Microalgae: A tiny ingredient packing a macro punch for food makers
The organism, which is expected to post sales of $44.7 billion by 2023, has ascorbic acid, protein and omega-3 fats — giving it nutritional benefits sought by consumers looking to eat healthier.
Today's food menu is receiving a partial makeover from an unlikely source. Breakfast staples, beverages, snacks and other food items are being enhanced by the nutritional power-packed punch coming from a tiny single-celled organism known as microalgae.
Take a closer look at food and beverage labels and chances are microalgae will show up in one form or another. It's become a major player in the food revolution due to its impressive nutritional profile. Microalgae are loaded with ascorbic acid, protein and omega-3 fatty acids — all areas sought after by consumers who are looking to eat healthier and more natural foods.
The market for micoalgae oil alone was estimated to be worth about $1.38 billion in 2015, according to the most recent data from Grand View Research. The oil is among the most popular uses for the ingredient. In addition, varieties high in DHA omega-3 fatty acids are found in some infant formula and supplements — particularly for pregnant women — as well as certain food items for adults.
As more companies use microalgae in their products, sales are expected to grow rapidly. The global market for the single-celled organism is forecast to reach $44.7 billion by 2023 — growing at a CAGR of more than 5.2% from 2016-2023, according to a recent report from Credence Research.
“Algae is the most sustainable protein available on Earth.”
Chief marketing officer, Enjoy Life Foods
Big name food manufacturers have already incorporated microalgage into their products. Mondelez is using it in some baking items, while Dean Foods' Horizon Organics milk line has omega-3s in the form of algal oil. Even Mars is reportedly considering whether to use algae-derived colors for some of its candy and gum products.
“With accelerating consumer interest in healthier eating, people like to talk about the hottest new superfood, but it all starts with algae,” Jonathan Wolfson, executive chairman of algae food products company TerraVia, told Food Business News. "Before there were foods like chia, acai, kale or quinoa, there was algae. Nothing can be more heirloom, more ancient or more original."
Wide range of products
Microalgae can be made into powder, oil, butter and flour. It can be incorporated into all types of food products — baked goods, burgers, beverages, ice cream, infant formula or snacks. The additive also can be consumed by itself, or with other ingredients to enhance flavor.
As one example, TerraVia's AlgaVia algal flour can replace dairy fats, vegetable fats and egg yolks, resulting in products that are lower in saturated fat, calories and cholesterol. The flour is already being added to non-dairy creamers, powdered beverages and gluten-free baked goods commercially available in the U.S.
TerraVia, which recently was purchased out of bankruptcy by biotechnology company Corbion, was unable to comment in time for this story, citing the closing of the transaction.
Microalgae also has the advantage of being allergy friendly, enabling brands such as Mondelez's Enjoy Life Foods to use it in its brownie and other baking mixes in place of soy, peanuts or eggs.
“Algae is the most sustainable protein available on Earth,” Joel Warady, chief marketing officer for Enjoy Life Foods, told Food Dive. We added it "into a line of baking mixes. We’re still providing an indulgent dessert, but marrying functionality into this indulgence. We look at that as true innovation.”
Microalgae butter could be showing up on store shelves after TerraVia received a generally recognized as safe letter from the Food and Drug Administration in March. The plant-based product, a joint venture between TerraVia and Bunge, is being marketed as faster to melt, easier to spread, having a neutral taste and being free from palm oil — enabling it to contain half the saturated fat.
Apu Mody, TerraVia CEO, called the company's new AlgaWise Algae Butter a potential blockbuster representing a "$2 billion plus market opportunity."
"We believe our product delivers the same or better performance than other structuring fats including shea stearin and cocoa butter and offers superior nutrition and sustainability attributes," he told Food Navigator.
Is something fishy going on?
Some U.S. consumers may shy away from buying products containing algae due to the perception that it will smell or taste fishy, but today's developers and manufacturers say they have solved that problem by limiting oxidation. Algae oil goes through a deodorizing procedure using nitrogen gas and nitrogen liquid to remove all oxygen during processing.
