Spirulina strength: What level of promise does this small but mighty micro algae truly have?

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock / egal
©iStock / egal
As Spirulina swims in the spotlight, touted for its dense nutrition and versatility, many onlookers say the future is bright for this blue-green algae but success is not without its challenges.

The world's spirulina market will reach an estimated €1.6bn ($2bn) by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 10% each year from 2016, according to Persistence Market Research. Within this, the global spirulina extracts market​ should generate €220m ($270m) by 2025 and Europe is expected to maintain its position as the helm, reaching an estimated worth of €70.4m ($86.1m) by 2025.

Rachit Kumar, senior research analyst at Persistence Market Research, said part of the reason Europe holds the lion's share in spirulina is because consumers in the region are “very open” ​to trying new products.

“The acceptation ratio of any product is quite high compared to any other region. Germany, France and the UK are the countries where high frequent launches of products has been observed,”​ Kumar told NutraIngredients.

In addition, he said Europe is where some of the biggest names in the global nutraceutical industry are based, both product and ingredient manufacturers, so innovation and new product development around spirulina is naturally somewhat concentrated in the region.

In 2017, Europe saw the highest number of spirulina-containing food, drink and dietary supplement product launches in the world, representing 70% of global launches in the market, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database (GNPD). Asia-Pacific represented 14% of product launches; North America 10%; the Middle East and Africa 5%; and Latin America 1%.

'Maritime flair' - beyond nutraceuticals?

The blue-green micro algae is typically regarded as a superfood, thanks to its iron, protein and vitamin density; high in vitamins A, C and E and beta-carotene and therefore rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Spirulina contains around 60-70% protein per weight and 1g provides the equivalent of an estimated 1.8g of iron.

Nutraceuticals continues to represent the largest application category for spirulina worldwide, according to Persistence Market Research, representing close to half of the spirulina extracts market value in 2017 at €89.4m (US$109.3m).

But, whilst nutraceuticals is forecast to continue “dominating”​ the market in the coming years, new product development trends suggest the balance could soon tip towards food and beverage.

Data from Mintel's GNPD shows that in 2017, the majority of spirulina-containing product launches were in the sugar & gum confectionery sector (45%). This was then followed by chocolate confectionery (12%), bakery (9%), desserts & ice cream (7%), juice drinks (6%), and vitamin/mineral dietary supplements (5%).

Julia Buech, global food and drink analyst at Mintel, said: “Algae is starting to play a more prominent role as a key ingredient across a wide range of food and drink sectors, acting as a premium agent and adding maritime flair.”

“It's natural green colour means that it can be used to achieve or support an image of health alongside other literally 'green' ingredients such as kale or wheatgrass, for example in smoothies where spirulina finds a natural home,” ​she said.

Kumar agreed that opportunity for the micro algae stretches far beyond nutraceuticals: “The basic growth opportunity lies in how innovatively spirulina is offered to its customers.”

The beverage category in particular, he said, is seeing lots of spirulina innovation. For example, in 2016 US Biotech startup Spira Inc. launched a drink made entirely from live spirulina; PepsiCo's Naked Juice introduced a spirulina smoothie; and in India Raw Pressery made a range of cold-pressed juices containing spirulina as a key ingredient.

“The main reason for introducing spirulina into beverages is just to offer the high nutrition value of spirulina in the products. Apart from spirulina being very nutritive, it also helps to add a good texture as well as colour to the final product,”​ he said.

However, Kumar said the dairy segment is set to “largely contribute” ​to growth of spirulina use in food and beverages in the coming years, with spirulina dairy products poised to reach a value of around €14.7m ($18m) by the end of 2025. The micro algae, he said, works well in a variety of dairy products, including dehydrated milk powders and cheese.

But at what cost?

Will Grimwade, consumer analyst at GlobalData, agreed that spirulina is an extremely versatile ingredient with “great potential”, ​but said current costs are creating significant barriers to growth.

The typical price range of spirulina in powder form ranges anywhere from €0.03-€0.04 per gram, totting up costs of between €36-€40 per kilo. This compares to average, typical pricing of whey and pea protein powders at around €0.01-€0.02 per gram.

“The high cost of it as an ingredient means it struggles to compete with meat or pea protein for gym goers, and its use as a superfood is limited so far to being used as an additive in very small quantities for general 'superfood' products where it has a limited nutritional impact,” ​Grimwade said.

High cost also impacts the spirulina producers, he said, potentially explaining why a number of startups, including US firms Renewable Algal Energy and Bioprocess Algae, have recently ceased business.

“If supply can be expanded by more stability in the market, then perhaps prices can come down and predominantly spirulina based products can become more common,” ​he said.

Buech agreed that when availability of spirulina ingredients in food and beverages increases, it has a “bright future”,​ particularly because it aligns with the demands of modern consumers who “are exploring more plant-centric, superfood-charged diets”.

Another logistical issue for spirulina is the newfound concern around supply chain control after contamination woes last year. In December, 2017, French authorities issued warnings​ on the risk of spirulina dietary supplements being contaminated by cyanotoxins, bacteria or metallic trace elements.

Buech said such concerns reinforce the need for“full disclosure” ​by industry because “in the modern 'post-truth reality, consumers require complete and total transparency from food and drink companies”.

Growth push – natural colours and malnutrition needs

Kumar said the nutritional value of spirulina is becoming increasingly recognized by governments across the globe for its potential as a superfood to tackle malnutrition and deficiencies – one potential push that could assist growth.

“The governments of many countries, such as India, Angola and Ghana, are actively supporting the local spirulina market and building a strong gateway for the development of this superfood which can change the course of food for the entire race,” ​he said.

Robert Henrikson, green business entrepreneur and recognised algae expert having written and published numerous books on the topic, said that over the past decade there has been an emergence of “hundreds of smaller spirulina farms”​ across Asia, Europe, Africa and now the Americas.

The potential in extracts is stronger now than ever, he said, particularly in light of the US and EU approval of natural blue food colour ​from spirulina. Interestingly, Henrikson said its intense green-blue colour comes from its phycocyanin, chlorophyll and carotene content - where much of the medical benefits associated with spirulina are found.

“Published scientific research continues to document spirulina and phycocyanin medical benefits for immune system, detoxification of heavy metals, anti-inflammatory properties, healthy gut microbiome, antioxidant cell protection and anti-ageing.”

Henrikson said the future for spirulina and other algae forms stretched even further than food, beverages and nutraceuticals.

“Inevitably, for a sustainable world, we will be consuming algae in everything. Not just in foods or protein products, but a wide variety from feeds to materials to fine chemicals. Just like phycocyanin from spirulina replaces toxic chemical blue food colour with a natural, safe blue, algae will offer safe, natural alternatives to many toxic chemicals we use today.”

Related topics: Science, Healthy foods

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