Breakthroughs in Algae Foods
by Dr. Mark Edwards
Recent breakthroughs in algae foods herald an exciting future for this apparently new but actually very old food category. Market demand keeps growing, functional foods continue expanding, and new algae food products are hitting the shelves at more retail outlets.
Algae foods are actually among the oldest food categories. Nearly all human societies that evolved around oceans, estuaries or algae-bearing lakes, such as the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, ate algae and algae feeders. These highly nutritious foods were available year-round and posed no mortal threat, unlike hunting game.
Our human ancestors often drank water from the top of the water column, which was filled with microalgae. Early humanoids gathered macroalgae or sea vegetables at low tide and ate them fresh, or dried them in the sun for later use. Algae may have been our ancestors’ original convenience food.
Research on primitive tribes shows that algae’s superb delivery of micronutrients including vitamins, minerals and trace elements, moderated or eliminated nutritional deficiencies. The resurgence of algae-based foods is amplified by algae’s ability to deliver an extraordinary set of micronutrients essential for health and vitality.
Roasted seaweeds make excellent low-fat snacks. Not only do they avoid the high-fat and empty calories associated with chips, crackers and breads, but they deliver much higher nutralence – nutrient density. Gram for gram, roasted seaweeds deliver 3 to 5 times the micronutrients of food grain chips with about 85% less fat and no cholesterol.
Seaweed salads are in high demand at nearly every sushi bar in restaurants and grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Kroger’s and Safeway. Other nutralent seaweeds such as Nori are available dried. Seaweeds are commonly eaten fresh and dried. Many, such as Kombu, are used as garnishes and flavorings. Many Asian dishes, such as soup and stews, call for sea vegetables to add flavor and nutrients to the dish but are not eaten directly.
Algae in restaurants
Why does the number one rated restaurant in the world, NOMA, serve algae? Rene Redzepi chef, forager, and owner of NOMA, in Copenhagen, made the March international cover of Time Magazine for his excellent innovations in locally sourced and foraged cuisines. His extraordinary NOMA cookbook shows beautiful pictures of algae garnishing and supporting his world-class servings.
The human tongue has five taste buds: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Umami, the savory or hearty taste comes from taste buds in the middle of the tongue that give a savory or hearty taste – not to just the food eaten directly, but also to the accompanying food. Many upscale restaurants offer algae directly or accompanying hors d’oeuvres and main courses. One of the most popular new restaurant chains in Los Angeles, Umami Burger, has found great success promoting the umami taste.
Solazyme in partnership with Roquette Nutritionals announced in April 2012 the availability of their Algalin™ flour. Algalin flour looks and acts like flour, but is actually a lipid substitute that is similar to olive oil. Product recommendations explain that the flour can substitute for eggs, cream, milk, vegetable oils or other lipid sources.
Altein™ Algalin protein provides protein at over twice the levels per gram as corn or soy. The product has about 20% dietary fibers, 10% lipids and a wide array of trace minerals and micronutrients. The vegan product is marketed as gluten-free, non-allergenic, sustainably produced with highly digestible protein.
Since the algae products are made with fermentation and require sugar for the energy instead of photosynthesis, some may argue the sustainability claim. However, Solazyme works very hard on their sustainability and has invested in farms to grow plants that can supply the necessary sugars.
New demand for substitutes
One of the most interesting food stories belongs to Girl Scouts and palm oil. Two Girl Scouts created an initiative to end the use of palm oil in Girl Scout cookies because palm oil farming causes rainforest deforestation, endangers thousands of animal species and contributes to human rights abuses. Over 70,000 people have signed their petition to stop the use of palm oil in Girl Scout cookies. The two girls have been featured on numerous news and talk shows, and they were recently honored with the United Nations Forest Heroes Award for their work in saving rainforests.
As companies look for sustainably sourced oils, algae oils will become popular rapidly because the value proposition has already been communicated to consumers.
Constantly rising commodity prices are prompting demand for cheaper and more sustainable substitutes for terrestrial crop commodities. Commodities that have been relatively constant for years are rising.
Higher commodity prices translate quickly into higher food prices. The Arab Spring ignited over food prices and food availability in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt. As food prices continue to rise, more countries will face uprisings and possibly regime changes.
Global climate chaos devastates crops. Pakistan lost millions of acres of farmland in the severe 2011 floods. Communities also lost the roads, bridges and irrigation systems required for crop production.
The summer of 2011 was one of the hottest years on record, which diminished or destroyed millions of cropland acres. Future years are likely to see even higher temperatures. Higher temperatures will put more demand on scarce freshwater while lowering crop production.
Algae food crop substitutes can grow in nearly any climate and can provide a low-cost alternative to traditional food grains, nuts and seeds. Growers can use abundance production methods that use minimal or no fossil resources including fossil fuels, fertile soil, freshwater, energetic fertilizers or pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Wise producers will largely stop nutrient waste and ecological pollution while they regenerate their degraded soil.
Algae can play a major role in sustainable cultivation of substitutes for food grains, vegetable oils, fish oils, and other sources of protein pudding meats. Business opportunities abound in the algae realm of sustainable food and energy products.