Algae and nutrition: Putting the “super” in "superfood"

May 13, 2019

When health advocates call algae a “superfood,” they do mean super. For one, algae have an extraordinary capacity for survival.1Algae is a broad term encompassing macroalgae and microalgae species, either freshwater or marine.)

For instance, macroalgae (also known as seaweed) “have an ancient lineage on our planet,” says Lynn Cornish, a scientist from Acadian Seaplants Ltd. (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada), a manufacturer of food and functional ingredients derived from cultivated and wild seaweeds. “They were among the first multicellular organisms, here before even the jellyfish and the dinosaurs. They have survived for millennia in all manner of challenging environments, coping at times with hot sun, high light levels, temperature extremes, ice, and hungry sea creatures.”

Algae’s ability to shield themselves from exterior antagonists has enabled many species to build up a rich store of proteins, lipids, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and more—nutrients that coincidentally are sought in today’s human health market. “Algae is at the base of the food chain, and many algae species have adapted to become extremely potent nutritionally for a variety of reasons,” says Bob Capelli, executive vice president, global marketing, for astaxanthin supplier Algae Health Sciences (AlgaeHealth; Irvine, CA), a division of BGG. “For example, Haematococcus pluvialis”—the microalgae species from which most natural astaxanthin ingredients in the human supplement market are derived today—”is an algal species that can hyper-accumulate astaxanthin as a protective force field to ward off all sorts of environmental stressors.”

Part of what makes algae so exciting a nutrition source is that it is nutritionally rich as a whole. Or Gottlib is vice president of marketing for microalgae-ingredient supplier Algatech (Kibbutz Ketura, Israel). Says Gottlib: “Unlike other plant-based foods—e.g., soy, peas, beans, etc.—where only part of the plant is consumed, microalgae biomass is a complete organism, thus containing all the components of the whole structure. It has significant amounts of proteins, lipids and phospholipids, vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, and carbohydrates, all high quality for human consumption.”

“Nutritionally,” says Cornish from Acadian Seaplants, “seaweeds typically contain all the essential nutrients required for human health and wellness, with the exception of adequate calories.”



A Growing Market

While algal ingredients are not new in the nutrition space, interest in these ingredients is growing, for several reasons.

“Consumers are turning to algae-derived ingredients more and more as we continue to see a booming demand for plant-based ingredients,” says Tryggvi Stefánsson, science manager, Algalif (Reykjanesbaer, Iceland), supplier of the Astalif astaxanthin brand. 

Another reason for the interest has to do with one of the biggest challenges humans will face for centuries to come: how to sustainably feed the earth’s growing population from a planet whose feed supply is limited.

“In the face of growing shortages and strains on our resources, and the increasing demand for proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and other valuable ingredients—especially those that are vegetarian, sustainable, environmentally friendly, and organic—it’s a given that microalgae will play a significant role in the diet of all populations during the next decade,” says Algatech’s Gottlib.

He continues: “Microalgae are on the way to becoming a leading food source of the 21st century…In fact, microalgae contain the nutritional formula for humankind to flourish over the coming decades.”

Stefánsson adds that “algae are more sustainable than conventional crops because they require significantly less energy/input to be kept alive, thereby limiting environmental impact. It is a renewable source of proteins but also high-value compounds for human nutrition, such as beta-carotene, phycocyanin, astaxanthin, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).”

While algae, particularly seaweeds, have a long history of use in Asian cultures for helping to address everything from inflammation, immunity, and gut health to oncology, the ability to extract and isolate specific fractions of algae has given these ingredients greater use worldwide, says Helen Fitton, PhD, chief scientist for Marinova (Cambridge, Tasmania, Australia). “The interest in seaweed-derived ingredients has significantly grown in recent years—not just in Asia but in western countries, too—as research continues to reveal the extraordinary health potential they offer.”



Health Benefits

Modern-day clinical research substantiating the human health benefits of a number of algal strains continues to grow. “There are endless species of algae, and each has unique constituents” for supporting health, says Algalif’s Stefánsson. 

Immune health has long been an area of interest where algae are concerned. Marinova’s Fitton points to a study done on fucoidan. Marinova specializes in this high-purity compound, which it extracts from two species of fucoidan-rich, certified-organic macroalgae: Undaria pinnatifida and Fucus vesiculosus. Fucoidan, she explains, plays an essential role in helping seaweed protect itself from marine pathogens.

A published human study2 sponsored by Marinova on its Maritech branded fucoidan exploring the ingredient’s immunomodulatory potential found that the study’s fucoidan-supplemented subjects saw a significant increase in cytotoxic T-cell numbers and phagocytic capacity in monocytes, as well as a significant decrease in levels of the inflammatory cytokine interleukin 6, leading researchers to conclude that the fucoidan does have “potential as an immune modulator.”

Ingredient supplier Kemin (Des Moines, IA) has brought to market a new immune-health ingredient called BetaVia, derived from the algal strain Euglena gracilis. The company recently announced the results of a 90-day double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical trial on BetaVia Complete, which is a whole-cell algae ingredient grown via fermentation and comprising more than 50% algae-sourced beta-glucans, plus protein, amino acids, and essential vitamins and minerals. The study found that compared to subjects taking a placebo, BetaVia Complete subjects experienced 70% fewer upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) symptoms, 3.3 fewer sick days, and 10 fewer URTI symptoms throughout the study. The study is currently awaiting publication. (The company also offers BetaVia Pure, a concentrated Euglena gracilis ingredient containing more than 95% algal-sourced beta-glucans.)

Josh Swalla, product manager for active wellness at Kemin Human Nutrition and Health, says, “We believe the immune supplement market is ripe with opportunity for algae. The overall immune [supplement] market is estimated to reach $25 billion in retail sales by 2025, according to Persistence Market Research.3 Providing customers with an immune-health ingredient from a unique algae source will allow their products to stand out on shelves.”

Another ingredient, InSea2, which is derived from the seaweed species Ascophyllum nodosum and Fucus vesiculosus, was shown in a newly published six-month randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study4 on 65 dysglycemic patients to be effective for glycemic control compared to placebo. Researchers observed that subjects taking the ingredient saw significant reductions in levels of glycated hemoglobin, fasting plasma glucose, postprandial glucose, and insulin-resistance index compared with placebo. The ingredient, combined with chromium picolinate, helped 18.2% of patients return to normal glycemic status after six months, compared to zero in the placebo group.

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