Algae has the potential to become a common feature on our dinner tables in the coming years. As the world’s population continues to grow and the demand for protein-rich food increases, algae may well establish itself as a fundamental dietary element. This idea is supported by a recent study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, led by researchers from the University of California, San Diego, which presents a compelling case for algae as the “sustainable superfood” of the future. Previously, algae was primarily studied for its potential as a biofuel source, but now it’s gaining recognition as a valuable food source.
Dr. Stephen Mayfield, a co-author of the study and director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, emphasized the urgency of enhancing protein production in the face of climate change, deforestation, and a global population of eight billion people. Algae, in this context, refers to a wide variety of aquatic organisms, ranging from large kelp and seaweed to microscopic single-celled species. However, this study specifically focuses on the cultivation of microalgae, which includes thousands of microscopic algal species and photosynthetic organisms like cyanobacteria found in various aquatic environments.
Algae stands out for its impressive nutritional profile. It boasts protein content ranging from 27% to 70%, far surpassing traditional protein sources like eggs (approximately 13%) and meat (averaging around 22%). Additionally, it is highly digestible and rich in essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in fish.
Algae’s production capabilities are remarkable. Research from 2014 revealed that algae can produce 167 times more useful biomass per year than corn when utilizing the same land area. Some models suggest that existing algae strains could potentially replace 25% of European protein consumption and 50% of total vegetable oil consumption when grown on currently unused land not suited for conventional crops. Some strains can even thrive in saltwater, brackish water, and wastewater from dairy farms. Algae can be cultivated in a variety of settings, from open-air ponds to above-ground bioreactors, and it requires significantly less water per ton of biomass produced compared to traditional crops like corn and soybeans.
Algae’s versatility is another major advantage. It can take various forms as an edible product, such as bulk protein suitable for protein bars or processed foods needing higher protein content. Algae can also be incorporated into specific food items like noodles or used to enhance the omega-3 content of fish meal. In the future, it may even be transformed into textured algae protein that resembles traditional animal proteins like chicken or beef, currently achieved with soy and pea protein.
Despite its potential, convincing the public to embrace algae as a food source may pose a challenge. However, Dr. Mayfield points out that algae is already a common food source in many cultures, particularly in Japan and Asia. While it may not have a well-established history in the U.S. and Europe, it offers a healthy alternative to red meat, which many dietary health studies recommend reducing. Mayfield believes that once people give algae a try, they are likely to develop a taste for it.
This research represents an exciting exploration of algae’s potential as a future food source, with a focus on optimizing algae strains through a combination of traditional breeding and molecular engineering. As algae gains global recognition as a food crop, it can be tailored to suit different tastes, preferences, and nutritional requirements, much like traditional terrestrial crops.