Could algae be the sustainable food of the future?

Sourcing sustainable food options is an ongoing issue as the world becomes more populated and the climate crisis intensifies. Luckily, avenues are already being explored. People are munching on protein-packed insects, lab-grown meat and now, algae is a possible contender.

It seems we’ve well and truly exploited what’s on land and need to delve further into the sea. But with environmentalists warning of the devastating impact of overfishing, one expert says we need to eat the food from the bottom of the ocean, rather than the top.

Patricia Harvey, professor of biochemistry and head of bioenergy research at the University of Greenwich, says: “We’ve discovered the fantastic vegetables available to us on land but we haven’t branched out to eat the vegetables of the ocean – the algae.”

What is ‘ocean flexitarianism’?
It’s a new concept, which asks that we eat more vegetables from the ocean than fish. It’s similar to ‘flexitarianism’ or ‘casual vegetarianism’ where people eat a mostly plant-based diet but allow for some meat occasionally.

Algae is the umbrella term for a huge, diverse group of aquatic organisms that conduct photosynthesis to generate oxygen – found in both fresh and seawater. One form of algae most people are familiar with is seaweed; such as nori and kelp, and Japanese diets in particular include several types. But Prof. Harvey says the untapped potential in sustainable food sources in the ocean is huge.

Read: How companies are fighting food waste

Why is eating algae sustainable?
“We know we’ve got to feed a lot more people by 2050, the population is growing, and we also know that if we keep on putting intensive agriculture on the land, we’re going to completely screw up the biodiversity,” says Prof. Harvey. But we can’t simply turn to the ocean and only eat carnivorous fish such as tuna and cod.

“About 70 per cent of the earth is covered in water and about 97 per cent of that water is ocean. If we just dive into the ocean to feed everyone, we’ll then mess up the ocean. That’s why it’s incredibly important to get more people to grips with eating algae, the vegetables, at the bottom of the ocean, so we can get sustainable exploitation of the ocean to feed more people.”

What does it taste like?
“People tend to think of seaweed as that slimy stuff on the beach, so there’s quite a lot of perception that needs to change,” Prof. Harvey says.

“Generally, algae have a lot of umami flavour [so] we’ll find them increasingly used in savoury foods, but there is an opportunity to eat it in sweet foods too. You can eat seaweeds as vegetables, but micro-algae are going to be much more used as ingredients added into foods, to supplement food or for personalised nutrition.”

Dunaliella – a particular type of micro-algae found in salt lakes that Prof. Harvey and her colleagues study and cultivate in the lab – has apparently got a floral flavour. Thanks to Prof. Harvey’s lobbying, the new ingredient could be available to purchase and eat within a few years.

Read: Reduce food waste and save money

What about the health benefits?
“There are some 80 to 100,000 species and we only actually know 200 of them, and have probably only consumed 70 of them. All of the different algae have got different benefits,” Prof. Harvey explains. Dunaliella, for example, produces a lot of pro vitamin A and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid.

In fact, one of the nutritional benefits we eat fish for, omega-3, is originally found in algae. The fish consume the algae and we consume the fish – eating it straight from the source cuts out the middle man.

Prof. Harvey says some of the ingredients have been proven, in very small quantities, to have a positive impact on psoriasis and eye diseases. “What we’ve been doing in the universities is boosting production of those specific ingredients in the biomass, and eventually that biomass will get incorporated into food.”

Protein levels vary depending on the species of algae. “In one species there could be a range from 26 to 70 per cent protein – just depending on how you grow it,” Prof. Harvey says. “But generally, we are increasingly understanding how to produce these algae to produce a high content of protein.”

Read: Tips for being more sustainable at home

Why aren’t we already eating it?
The problem is twofold: lack of awareness and a roadblock in legislation. “In China, they have been cultivating algae and they know a lot more about how to do it. In Europe, we haven’t got to grips with the different species that we’ve got, we don’t know how to cultivate it properly and we don’t know how to process it properly. Algae is going to be the food of the future, but we need help to get there.”

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It takes investment to get a new type of food production of this scale off the ground, and Prof. Harvey says: “The investors want to invest, people want algae, but one of the big roadblocks in Europe is that we’ve got really tight legislation.”

But attitudes are changing all the time, and millennials are leading the way, Prof. Harvey says. “There’s a big move amongst young [people] who want to have healthy lifestyles, who want to move to algae; a lot of work is now showing people are much more receptive than they used to be.”

What do you think about eating algae? Do you think about the sustainability of the food you eat? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

– With PA

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Written by Lauren Taylor