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Seaweed (a macroalgae) has long been a dietary staple in Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Korea, while consumption of spirulina (a microalgae) dates to the Aztecs, who harvested it from the surface of Lake Texcoco. In the United States, algae may be best known in the food industry as a source of key hydrocolloids, including carrageenan, agar, and alginates. Today, food and beverage uses of algae continue to expand.
The global $4.7 billion algae products market is expected to reach $6.4 billion by 2026, increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 6.3%; North America has the largest share (MarketsandMarkets 2021). Functional and nutritional attributes, as well as the potential sustainability benefits of algae, are driving demand and positioning it as a promising food of the future.
“Algae has a number of interesting traits that make it stand out as a future food crop, including high quality protein and overall nutritional content, promising scalability and cost, and consumer familiarity,” says Priera Panescu, senior scientist–plant-based specialist at The Good Food Institute. “Moreover, cultivating algae requires little to no habitable land or agrochemicals, so algae’s use as a crop would contribute significantly to a more sustainable food system.”
Algae is a broad term used to describe aquatic, eukaryotic organisms that can undergo photosynthesis but lack the vascular system and structures such as leaves, stems, and roots that are found in plants. Microalgae like Chlorella are unicellular, while macroalgae, such as red and green seaweed, are multicellular. Cyanobacteria (so-called blue-green algae) have traditionally been grouped with algae despite being prokaryotic. Arthrospira platensis, or spirulina, is a well-known cyanobacteria.
The algae category is extremely diverse and includes anywhere from 30,000 to over 1 million species (Guiry 2012). While only a tiny fraction of them have been consumed by people, the nutritional benefits of those species are impressive. Chlorella and spirulina, for example, contain up to 70% dry weight protein with all the essential amino acids, while edible seaweeds are known for their fiber content, particularly their soluble fiber (Wells et al. 2017).
Other key nutrients that can be found in algae include omega-3 fatty acids (docosahexaenoic [DHA] and eicosapentaenoic [EPA]), vitamins (B12, C, and E), minerals (calcium and potassium), and a wide range of carotenoids, including lutein, zeaxanthin, astaxanthin, and beta-carotene. In some cases, it’s the functional properties of algae—such as thickening, gelling, and emulsifying—that make them important to the food industry.
A current research initiative gives insights into what might be next for algae. One project at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology aims at texturizing red seaweed proteins to create seafood alternatives. A Technion team, led by Yoav Livney in the Department of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, previously worked on extracting proteins and starches from macroalgae using the emerging technology of pulsed electric field processing.
Now the team has turned its attention to algae-based fish substitutes that capitalize on the nutritional benefits of algal protein, the texturization properties of algal biopolymers, and even the potentially similar “sea flavor,” explains Livney. “These are exciting times to be a food engineer and tackle these important global sustainability, animal welfare, and health challenges,” says Livney.
New algae-based bioactives will likely be another key growth area for algae ingredients. Algaia is one company at the forefront of this research, discovering and developing new bioactives from algae lipids, proteins, micronutrients, and pigments.
Algaia is evaluating bioactive properties ranging from antioxidant to antimicrobial to immune-stimulative—all potentially valuable to the food and dietary supplement industries. In addition, the photoprotective effects of certain algae are useful to the personal care industry, while the biostimulant effects are being tapped in agriculture to reduce fertilizer usage.
Looking ahead, the sheer versatility of algae will help ensure a steady stream of innovation in algae ingredients. Consumer interest in algae is expected to keep growing, along with algae’s reputation as a healthy and sustainable ingredient.