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Yes, algae is green and slimy – but it could also be the future of food

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/08/2019 Brian Kateman

Spirulina powder in a wooden spoon © Getty Spirulina powder in a wooden spoon The next time someone asks where you get your protein, the answer could be the green stuff.

While vegans and vegetarians steer clear of fish and shellfish, there’s another kind of seafood we need to talk about – and it could be the solution to a lot of problems.

Algae, that green, slimy stuff you probably cringe at when you see it in a body of water, is being looked at by nutritionists and entrepreneurs in the food space as a potential godsend that’s been more or less untapped until late.

Of course, the health food niche is no stranger to algae. If you have been to a smoothie shop anytime lately, you have probably seen spirulina, a strain of algae, on the menu. And those mermaid bowls or unicorn lattes you may have come across? They’re made with E3 Blue Majik, another strain of algae.

As smoothie fans already know, these strains of algae boast impressive health cred. They’re packed with vitamins and antioxidants, and are more protein-dense than most vegetables. It could also be another way for vegans and vegetarians to get enough of the right kinds of omega-3 fatty acids in their diets.

While nuts and seeds can be a good source of omega-3s, they only contain one of three main kinds, known as alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. The two other kinds, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are primarily linked to all the hyped-up health benefits you have probably heard about omega-3s, from positive effects on mental health to inflammation. The human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but not very effectively. Microalgae is the only known plant source of DHA and can help raise levels of EPA in the body. The reason fish tend to be so high in these two kinds of omega-3s is because they subsist on microalgae themselves. So, the plant-based answer to fish oil supplements might be simply eating what the fish eat.

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But the potential use of algae is much bigger than simply as an occasional supplement to a vegan diet. There are a few traits that make algae unique from other food sources. Algae can grow very quickly and in even the most inhospitable of environments. It doesn’t even require fresh water (hence its ability to grow in the ocean). Essentially, it’s a crop with minimal needs. All of this, combined with its remarkable nutrient density, is huge.

Some startup companies have picked up on this and are working with it eagerly. The richness of algae, combined with its minimal resource requirements, makes it a promising and sustainable nutrition solution. Triton Algae Innovations and iWi are two companies currently exploring what is possible with algae. Triton grows its algae in labs and iWi farms theirs in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. According to their website, iWi’s algae farms produce more “essential amino acids and vital nutrients per acre and gallon of water than traditional plant or animal based farming”, all without disrupting marine ecosystems. Both companies have an interest in sustainable nutrition and recognize algae as a potentially low-input, highly effective way to feed the world.

But what they have in mind isn’t simply supplements and bitter green juices. What’s important to know about algae is that there are hundreds of thousands of strains of it, and only some smell and taste like the scummy green stuff you might have in mind. IWi is already selling supplements, but as their CEO, Miguel Calatayud, told CNN Business, the strain of algae that they farm is “virtually imperceptible” and could theoretically be used in a variety of foods without changing the flavour or scent.

Polluted water with algae. Green and yellow colors. Natural textured background © Getty Polluted water with algae. Green and yellow colors. Natural textured background Triton, too, is experimenting with versatile uses for algae. One of their ventures is algae-derived heme, the complex that makes the Impossible Burger “bleed”. Their heme, however, doesn’t require genetic engineering, which means it can be labelled as GMO-free, according to Forbes. In that same interview, Triton’s CEO, Xun Wang, asserted that their algae can be used not just for techy meal replacements, but as an ingredient to make food-foods such as pasta and veggie burgers.

And some strains of algae are ready to cook right out of nature. Edible seaweed is nothing new (as sushi lovers know), but food scientists have begun to look past its traditional uses. You might recall reports from a few years back about scientists at Oregon State University breeding a new strain of red algae that’s highly nutritious and, supposedly, tastes like bacon. Something like that becoming commercially viable would be a great win for foodies, environmentalists and health nuts alike.

It’s exciting that food tech startups are thinking seriously about not only how to sustainably solve global hunger, but how their solutions can be integrated into real life. From smoothie bowls to bright green and yellow, nutrient-dense pasta, algae might just be the next breakthrough in innovative and sustainable nutrition.

  • Brian Kateman is president and co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation

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