- Unilever is partnering up with biotech startup Algenuity, which develops microalgae, to explore the use of this single-cell organism as an ingredient in the food and beverage space. Financial details of the partnership were not disclosed, the companies said in a statement.
- Algenuity specializes in a microalgae called Chlorella vulgaris, which the company says it has been able to improve for mainstream use by removing the bitter notes and vibrant green color using a chemical-free method. The company will work with Unilever's foods and refreshment division to explore applications for its Chlorella Colours alternative protein platform.
- Chlorella is a nutrient-rich, plant-based source of protein and fiber, with a low environmental footprint. The ingredient also is high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.
Unilever has been working toward developing a more plant-centric portfolio, and the company has now arrived at the point where a third of its products are plant-based. However, along with this transition comes the consideration as to what sort of ingredients will replace the animal-derived ones.
While soy and pea protein are popular choices, there are potential pitfalls associated with these options. Pea protein has become immensely popular in recent years, driving the price up and causing some experts to worry that the supply may not be able to keep up with demand. Pea protein also has been criticized for having a bitter or earthy taste. Soy has its own set of concerns with a study published in the Journal of Science showing that a significant amount of soy exports from Brazil – the second largest exporter of the ingredient – are associated with deforestation.
Microalgae presents a potentially more sustainable option for Unilever, which is looking to transition toward low-impact protein sources.
The applications of microalgae are numerous. From algae oil, which can replace palm oil in baked goods, margarine and ice cream to a protein source for faux seafood alternatives, the ingredient could have several uses in Unilever’s expansive portfolio.
The ingredient is a single-celled organism that can be grown in a controlled environment and produce about 70,000 pounds of oil per acre. Not only can the microalgae be highly productive but it is not linked to deforestation, habitat destruction, climate change and indigenous rights abuses. However, the ingredient is a more expensive alternative to both soy and pea protein, Andrew Spicer, the CEO of Algenuity, told Food Ingredients First.
Other companies also have begun testing the limits of this single-celled ingredient. The French startup Algama created a vegan mayonnaise using microalgae. Such a use for this sustainable protein may be of interest to Unilever, which has Hellmann’s and Sir Kensington's vegan mayonnaise products.
Other companies have shown this ingredient — while still niche — can be widely used. Dean Foods' Horizon Organics milk line has omega-3s in the form of algal oil, and Mondelez has used microalgae in some of its baked items. TerraVia even made an algal flour with the goal of replacing dairy fats, vegetable fats and egg yolks to allow manufacturers to produce products that are lower in saturated fat, calories and cholesterol.
There are many possibilities for how Unilever may use this new ingredient. The company could reinforce the nutritional profile of its plant-based acquisitions such as the Vegetarian Butcher, or it may opt to reformulate vegan versions of some of its more iconic brands like Ben & Jerry's, which has a history of supporting sustainable initiatives.
The CPG giant could even look toward using microalgae as a natural color solution. Whatever the application, the collaboration with Algenuity will allow Unilever to promote this enhanced plant protein whose neutral taste profile and wide range of uses may help expand its popularity in food and beverage offerings.