Palatable Proteins for Complex Palates Toni Tarver | March 2016, Volume 70, No.3

As the demand for protein increases, some consumers forego conventional sources of protein while others cannot tolerate them. These alternatives may satisfy their protein needs.

 A flower on a pond covered with duckweed.
People who consume vegetarian or vegan diets and people who avoid certain foods that trigger allergic reactions comprise expanding segments of the American population: About 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian, another 2% identify as vegan, and approximately 15 million Americans have food allergies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of food allergies is increasing and will continue to escalate. Moreover, because of consumers’ increased awareness of the positive effects plant foods have on health as well as their concerns about environmental resources and unsustainable agricultural practices, the popularity of plant-based diets is growing. The consumption of protein sources that are not animal-derived and are free of known allergens will thus become more common, and they are projected to constitute 50% of the alternative protein market by 2054. Accordingly, algae-derived and novel plant-based proteins are viable alternatives to protein foods that vegetarians, vegans, and consumers with food allergies or dietary restrictions cannot or will not eat.

Algae-Derived Protein
When most people think of sources of protein from the sea, they immediately think of seafood. Fish and other marine animals are excellent sources of protein and other essential nutrients, but they are not the only protein-rich sources that oceans provide. Many forms of algae are also good sources of protein. Algae are a diverse group of photosynthetic organisms that are chiefly aquatic, contain chlorophyll and other pigment molecules, and generate more oxygen than all the plants in the world. Using solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into their food, they are responsible for nearly half of the photosynthesis that occurs on Earth. As a consequence, algae play a significant role in removing excess carbon dioxide from the environment. Algae are categorized in two forms: macroalgae and microalgae.

Macroalgae are seaweeds (such as kelp and dulse) and other multicellular algae that grow in oceans as well as lakes, rivers, and ponds. These organisms are visible to the naked eye and can be classified into three groups: brown algae, red algae, and green algae. Conversely, microalgae are single-cell organisms that can be seen only with the aid of a microscope—that is, until millions of them link together to form algal blooms. They can grow in a variety of places but occur mostly in fresh and marine water. Microalgae are enormously diverse, constituting tens of thousands of species, so a simple color categorization is impossible, but collectively they form the basis of the entire food chain. Both macroalgae and microalgae are nutrient-dense, possessing varying amounts of vitamins A, C, E, folate, and others; calcium, iodine, iron, and other essential minerals and trace elements; omega-3 fatty acids and other lipids; carbohydrates; and protein. In fact, the protein content of seaweeds ranges 3%–50%, and the protein content of microalgae is even higher, ranging up to 70%. These high levels of protein and other nutrients in algae have food and ingredient companies touting alga-derived protein as functional food ingredients and food products that are free of known allergens.

Super Seaweeds
Among seaweeds, red seaweeds tend to have the highest protein content, and the red seaweed species Porphyra, known as laver or nori, has the greatest: 100 grams of nori contains up to 50 grams of protein (that’s a protein content up to 50%), which means it has more protein than wheat germ or sunflower seeds. Nori has an amino acid profile similar to that of peas or beans, contains a high amount of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and is a good source of vitamin B12, which is rare for a food that isn’t animal-derived. Commonly used to wrap sushi rolls, dried nori is sold in sheets that can be either cut into strips to wrap rice and fish or cut into small pieces to sprinkle onto soups and noodle dishes. Nori is very popular in Asian countries, particularly Japan, so it is in abundant production there, but a few U.S. food companies produce nori products as well. Eden Foods has eight nori food products, including Nori Sea Vegetable, untoasted sheets of dried nori; Nori Krinkles, a mild and sweet snack made with toasted nori; and Nori Maki Crackers, brown-rice crackers wrapped with a strip of nori. In addition, the company Maine Coast Sea Vegetables has been developing and selling products made with nori and other seaweeds since 1971, growing the business from selling 200 pounds of seaweed a year in the United States to harvesting and selling about 100,000 pounds of seaweed annually. The company now offers eight organic North Atlantic varieties of seaweed. Its nori products include Laver/Wild Atlantic Nori and Sushi Nori Sheets in toasted and untoasted versions.

The red seaweed species Palmaria palmata, known as dulse, is another good source of protein: its protein content can be up to 25%. Dulse also contains vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, C, and D; minerals such as iodine, iron, magnesium and potassium; and an unusually high concentration of EPA (nearly 60% of total fatty acid content) (van Ginneken et al. 2011). In Iceland, dulse is consumed in dried form as a snack and added to salads, bread dough, and curds. In Nova Scotia, Canada, dulse is used to make sea parsley, which is sprinkled on dishes as a substitute for salt and to add a salty sea flavor. In Wales, dulse is used to make laverbread, a purée served with toast, bacon, and shellfish or rolled in oatmeal and fried in bacon fat. And fine cuisine featuring red seaweed is gracing the menus at Michelin-starred restaurants in Scotland and Ireland.

A strain of dulseResearch and innovation by Oregon State University and Teagasc, an agriculture and food development authority in Ireland, is allowing more products made with dulse to be developed and commercially marketed. Last year, a patented strain of dulse growing at Oregon State University made national headlines because of its ability to mimic the flavor of bacon when it’s deep-fried. Staff at the university’s Food Innovation Center used that dulse to develop several products, and through a partnership with New Seasons Market, one of them made its commercial debut in January 2016: New Seasons Market Tamari with Dulse Seaweed Dressing & Marinade, which is available only at New Seasons Markets in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash.

More than 4,000 miles away, Teagasc has a number of projects underway to boost the growth and harvest of both dulse and laver along Ireland’s coasts and use them to develop food products with beneficial health effects. Maria Hayes, scientific research officer, Teagasc Food Research Centre, says that the proteins in Palmaria and Porphyra seaweeds may be as effective as medications in reducing high blood pressure and the risk of stroke and heart attack but without side effects (Fitzgerald et al. 2014). Hayes highlights other benefits of red seaweeds: “[Palmaria palmata] protein hydrolysates generated using corolase and alcalase enzymes have potential for use as functional food ingredients for prevention of diabetes and obesity,” Hayes says. The protein content of dulse, nori, and other red seaweeds “is often higher than that found in species from green and brown seaweeds. The usefulness of the seaweed protein depends on the amino acid profile of the protein, and this is not known for all seaweed species to date,” Hayes points out. Teagasc’s initial product development is focused on adding seaweed to traditional Irish breads.