and flavor,” he says.
Versatility, Value, Innovation
Algae’s flexibility as a functional-food and -beverage ingredient, a food additive, and a supplement ingredient makes it remarkably versatile. Algaia (Paris), for instance, markets two algae-based ingredients (or “alginates”), brand-named Satialgine and Algogel, for food, beverage, cosmetics, and a few nutraceutical applications. For foods that retail in North America in particular, says Algaia CEO Fabrice Bohin, applications of these two products are wide-ranging and mainly geared toward improving food texture and replacing fats. They include bakery items, convenience foods, sauces, processed cheeses, vegan foods, low-fat spreads, and ice creams. Encapsulation of these alginates and processing them into edible films are also emerging uses, Bohin says. In total, Algaia’s alginates are found in more than 60 unique commercial products.
AlgaeHealth’s Capelli, whose company specializes in astaxanthin, an algae derivative, says that most of AlgaeHealth’s current business is with supplement companies. (The company supplies the astaxanthin ingredients AstaZine, FucoMax, and ThinOgen to supplement brands, and, according to Capelli, is “always working on” its next algae-based ingredient.) “But,” Capelli says, “we see the food and beverage segment as ready to explode. There are already astaxanthin chocolates, energy bars, drinks, and even astaxanthin ‘eggs,’ and these products are beginning to be accepted by consumers.”
AstaReal’s (Burlington, NJ) Karen A. Hecht, PhD, scientific affairs manager, explains that her company’s astaxanthin’s oleoresin is also suitable for a wide variety of applications, including softgels, liquid capsules, chocolate, gummies, baked goods, and protein shakes. For incorporating astaxanthin oleoresin into more aqueous products, the company developed a water-soluble powder. “AstaReal cold-water-soluble 2.5% astaxanthin powder has excellent stability and dispersion characteristics for incorporation into instant drinks for numerous applications,” Hecht explains, “including sport and beauty.” For RTD beverages, the company developed a liquid astaxanthin emulsion that also works well for shots, water enhancers, and candies.