"Like baking soda in the refrigerator," Philip Bromley, CEO of California-based Virun Nutra-BioSciences, told Food Dive. "You can remove the bad flavor and get fresh oil."
Microalgae is even more valuable because of its environmentally friendly characteristics. Bromley credits microalgae's sustainability to the controlled growth that's possible, comparing it to that of a sourdough starter. Researchers can create one tank with a sugar source, water and the actual organism, which then keeps growing and expanding — even if it's split up and moved to different locations — where the process continues.
Algal oil has several advantages compared to palm oil, which is commonly found in baked goods, margarine and ice cream. The ingredient is not linked to deforestation, habitat destruction, climate change and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it's produced. Algal oil also is far more productive — producing about 70,000 pounds of oil per acre compared to palm oil’s 4,465 pounds per acre.
Another environmental benefit is that microalgae can be grown without the use of chemicals, according to Ben Kelly, who is a co-founder of Algarithm, an algal oil firm based in Saskatchewan, and business development manager for POS Bio-Sciences.
Is it good for you?
Microalgae has many backers who claim it has beneficial nutritional properties. Probably the best-known type of microalgae, spirulina, contains 60-70% complete protein, meaning it possesses all eight amino acids and 10 non-essential ones that support good health. In dried form, a single teaspoon of spirulina powder is loaded with 4 grams of protein and only 20 calories, putting it in the running to be "the single most nutritious food on the planet," according to Joe Leech, an Australian dietitian who writes for Heathline.com.
Other benefits are much more anecdotal. Bromley said he takes 1,500 mg of DHA omega-3 derived from microalgae every day and no longer has eczema. Other advocates contend it aids in weight loss, boosts heart health, reduces inflammation and lowers cholesterol.
Omega-3s are arguably one of the most scientifically studied nutrients out there, Kelly noted. However, researchers say challenges remain to quantify the benefits and understand how harvesting, storing and food processing techniques impact algae's nutritive value.
But for now, microalgae has found a niche in helping pregnant women because omega-3 fatty acids are considered critical for fetal neurodevelopment. Fish and other seafood are a major dietary source of these fatty acids, but pregnant women are advised not to eat more than two or three servings per week. That opens the door for other food sources that provide similar health benefits.
More products on the way
More innovative microalgae products are poised to enter the market in the coming years, illustrating the continued interest and investment in the nutrient.
New Wave Foods has a plant- and algae-based "shrimp" product that it is rolling out to foodservice operators with the hope of expanding it into retail outlets in northern California and Nevada early next year. The San Francisco company also is developing products to take the place of lobster, crab and fish fillets. In addition, French startup Algama will soon introduce in the U.S. its line of low-fat vegan mayos made with microalgae under The Good Spoon label.
"Our food system is broken and we need to take action. Algama is pioneering a sector of the future: microalgae. A unique, abundant and sustainable superfood brought into delicious daily foods."
Partner and sales officer with Algama
Hugo Lercher, a partner and sales officer with Algama, told Food Dive his company already is partnering with the U.K. foodservice firm Compass Group and French retailer Carrefour on the European launch. It expects the product to be in New York City before the end of the year.
"These are the first-ever vegan mayos made from microalgae. They are also low in fat and incredibly unctuous," Lercher said.
Algama's leading product — an antioxidant drink made with spirulina called Springwave — attracted an investment of 3.5 million Euro (about $4.1 million) last year from Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing. The company plans to release the blue-colored beverage in the U.S. in 2018.
Many predict that food and beverage products containing microalgae will continue to appear in the U.S. and other markets. While broad consumer acceptance may remain elusive, manufacturers and their investors are betting it will grow over time. The hope is that familiarity, education and creative marketing about the perceived advantages microalgae can bring to human health will attract more consumers and businesses to the space.
Lercher said his company's long-term vision is to help address the problem of feeding the planet. For now, the French company's mission is to provide more people with better food, which is where microalgae come in.
"Our food system is broken and we need to take action," he told Food Dive in an email. "Amongst other diseases, obesity and diabetes are growing in developed and non-developed countries. In this context, Algama is pioneering a sector of the future: microalgae. A unique, abundant and sustainable super food brought into delicious daily foods."