Is microalgae the sustainable food of the future?

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The aquatic ecosystem could help our food chain. The demand for food is increasing and more sustainable production systems are needed. That is why Europe is opening up to the algae sector.

Humans have eaten macroalgae for a long time, but now attention is turning to their smaller cousins, microalgae, for their nutritional potential.

In Pataias, Portugal, Allmicroalgae is developing algae-based applications for foods such as cookies, bread, snacks and spreads.

Food engineer Anabela Raymundo works for the University of Lisbon and helps develop these microalgae products. She tells us that “It is extremely important to find alternative food sources that are sustainable and also have nutritional benefits for humans. Microalgae are extremely important ingredients because they are rich in proteins and bioactive compounds, and therefore an extremely important source for nutrition and can be used in many foods “.

There are more than 72,500 species of algae that live in both freshwater and marine water. The larger ones are called macroalgae and make up 20% of all species. The remaining 80% consists of microalgae.

These unicellular microalgae begin their journey to become a food source in a laboratory in flasks containing a liquid culture. Each microalga has a different nutritional value. Some of the nutrients they contain are essential amino acids, essential fatty acids including omega-3, omega-6, omega-7, and vitamins like A, D, and E. Two of the most popular nutrients for human consumption are chlorella and spirulina.

Joana Silva is the technical research and development manager at Allmicroalgae. She describes how they work with algae in the company. You start with the analysis, with which you can judge whether the growth of the microalgae in the photobioreactors is going well or not. “We have to know what is happening in the cell in order to determine the total protein value and the magnesium used in the nutrient medium,” she explains. They are also looking for iron and “several micro and macronutrients that are essential to the culture and allow the algae to optimize their nutrient consumption”.

Algae cultivation requires precise procedures in order to achieve abundant biomass yields. Traditional yeast, such as that used to make beer, activates the fermentation process. The culture is then injected into large photobioreactors, where it grows until it reaches the right quality standard. It is then harvested and processed into a fine powder.

The algae are inoculated in reactors, where the culture volume is increased with each new inoculation. This continues until there are enough cells to make it worth moving on to the processing stage. The processing stage aims to concentrate the cells to then produce a concentrated paste for the aquaculture market. This concentrate can also be made into a powder that can be used as an ingredient or dietary supplement.

The interest of the food industry in microalgae is increasing rapidly due to new consumer habits, sustainability of production, but also for health reasons. The managing director of Allmicroalgae says the plant-based protein is not only good for a vegetarian or vegan diet, but also for “people who are sick and have difficulty eating high-protein products”.

As part of the European Union’s farm-to-fork strategy, the Commission aims to exploit the full potential of the algae industry by mid-2022.

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