Microalgae as an Alternative Protein Source

Originally Published: June 21, 2017
Last Updated: June 23, 2021
Microalgae as an Alternative Protein Source. A microscopic view of microalgae - a potential protein source.

Algal proteins have become a strategic factor for global food and beverage industries, aqua-farming and animal nutrition. Gary Brenner, Owner, Brenner pharma/food Business Development, reminded the audience that algae is a broad category, in his Special Session presentation entitled “Microalgae as an Alternative Protein Source: A Developing Story.” The distinction between micro and macro is important. There are differences between environmental diversities, and the technology and purification of ingredients. Special Session graphic

Traditionally, research has focused on Spirulina, Chlorella, Porphyry, Nannochloropsis, astaxanthin, Dunaliella and fucoxanthin. Yet the opportunities extend to over 72,000 microalgal sources of species and strains that have not been fully researched or developed. A critical part of the success in developing protein sources from microalgae lies in the byproducts that are created after cracking the biomass of the algae and extracting out fractions.

Alternative Protein Value Chain Chart

The microalgae biomass contains numerous ingredients that offer supply-chain opportunities. CLICK FOR DOWNLOADABLE PDF.

It’s not unlike the history of soy products and the price comparison between soybeans, soybean meal, soybean oil; and soy flour, concentrates and isolates. For the same percentage of protein, different food categories, such as infant formula, can demand a much higher price, although the requirements are much stricter. Added value has been found in phytochemicals, isoflavones, saponins and phospholipids.

“The world of microalgae is taking the same approach,” Brenner said. Microalgal proteins are not a niche product. The business model is centered on high-protein concentrations, functionalities and flavor profile, and ultimately—dollars per kilo.

“I’m all too aware, and the people with whom I interface are aware, that $6-8 a kilo for 70% algal protein concentrate is steep; but we can expect that most high-concentration alternative proteins will in this range, a little less or a little more,” he said. Brenner and his colleagues expect two things to happen to bring the price down. Different nutritional benefits will be associated with protein levels; efficiencies will also drive down cost.

Work in Europe is focused on revolutionizing food production. European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food is a consortium of 50 food partners across business categories whose objectives are, in part, to catalyze food innovation.

By supporting research and entrepreneurship, they are working to improve nutrition and make the food system more resource-efficient, secure, transparent and trusted. Of all the land crops, algae is the most sustainable, with the lowest carbon, water and arable land footprint.

Brenner said many of the industry partners are committed to the use of microalgae for alternative protein sources. One of the proposed projects given to EIT Food’s €1.2 billion multi-year initiative (over seven years) is the development of algal plant-based protein sources. The project aims to develop cost-effective, highly functional and good-tasting specialty proteins with important essential amino acid profiles.

While fractions such as PUFA concentrations may be an added value of a microalgal source, protein is driving project development, both in terms of functionalities and price point. “The alternative protein sources are putting us into a different mindset, when it comes to the possibilities of synergies between these different proteins, with new functionalities solving issues of everything from price to taste and everything in between,” he said.

Flavor is a key consideration, as are amino acid profile and digestibility. The goal is also to achieve functional characteristics that give food developers new tools with which to work. Solubility, emulsification, heat stability, color, viscosity and gelling are properties the industry is working to achieve, Brenner stated.

Brenner also brought home the need for distinction when referring to alga by showing Mintel data. When studying ingredient labels, he found many of the products are from seaweed and not microalgae. Only 24 out of 120 actually are found in food and beverage products; the remainder are dietary supplements. A separate search for microalgae protein shows two food products, both dry blend mixes with Spirulina.

His conclusion? The market for food and beverage applications for microalgae proteins is still a virtually untapped category.

“Microalgae as an Alternative Protein Source: A Developing Story,” Gary Brenner, Brenner pharma/food Business Development, garybrenner@pharmafood-bd.com

This presentation was given at the 2017 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar — Business Strategies.

Click here for access to the PowerPoint presentation of Microalgae as an Alternative Protein Source by Gary Brenner, Brenner pharma/food Business Development.

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