A sustainable ‘superfood’ for the future?

For years now, scientists have been telling the world we are starting to run out of land to grow crops and raise farm animals, causing future food concerns. Researchers are now looking for different ways of growing nutritious foods to replace the ones whose cultivation is no longer as sustainable. One of these is algae.

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Could algae become a staple of our daily meals? Image credit: Carli Teteris/Stocksy.

As the world’s population continues to increase, the need for food also increases. However, research shows we are quickly running out of farmable land.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world can lose up to 250 million crop production acres by 2050 due to urbanization, soil degradation, and climate change.

And factors like climate change, maintenance costs, and access to water are causing problems with raising livestock.

As people need to eat to survive, researchers are now looking for alternative food options that are more sustainable, yet still provide the nutrition people require to thrive.

For these reasons, some scientists believe algae may be the answer.

Algae are naturally occurring water-based, simple photosynthetic organisms. They grow in all types of natural bodies of water, both fresh and saltwater.

Like all plants, algae live by using photosynthesis to create their own nutrients and add oxygen to the air and water around them. Unlike other aquatic plants, algae do not have any leaves, roots, or stems.

Algae can range in size from extremely small microalgae to large colonies of seaweed. It is a diverse group that includes blue-green, green, red, and brown algae.

Previous studies have shown that different types of algae have potential medicinal benefits. For example, one study found that red marine algae could help treat fatty liver disease.

And other research found that taking spirulina — a type of blue-green algae — may help lower blood pressure.

According to Dr. Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego, director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, and senior author of the study “Developing Algae as a Sustainable Food Source,” algae are, biochemically speaking, a superfood.

That is because of their high content of protein, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins.

“Part of that is because algae [don’t] have to have stems, roots, or branches to hold [themselves] up, so [they] dedicate all of [their] energy to making more protein, fatty acids, etc., rather than cellulose,” Dr. Mayfield explained.

“It is one of the oldest plant foods in the world,” Dr. William Sears, pediatric and family medicine practitioner and author of The Healthy Brain Book told Medical News Today.

“There are thousands of species of algae and each one produces lots of healthy nutrients we all need, but most of us don’t eat enough of [them],” he noted. “[They are] a rich source of B vitamins, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, calcium, iodine, and more.”

“The root cause of many illnesses is oxidation — wear and tear on the body,” said Dr. Sears. “Algae [are] rich in antioxidants. Many different microalgae species are rich sources of different antioxidants.”

“Only a small fraction of algae species have been consumed by humans, but those are well known for their nutrient density and quality,” added Aletta Mayorga, head of research and development at the pregnancy nutrition company Needed.

“The microalgae chlorella and spirulina, for example, contain 50-70% protein by dry weight, including all nine essential amino acids, and edible macroalgae like seaweeds are a great source of gut-friendly soluble fiber.”

– Aletta Mayorga

Additionally, Mayorga said, algae provide a source of vegetarian-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

“Although we primarily think of fish as being a key omega-3 source in the human diet, fish do not produce omega-3s on their own but rather consume them from algae and plankton,” she explained. “And according to this study, DHA from algae oil is as bioavailable as DHA from cooked salmon.”

According to Dr. Mayfield, we need to look for alternative protein sources as the world needs more protein right now.

“And we do not have additional cropland to grow more soybeans or other legumes, which are plants rich in protein,” he told us. “We can grow algae on non-arable land using non-potable water and it produces protein at up to 20 [times] the amount as soybean, our current protein-producing champion.”

“Our current agricultural system faces extreme stress from the forces of climate change, combined with a growing population,” added Erin Stokes, medical director of MegaFood, a health and wellness company that specializes in vitamin dietary supplements.

“Algae has the ability to sequester CO2, which greatly increases its long-term sustainability in the food sector,” she explained. “As long as the algae are grown in clean waters, it is a highly nutritious food with a minimal impact on the environment.”

