In the year 2050, agriculture might happen in labs as well as fields, and on the menu for dinner? Microalgae. This may not sound very appealing, but microalgae contain proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, including vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and E, iron, calcium, and folic acid. Microalgae “superfood” supplements like spirulina and chlorella have been a fixture of the wellness scene for decades. But with a bitter, grassy, or fishy flavor, the single-celled organisms have remained niche, reserved mainly for those willing to overlook their pungent aromas in pursuit of health.
Enter German designer Malu Lücking, who has decided to give microalgae a makeover. “There’s already interest in the nutritional part (but) how can we get people to eat this?” she says. Lücking undertook a project she called “Landless Foods” as part of her master’s degree in bio design at Central St Martins in London. She developed a process for growing concentrated microalgae solution on edible agar jelly, a gelatinous, tasteless substance made from red seaweeds. The microalgae can be scraped off and eaten alone, or when consumed with the jelly it functions like a stock cube and can be added to soups and sauces for a burst of flavor. “In the future, it could maybe give us the taste of different spices,” says Lücking.
As Lücking began exploring how to make microalgae palatable, she came across research on flavor profiles conducted by Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (ILVO) in Belgium. Lücking focused on three microalgae: rhodomonas salina, which tastes of crab, prawn-flavored tetraselmis chuii, and the unexpectedly floral Dunaliella salina.
Microalgae usually grow in salt water with just sunlight and can be farmed in tanks. Together with her project mentor, Lorraine Archer, a research associate at Cambridge University’s department of plant sciences, Lücking experimented with different growing methods — eventually utilizing the edible gel, which supplies the microalgae with water and nutrients and eliminates the need for space-consuming tanks. Using 3D-printed reusable resin casings to protect the gel from bacteria, Lücking was also able to create a “visual identity” for the microalgae. “She says that growing algae in liquid will always look like water because the algae are too small to be seen with the naked eye,” she says. The distinctive shapes could help connect consumers to the products — and make microalgae instantly recognizable as food. “When you see an apple, you know what it tastes like,” she says.
By developing “novel ways of creating high-end, beautiful foods,” Archer says that Lücking is making microalgae an attractive product beyond wellness circles. Archer adds that she likes Lücking’s focus on fishy flavors, which “a lot of the microalgal food industry tries to get rid of.”
Some food-tech companies are embracing microalgae’s high-protein content for the alt-meat market. Israeli startup Brevel is creating a microalgae powder that can be added to vegan proteins. New Zealand startup NewFish is making “meat-free charcuterie” with a microalgae-derived mortadella-style cold-cut. But with most work being done on neutral-tasting species that can be adapted to a variety of foods, hundreds of thousands of microalgae species remain untapped — and new research is showing they contain potentially valuable compounds such as antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and pigments that can be used in food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.
As research and development in this area continue to grow, it is likely that we will see more and more microalgae-based products entering the market, offering new opportunities for sustainable food production and alternative sources of nutrition. Additionally, the use of microalgae in food production can help reduce dependence on traditional livestock and decrease the environmental impact of food production. Overall, microalgae is an exciting and promising area of research and development that has the potential to revolutionize the food industry.
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