Israeli startup Gavan wants to explore the plant kingdom to find new, sustainable and healthy ingredients, and a use for every part of a nutritionally dense substance. The first ingredient it worked with was the microalgae spirulina, and for a very distinct reason.
“We could see the separation and the extraction with our eyes because the proteins are blue,” Gavan co-founder and CEO Itai Cohen said.
The microalgae's standout blue pigment not only helped Gavan figure out how to fully separate the proteins in spirulina, but it also drove the company's first actual product launch: a stable natural blue coloring for both hot and cold drinks. Gavan is in touch with several manufacturers who are testing the coloring for potential use in products. Cohen said he hopes the company can begin commercial-scale production in the first quarter of 2023.
As consumers are becoming more interested in sustainability, superfoods and natural food and drink, spirulina is getting more popular as an ingredient. Several companies that are new and old are devoting significant research and R&D to the microalgae, hoping to boost its profile as a sought-after ingredient.
Leonard Lerer, founder and chief scientific officer of Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, calls the company an industrial food tech operation. Founded in 2018, Back of the Yards is focused on researching ways to use spirulina as an ingredient in food and beverages. Lerer has previously said the whole reason he started Back of the Yards Algae Sciences was to make spirulina-based natural blue food coloring. But that isn't its sole goal, he noted. After all, there's much more to spirulina than its color — and those who work with the microalgae say that its nutritional and sustainability aspects are just as desirable.
And with artificial colors so inexpensive and entrenched, Lerer said there is a distinct challenge to make a natural blue color from spirulina that beats them on cost.
“The only way we can do that is if we actually turn the whole story around, and the natural colorants become a byproduct of alt-protein production,” Lerer said. “And you can't do that until you have an alt protein which you can get into foods.”
Back of the Yards, Gavan and other companies are all working to turn the story around and demonstrate spirulina is more than just the source of a natural blue color. The microalgae, they say, is the wellness-targeted ingredient that consumers are looking for now.
What is spirulina?
The blue-green microalgae known as spirulina is almost ubiquitous throughout the world. It grows in a variety of places naturally, thriving on sunlight and carbon dioxide, and is used as a food source around the globe.
While most algae species have nutritional benefits, spirulina has one of the best health profiles. It's packed with protein — Gavan's Cohen said that about 75% of the algae's mass is made up of the nutrient. It also contains several vitamins and minerals, and has been linked to immunity boosts, allergy relief and heart health. Its profile makes it an in-demand ingredient among both manufacturers and consumers.
“It's a very well known antioxidant, very well known for being a very healthy algae," Cohen said. "They're always looking for that, and when you put spirulina on your ingredient list, it always comes as a positive to the end customer.”
Regardless of its health profile and the relative ease of producing it, Lerer said no one is switching to a spirulina diet.
“Algae especially tastes bad, right?” Lerer said. “So it's not that someone can say, ‘Hey, I'm going to make a burger with algae,’ because you can't. It just tastes terrible. It's extremely healthy. It has all the micronutrients you need. It's better than meat.”
That's where many of the spirulina-focused startups fit in. Jonas Guenther, co-founder of We Are The New Farmers, noticed that the primary form of spirulina in the United States — a dried powder, which hadn't seen innovation for decades — had an off-putting bitter taste and fishy smell. However, he noticed that people in other countries didn't dry the algae out before consuming it. In Indonesia and Africa, Guenther said, spirulina is usually consumed fresh. And with further study, he realized that spray drying the ingredient, as is commonly done in the U.S., not only breaks down some of its nutrients, but also leaves it with an undesirable taste and smell.
We Are The New Farmers grows fresh spirulina in Brooklyn, New York, selling it to consumers as frozen cubes to use in their own recipes. Guenther said in this form, it is completely different than the powdery supplement many consumers are used to.
“It looks like hummus, dark green hummus," Guenther said. "It has a mild flavor. I like to compare it to mineral water. It has a high mineral content. You have some sort of a salty, mineral-y flavor, but it's pretty neutral. And because it's a paste, it really is more of an ingredient that you can use in the kitchen.”
Ful of nutrition
Using fresh spirulina isn't the only way to minimize its bitterness. Companies including Netherlands-based Ful Foods have found ways to process the algae to minimize the taste while preserving the nutrients.
Ful makes bright blue, healthy sodas with spirulina as their hero ingredient. The company processes the spirulina so that its naturally high nutritional levels are available to the human body, which is not always the case in its natural form, co-founder Cristina Prat said. The antioxidants in spirulina also are not always stable, so the company’s processes preserve the nutrients to be available at any temperature or pH level. And the unappetizing salty and bitter taste is also processed away, leaving behind something that is much more pleasant.
After a trial launch in the Netherlands, the brand is embarking on a larger European rollout this month. It plans a U.S. debut later this year.
Ful Foods was started by Prat, Julia Streuli and Sara Guaglio. They met at INSEAD business school, where they worked together on a project researching ways businesses could reach net zero emissions. Streuli said they were interested in innovations in the food sector and alternative proteins, and were amazed at all of the benefits — both for human health and sustainability — in microalgae.