Monique Richard, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and owner of Nutrition-In-Sight in Johnson City, TN also noted that:

“Algae [have] chelating benefits, meaning the algae’s minerals can bind to metal ions and pull them out of the water, which could clean wastewater and runoff. [They] can be beneficial in cleaning water, promoting sustainability and protection in aquaculture systems, and increasing resources for agricultural practices.”

“An additional benefit includes that the environment in which algae grow can be controlled without herbicides and pesticides, or any other toxic substances, which is important for human health and food production,” she added.

We also spoke to Dr. Charles H. Greene about how algae might improve food sustainability. Dr. Greene is an associate director for research and strategic planning at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) in Friday Harbor, WA.

He is also co-author of the papers “Algal solutions: Transforming marine aquaculture from the bottom up for a sustainable future” in PLOS Biology, and “Transforming the Future of Marine Aquaculture: A Circular Economy Approach” in Oceanography.

Dr. Greene argued that microalgae have potential chiefly because they can be cultivated in smaller areas and still produce a significant amount of food.

In the latter paper, Dr. Greene and his colleagues highlight:

“Food production from marine microalgae cultivated in onshore aquaculture facilities offers several environmental sustainability advantages relative to terrestrial agriculture. […] Microalgae exhibit primary production rates that are typically more than an order of magnitude greater than the most productive terrestrial crops. […] Thus, with regard to land use, the cultivation of marine microalgae in onshore aquaculture facilities has the potential to produce an equivalent amount of food from less than one-tenth the land area.”

While it sounds like growing algae as a food source is a no-brainer, this approach still faces some challenges. Dr. Mayfield told MNT the main one is scalability.

“The main challenge is getting it to world scale, and with that scale should come economies of scale, that will bring the price down — which is the main challenge right now,” he emphasized.

Dr. Greene and his colleagues agree in their Oceanography paper: “Although there are large areas of suitable land with proper topography and insolation available in the tropics and subtropics, cultivation facilities must be close enough to sources of seawater or brackish water to avoid excessive transport costs.”

And “[a]lthough the nutritional value of algae would make [them] a highly versatile food source, [they] tend to have a characteristic odor, and taste and overall sensory acceptance can be a limiting factor,” Mayorga admitted.

Stokes added that, as with any foods and supplements, the source where algae are grown needs to be verified for quality.

“This is of particular importance with algae as [algae] can absorb substances from the water medium [they] grow in, including heavy metals and other contaminants,” she explained.

“There are now some unique manufacturing processes being utilized — such as closed glass tube systems — that are designed for optimal conditions for algae growth,” Stokes added.

Ready to start adding algae to your diet? The good news is you already can.

Richard said algae can be found commercially in options like seaweed, dried seaweed snacks, and nori sheets, and can be found in supplements, powders, or meat replacement products.

“[They] may [even] be found in fermented products or dairy [products] such as yogurts, milk, or cheeses,” she added.

Moreover, Richard noted, algae could also have other uses in terms of cooking and the food industry:

“Algae can [have] qualities such as thickening, gelling, and emulsifying [properties] — such as algae-extracted ingredients carrageenan, alginate, and agar [for example] — possibly replacing ingredients like palm oil, which are associated with devastating environmental contributions and adverse health conditions. The range of colors in algae can also provide a natural way to source blue and green coloring for confections and beverages.”

“EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid] and DHA are essential omega-3 fatty acids that are commonly under-consumed but carry tremendous benefits for brain health, eye health, and cardiovascular health to name a few,” Mayorga added, speaking of the health benefits.

“Algal oil supplements have come a very long way to help consumers optimize their omega-3 intake while also minimizing off-putting sensory qualities. Moreover, algal oil supplements […] are a great way to ensure a supplement with a very low heavy metal content, which can be a concern with some fish oils, particularly those sourced from larger fish,” she said.

And Dr. Sears said that people can easily add algae to their diet by eating algae-based supplements. His top three recommendations are algae-based DHA/ EPA, Hawaiian astaxanthin, and Hawaiian spirulina.

In his opinion, “[b]ecause algae contain lots of nutrients per calorie, are grown in nature, and are good for our health and the health of our planet, they truly merit the label as ‘nature’s superfood’.”