Certain strains of algae offer a host of advantages that could substantially improve the quality of dietary supplements and food ingredients. Incorporating unique blends of protein, fiber, micronutrients and non-starch polysaccharides, these extracts could serve as potential ingredients in veggie smoothies, dry mixes, protein replacements, fruit/vegetable mixes, protein bars and dozens of other foods and beverages. More broadly, apart from their potential in the dietary supplement/nutraceutical market, the versatility of algae points to their prospective role as a functional food ingredient.
Consumers are increasingly calling for less reliance on antibiotics, hormones and GMOs in food production. New strains of freshwater algae, never before utilized for human or animal consumption, are being studied for their promise to promote a healthy immune system and provide an ideal plant-based source of protein when mixed as a dry powder with other ingredients or excipients to create a finished product.
As with most algae, these new strains are green, clean and sustainable, and can be naturally grown for large-scale commercial use. Unlike some species of algae that have an unpleasant “fishy” odor, algal powders based on these strains are almost completely odorless and flavor-free. They are also free of heavy metals, harmful microbes and toxins. In additional to a digestible protein, these new strains also offer a very significant fiber component.
One specific, novel strain of filamentous freshwater algae has been shown to contain approximately 31,000 IU of Vitamin A in a 100g freeze-dried sample — more than in three ounces of liver. This same strain offers 118 mg of Vitamin C in a 100 g freeze-dried sample; a medium sized orange offers 70mg. By comparison, 100g of Spirulina algae has about 10mg of this vitamin. Additionally, 100g of this algal strain (in freeze-dried, non-concentrated natural form) holds 43g of protein and compares favorably against soy flour, fish protein powder and concentrated whey powder in 20 essential amino acids. Additionally, 100g of this same algal strain contains 79mg of calcium with good bioavailability.
Integration Into Commercial Products
Commercialization of new and novel algal species is underway with the aim of introducing algal biomass into the food market as a high-value ingredient. In a return to the basics, algae production facility managers are reassessing cultivation practices that avoid or minimize reliance on complex and costly fermentation systems, photobioreactors, panels and tubes commonly associated with microalgae production in favor of the more basic and cost-efficient models: a covered, shallow pond or hanging bags, constructed of inexpensive, readily available materials.
Most algae strains cultivated today can be spray-dried, belt-dried, drum-dried or freeze-dried depending on a product’s formulation requirement, ranging from a fine powder for better mixing properties to a compressed, flaked form that is more compact and delivers a solid nutritional payload. Because algae are single, microscopic cells, some of the drawbacks of processed plant-based protein, such as stringiness, pilling and phase separation are mitigated. And solvent-based extraction to boost protein content can be avoided, as well.
The versatility of applications is a key selling point for these novel algal strains and a prime motivation for their commercialization. They can be attractive to manufacturers of existing products such as vegan and veggie shakes, some of which can benefit from a boost in protein or fiber content. The same strategy can be applied to meal replacements, powdered supplements, energy bars and the like. Product positioning can be enhanced as a result of “new and improved” versions of existing products that incorporate both the nutritional benefits of an algal strain, as well as a clean, green and sustainable message to support brand image.
Claims and Objective Data
Algae strains currently in commercial cultivation contain high-value ingredients such as Omega-3 lipids, natural astaxanthin, beta glucans and bioavailable vitamins, among many others. In most cases, these high-value ingredients are free from contaminants or undesirable by-products, which can improve taste and stability of the algal product itself, in addition to health and nutrition claims.
For example, EPA lipid extracted from commercially cultivated algae will most likely have little or no mercury contamination, as compared to EPA extracted from fish oils. Research into on-starch polysaccharides produced by certain algae reveal that these algal by-products exhibit a wide range of health benefits, which can be promoted with general structure/function claims, or with qualified health claims, provided ample scientific evidence is available. Some of the claims that can be made and substantiated include healthy cholesterol balance, robust immune health, joint pain and muscle recovery after exertion, digestive efficiency and gut health in general.
In sum, although algae may occupy a relatively modest position in the kingdom of life, their potential importance in food and beverage consumption is anything but modest. As our understanding of the various benefits of specific algal strains continues to grow, we are likely to witness their greater utilization to the benefit of food and beverage manufacturers and consumers alike.
Andrew A. Dahl is President and CEO of ZIVO Bioscience, a biotech/agtech R&D company engaged in the commercialization of nutritional and medicinal products derived from proprietary algal strains.