They looked into why people didn’t consume spirulina very much. The algae’s bitter taste profile was the biggest stumbling block to acceptance, Streuli said, but the lack of stability for the blue color and issues with the algae’s solubility also were big reasons it hadn’t been used more often. There also had been next to no marketing for the ingredient, which Streuli said was rather important. After all, many consumers today are looking for a sustainable, natural and nutritious ingredient like spirulina.
“The more we learned, the more we became convinced that there was an incredible triple bottom line opportunity — meaning opportunity to benefit people's health, the health of the planet, and do a big market opportunity,” Streuli said.
The three founders worked on a business plan as part of their MBA studies and entered INSEAD’s venture competition, which they won. Streuli said the win gave them the funds they needed to quit their post-graduate corporate jobs and concentrate on Ful full time. They established the business in the Netherlands so they could be close to the renowned food science program at Wageningen University, and they are collaborating with faculty in the Food Quality and Design group on extracting materials for their spirulina sodas.
About 20% of each can of Ful's White Peach, Lime & Mint and Lemon & Ginger sodas are made with the company's trademark extracted spirulina ingredient, which is between 2% and 5% spirulina biomass, Prat said.
Prat said Ful focused on spirulina because the microalgae had been well researched and was widely approved by national food safety regulatory authorities for use as an ingredient. It’s also easy to grow. Spirulina can actually take in twice its weight in carbon dioxide, Streuli said, so Ful designed its growing process to use some of the carbon dioxide that comes from the industrial waste stream. But Prat said their spirulina is grown in a completely closed system, which ensures high-quality ingredients and high yields.
Ful targets young, city-dwelling, active, conscious consumers who are interested in health and sustainability but not necessarily willing to change their lifestyles, said Streuli.
So far, Streuli said consumers have been most interested in the bright blue color, which makes the soda very Instagrammable. But when they taste it, she said, the overriding reaction is that it’s a very refreshing beverage. The health and sustainability aspects are important, but are not consumers' top priorities.
“It was also part of our thesis early on that if we're going to have a big impact, we have to tackle a big market, and we have to appeal to a lot of consumers in that market, which means not compromising on taste,” Streuli said.
Guaglio said that they are concentrating on a full launch of the soda now, but Ful has bigger plans to expand beyond the beverage. Several products are in the pipeline now, she said, and the company is also hoping to trademark its spirulina ingredient so it can be available to others who want to use it.
“Scaling future-proof nutrition is our North Star,” Streuli added.
Color and more
In the case of Gavan, spirulina's vibrant natural blue made it easier for the startup to find proof of concept. But after removing the color, Cohen said Gavan can also create an umami-rich flavoring enhancement ingredient out of spirulina. The biomass that is left can make a brown colorant to take the place of caramel colors.
Gavan has also come up with a way to process the algae ingredient to remove the bitter taste, Cohen said.
The company's color represents a breakthrough in spirulina-derived blues. In its natural state, the microalgae's blue has been difficult to maintain in various applications of food and beverage, with differences in temperature and pH proving problematic for the color. Gavan’s technology is able to extract the proteins that make up the blue colorant while preserving their dimensions, Cohen said. The company then uses a proprietary treatment that makes the proteins resist both high temperatures and low pH, making it a good colorant for any beverage application.
“The first reaction to someone who receives the color is, ‘Wow. It's unique. It does not exist today,’ " Cohen said. “And it opens their minds to the application, opens their hearts about replacing a lot of the synthetic blues that are being used today in the market.”
Because of its current small scale, Gavan is first concentrating on commercializing the blue and caramel colors from spirulina. Cohen said potential clients are more excited about the colors than the flavor ingredient.
However, Gavan's colorants aren't just colors. Cohen said that all three of the company's spirulina products — the blue color, the umami flavor and the caramel color — have high levels of nutritious proteins. The umami flavor has a high amount of antioxidants as well, he said.
Back of the Yards is also more focused on nutrition, though the company's LinkedIn page is full of photos of blue confections, baked goods and drinks. Lerer said making nutritious, desirable and inexpensive ingredients from spirulina will help the company truly make a difference.
One area of focus for Back of the Yards is getting more spirulina into plant-based meat. It has patented a spirulina-derived heme ingredient, which Lerer said is derived from the algae to add depth and umami to plant-based meat. He said it’s not about the “bloody” taste, which is a hallmark of other plant-derived heme ingredients. Back of the Yards’ algae heme is non-GMO and not made by fermentation, Lerer said.
Back of the Yards has also worked to remove the bitterness from spirulina, and it is paying dividends. Lerer said the company is slowly ratcheting up the percentage of spirulina that it can put in a plant-based burger — which can lower ingredient costs and improve nutritional values. Lerer said he believes the company will be able to release a formulation for a plant-based burger that is 25% spirulina by this fall, and the company is “pretty close” with more that comes from innovative technology.
But do consumers want to eat a spirulina burger, even if it doesn't taste bad? Or anything else made with the microalgae? We Are The New Farmers' Guenther said that he is optimistic.
“I always like to say 100 years ago no one wanted to eat shrimp, and today shrimp is the most popular seafood," he said. "What we eat is changing constantly, and microalgae is something that is not like a completely new, completely outlandish thing that people are not familiar with. …There's a long cultural history of this type of food and it's just now something that we rediscover.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Jonas Guenther's name.