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Hungry for algae (Part 1)

As the lakes around Berlin get warmer and warmer during this extraordinarily hot summer and algae are growing a lot faster on the lakes surfaces than normal, I noticed that we haven't written something about one of the hottest topics in the food area at the moment yet- Algae. So what are algae and what makes them so interesting for the food industry and product developers in particular?

Algae are probably one of the oldest forms of living beings on this planet and as such, they had a lot of time to differentiate into various species. There are small green unicellular algae, like chlorella, but also huge brown algae species, like kelp, which can grow to about a size of 50m and can form huge underwater forests. In total there are more than 300.000 different algae species, which are known today, but probably also a lot, which are still undiscovered.

What makes algae interesting for the food industry is exactly this high amount of different species, which all have their unique features and characteristics. Some can work as natural preservatives, some as gelling agents and others as nutritional supplements or flavor enhancers. A big toolbox full of unique and not yet fully understood tools, product developers can play around with to generate new innovative products, which in addition are also perceived as natural by the consumer. Time to look a little bit closer into this toolbox.

Algae as flavour enhancers:

Algae varieties, like Kombu, Wakame or Kelp, for example, can bring a lot of umami flavor components into dishes and are already used since centuries in traditional Asian cuisines to boost up their flavors and could also give western dishes and products a big boost in flavor. Especially with the increasing pressure to create clean label products these algae varieties get more and more attention from product developers and will probably be implemented into more products in the following years. Kelp Jerky or Kelp noodles are just two of many products now hitting the market and bringing new flavors to western dishes.

Furthermore, algae could also not just be a good way to give dishes a boost in flavor, but also to imitate flavors. Ulva Lactuca a widely spread, but rather unknown algae, could, for example, be a good source for Bromophenol and its derivatives, which gives seafood its ocean and shrimp-like taste. Perfect for vegan seafood alternatives, which are currently developed by several food companies and who knows, maybe there are also varieties which can support the flavor profiles of other vegan alternatives to animal-based products.

Algae as preservatives

Next to the flavor enhancing capabilities of algae, they can also work as natural preservatives. Extracts from the brown algae variety Himanthalia elongata, also known as sea spaghetti, showed, for example, better preserving effects when it comes to Listeria monocytogenes than the comparable amount of sodium nitrite. In addition, this brown algae variety is also high in antioxidants, which makes it also a good preservative with regards to oxidative stress. Extracts from another variety called Fucus spiralis has also shown significant potential to inhibit foodborne bacteria like Bacillus cereus, Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli or Staphylococcus aureus and these are also just two of many algae varieties able to be used as a preservative to prevent microbial contamination of food products and maybe there are also varieties able to reduce the spread of fungi in food products.

Algae as gelling agents and thickeners:

Besides the flavoring and preservation effect of some algae, some of them can also be used as the binding and gelling agents to modify the texture of food products. Carrageenan and agar-agar are probably the most famous algae-based gelling agents. From Carrageenan there are currently three different forms available. The Iota Carrageenan Version, which derives from Eucheuma denticulatum and is building soft gels. The Kappa Version, deriving from Kappaphycus alvarezii, which is building strong gels and the Lambda Version which is more like a thickener and doesn’t produce gels. For Agar-Agar there is just one variety and it is already used a lot as a gelatine replacement, for example in vegan gummy bears. Next, to these famous algae-based gelling agents, there are also others. Furcellarans, for example, which is similar to carrageenan, but is deriving from another red algae variety called Furcellaria lumbricalis. Furcellarans can be used as a pectin substitute and works better at lower sugar concentration than the standard pectin.

Algae as nutritional supplements:

Spirulina is today probably one of the most famous algae-based nutritional supplements and was first discovered in the early 60th as such by modern scientist. It has a protein content of about 60%, high amounts of unsaturated fatty acids and is also famous for his high values in Antioxidants (Beta-Carotene, phytocyanins), as well as Vitamin E. Next to the famous Spirulina also other algae varieties provide high levels of antioxidants and vitamins. Codium fragile, commonly known as green sea fingers or the Gracilaria chilensis algae, which is another red algae variety, contain for example higher Beta‐carotene values than carrots. Also, just a few of many examples of how algae could help to fight nutrient deficiencies.

As you can see algae can full-fill a lot of tasks within products and also for the enhancement of human health. If you want to learn more. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

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