In this article market analysts Frost & Sullivan investigate the various applications for food ingredients sourced from algae, the potential health benefits of algae and what the future holds.
As early as 600 BC, algae were considered a delicacy in China! Since the eighth century, six species of algae were used in household cooking in Japan. Today, over twenty varieties are a part of home menus in Japan. Two men were largely responsible for introducing edible algae to the western world -- British scientist Dr Christopher Hills and Japanese scientist Dr Hiroshi Nakamura. Their books, Food from Sunlight (co-authored, 1978) and Spirulina - Food for a Hungry World: A Pioneer's Story (by Dr Hiroshi Nakamura, 1982), outlined research efforts since 1962 and proposed edible algae as the superfood to solve the world's hunger and nutrition problems.
What are the Applications?
In the West today, there is widespread interest in algae as nutrient-packed health food. That is not to say that algae have only now found applications in western diets.
Carrageenan (extracted from species of red algae) has been used as a stabilising and gelling agent in foods such as chocolate, milk, instant puddings, frostings, and creamed soups.
Agar, a colloidal agent derived from red algae, is used to substitute gelatin, as an anti-drying agent in breads and pastry, and also for thickening and gelling. It is used in the manufacture of frozen dairy products, processed cheese, mayonnaise, puddings, creams, and jellies.
Alginates (from brown algae) thicken water-based products, also making them creamier and more stable over wide differences in temperature, pH value, and time. A typical application is in preventing ice crystals from forming in ice cream.
Green algae's pigment, Beta-Carotene, is used as a natural food colorant. Another natural colorant is Phycocyanin, derived from Spirulina (a blue-green alga).
Sceptics may allow for algae proving useful as concealed food ingredient. But what, they ask, is the need for getting that 'smelly green slime of seaweed' into pills, drinks, meal bars, snack bites, soups, broth, brews, and right onto the dinner table? The answer lies in the health benefits algal products offer.
What are the Health Benefits?
Blue-green algae contain amino acids, vitamins, and trace minerals that tone up the immune system, raise energy levels, and improve general health. Their high chlorophyll and phytochemical content make them effective antioxidants that help prevent cell damage and aid detoxification in the body. Compared to other protein sources, algae are low in fat and high in fibre.
Beta-Carotene is known to help fight particular types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases and phycocyanin is believed to strengthen the immune system and fight cancer.
Nutrition or Delusion?
Many people put the fervent testimonials of improved health (after consuming edible algae) down to the placebo effect. Improved well being could be the product of the psychological benefits of subjective delusion. You believe this pill is good for you, and it will be! It could also be the result of the body performing its own healing and revitalising functions.
Many suspect that, taken in the recommended doses, an alga pill's nutrient value may be negligible. Also, consumer complaints of nausea and diarrhoea have thrown some doubt over how digestible algal products really are.
Defeating the Purpose
Ironically, it is the algal product manufacturing community that has been working most against the cause of the superfood it strives to promote. Cost-cutting, unscientific and unethical practices in selecting, harvesting, and processing the seaweed have resulted in the marketing of some products with higher than allowed levels of impurity and toxicity.
For instance, in 1999, Health Canada's survey revealed that many non-Spirulina blue-green algal products, harvested from natural lakes, contained microcystins (a toxin) above acceptable levels stipulated by Health Canada and the World Health Organisation. Exaggerated therapeutic claims (that address every conceivable ailment without scientific substantiation) have also dented credibility. In truth, the surfeit of claims and counter claims from competing brands has done more to confuse than clarify.
Food for the Future?
Despite these limitations, there are several trends working in favour of algae. For instance, the increased emphasis on 'all-natural' foods is strengthening the pitch for algal products. The relatively high yield per acre, of land and water used for alga harvesting, will also add points on the ecosystem-friendly and productivity counts. The ability of algae to rapidly replenish their numbers after harvesting also puts them in the sustainable farming bracket.
But if this rediscovery of algae has to prove beneficial to consumers today, then those championing the cause must spend some time in self-examination. Harvesting must be monitored with rigorous quality control. Claims on algal products must be backed by thorough scientific research. Efforts must also be made to help algae shed the archaic but prevalent image of unpalatable 'pond scum'. Only then will this ancient food win over more converts in the new millennium, and bask in the sunlight of a global following.
Ivan Fernandez, Frost & Sullivan Food Vertical Portal Manager