Microalgae for food: Denmark backs ‘ultra-sustainable’ protein source for new ingredient

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Microalgae are cultivated with surplus nutritional ingredients from beer production. Image source: Danish Food Cluster
Microalgae are cultivated with surplus nutritional ingredients from beer production. Image source: Danish Food Cluster

Related tags microalgae Brewery Denmark

A public-private collaboration aimed at developing a high-protein, plant-based ingredient for food manufacturers has received backing from the Danish government.

The ‘Microalgae for food’ project is being financed by Denmark’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science via its networking body, Danish Food Innovation.

According to the grant arrangements, Danish Food Innovation is contributing DKK 750,000 (€100,000).

Research partners the Technological Institute of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen are collaborating on the project, as are microalgae-based food ingredients company NatuRem Bioscience, membrane filtration firm Sani Membranes, and Danish Brewery Kunstbryggeriet Far & Søn.

These small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and research institutions will focus on Chlorella vulgaris​ – a variety of microalgae with ‘food robustness’ and ‘high protein’ content.

The goal is to develop a microalgae-based ingredient for food manufacturers to be sold by NatuRem Bioscience.

As Chlorella vulgaris ​was already on the market in Europe ahead of 15 May 1997, the new ingredient will not be subject to novel food laws in Europe.

More protein, more sustainably

The project comes as Denmark looks to identify novel, climate-friendly protein sources. According to the country’s National Bioeconomy Panel – set up to promote the development of a sustainable bioeconomy – there is a pressing need for more sustainably produced protein.

In June 2018, the National Bioeconomy Panel released 15 recommendations concerning the ‘proteins of the future’, noted National Bioeconomy Panel member and Director of Innovation at the Danish Technological Institute, Anne Maria Hansen.

“Among other things, it states that research and education efforts should be undertaken to promote the supply of protein value chains. 

“The project ‘Microalgae for foods’ will precisely address the need for new protein value chains and at the same time microalgae-based foods will support an increasing demand for a more plant-based diet​.”

microalgae phloxii
The public-private collaboration aims to bring a microalgae-based ingredient to market ©GettyImages/phloxii

Not only does microalgae protein contain a complete amino acid profile and contain Omega-3 fatty acids, but its production feeds into the sustainability agenda.

The unicellular species, typically found in freshwater and marine systems, has a superior protein yield compared to several other plant-based protein sources, such as pulses, legumes, and soybeans.

The Netherlands’ Wageningen University reported the protein yield from microalgae​ is 4-15 tons/Ha/year compared to terrestrial crops production of 1.1 tons/Ha/year, 1-2 tons/Ha/year and 0.6-1.2 tons/Ha/year for wheat, pulse legumes, and soybeans respectively.

And where the production of land-based crops accounts for roughly 75% of total global freshwater, marine microalgae can be cultivated without freshwater. No pesticides are required as the algae are grown in a closed system.

Further, microalgae are not reliant on arable land, unlike conventional agricultural production of animal protein sources and terrestrial crops.

Upcycling brewer’s spent grains

The microalgae will be fed on brewer’s spent grains (BSG) in order to upcycle waste from the food system.

BSG is the main by-product of the beer brewing industry, with approximately 42 million tonnes of spent barley discarded around the world every year. It will be provided by Svendborg-based brewery Kunstbryggeriet Far & Søn.

NatuRem Bioscience CTO Christian Kjølby said he was particularly taken by this side-stream innovation.

“What is particularly interesting about this project is the sustainability aspect. We brew the algae on side streams from the beer industry, we use new low-energy process methods and not forgetting the grateful algae that grows really efficiently​.”

The CTO suggested he is confident the collaboration will lead to the development of a new protein ingredient for industry. Results of the project is expected by the end of 2020.

"The​ algae is a whole new potential food ingredient, which makes it super interesting to work with, and our expectation is that we finally have a finished protein source in powder form that can be used directly in the industry​ ," said Kjølby.

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