Andrew A. Dahl is president and CEO of ZIVO Bioscience, a biotech/agtech R&D company engaged in the commercialization of nutritional and medicinal products derived from proprietary algal strains.
In the quest for an ever-greater share of the consumer market, a host of food manufacturers have found that functional foods hold a special appeal — especially in an era when these offerings are resonating more strongly with a health-conscious public. As they evaluate the potential value functional foods may add to their product lineups, marketers should consider what algae-based ingredients offer in terms of attributes and differentiation.
Before spotlighting some of the details, it's important to recognize how functional foods fit within the consumer market and the current regulatory environment. Consumers crave food choices that can bolster well-being, and offer benefits beyond recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals. For example, Kellogg’s recently launched its Special K Nourish Berries & Peaches with Probiotics. According to Kellogg’s, the new product is the only cereal from a leading brand that contains live and active probiotic cultures, and these probiotics add “digestive wellness.”
Expanding functional food offerings can also create market opportunities for manufacturers as consumer demographics shift. Aging, affluent baby boomers — who have considerable purchasing power and are paying more attention to their health — are focusing on maintaining their quality of life. Many would like to accomplish this with diet, and can afford to try something new. At the other end of the demographic spectrum are millennials, who have strong opinions about food ingredients and processes and are willing to put their money behind those opinions. Indeed, a single product can target both demographics with different brand positioning. Every customer wants more out of the food they consume — the challenge is to create something of real value that consumers can afford, with health benefits they can appreciate.
1. A single species with dozens of strains
Algae, whether grown in sunlit ponds or closed-system tanks, can be manipulated to deliver a wide range of nutritional and functional properties. For example, if a manufacturer is looking to market a product that contains a relatively high percentage of beta carotene, this property can be naturally selected using the appropriate strain of a single algal species. If a product with a significant amount of high-quality protein is desired, a different strain of that same algal species can be used. These different attributes can be produced by the same methods. Therefore, the manufacturer does not necessarily need to start from scratch in order to satisfy current good manufacturing practice or compliance requirements, or in-plant processes.
2. Growing opportunities for innovation
Manufacturers are limited only by their imaginations when it comes to possible algae solutions. Many applications have yet to be explored, and there is still plenty of room for growth. To date, only nominal amounts have been used commercially, and primarily to meet product claims. The global production capacity for algal biomass has not kept up with demand, which continues to steadily increase.
3. Algae are environmentally friendly
Pond-grown algal biomass is essentially powered by the sun, is sustainable and renewable, and does not rely on excessive energy consumption. Certain strains of algae do not require herbicides, pesticides or special chemicals to make them viable. Algae also easily sequesters two pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of algae produced, and releases one pound of oxygen as well. Commercialized algal strains are typically antibiotic-free and a great source of protein, fiber and vitamins A and C. Plant-based protein produced by algae is non-soy, lecithin-free and gluten-free — also drawing attention from the food industry. According to a recent Nielsen survey, 23% of consumers worldwide want more plant-based protein options. Additionally, this survey found that 39% of Americans are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets.
4. Research companies are solving technical challenges
Manufacturers may encounter technical hurdles when incorporating algal biomass into their new products. Generally, dried algal biomass should handle much like any other powdered natural product such as fruit or root plants. However, keeping it in suspension for a ready-to-drink beverage, for example, may require more lab work. The biomass may inadvertently bind to another ingredient or require an additional manufacturing step. There are several companies, such as ZIVO Bioscience, working with different processing protocols and product formulations. Algae can be spray-dried, belt-dried, drum-dried or freeze-dried depending on the product formulation requirement — ranging from a fine powder for better mixing properties to a flaked form that looks and performs like pesto, parsley flakes or dried seaweed.
Over time, as cultivation capacity builds and food manufacturers establish production methods, the cost efficiency of cultivating and productizing algae is likely to increase.
The functional food market is driven by product innovation and first-to-market priorities. More broadly speaking, agtech and food tech companies, backed by investors around the world, are working to develop breakthroughs in food ingredients and product concepts across a wide range of applications. In this environment, algae can be a strong contender, based on customizable product attributes, such as protein or micronutrient content, which can then be easily adapted as food and beverage ingredients. Unlike most other plants, select algae strains are chameleon-like in their physical and sensory attributes, making them especially useful across a broad range of product applications. The development of this unique nutritional source is beginning to gain traction as the food industry looks to green, sustainable and economically viable alternatives to traditional crop production and animal husbandry.