Microalgae promise abundant healthy foods and fodder in any environment

Microalgae promise abundant healthy foods and fodder in any environment

The global food supply faces various threats, including climate change, war, pests and diseases. An organism too small for the human eye to see – microalgae – could offer some of the answers.

Most people are familiar with the largest form of algae, kelp, or seaweed. It can reach three meters in length and, in some forms, is a well-known delicacy. Microalgae of related species, which can be found in both seawater and freshwater, have gained research interest due to their unusual properties.

These microorganisms can be used to feed animals, especially in aquaculture, and various foods, including pasta, vegan sausages, energy bars, bakery products and vegan creams.

Most commercial microalgae cultivation focuses on the production of dried biomass such as chlorella or spirulina powder as a food that provides significant health benefits. Some strains of microalgae not only synthesize up to 65-70% protein, but are also sustainable sources of omega-3 fatty acids – a substance traditionally derived primarily from fish and fish oil.

Additional bioactive compounds, such as vitamins B12, K, or D, mean that the microalgae have important health properties, which may reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

desert algae
“Microalgae can be grown in many different locations, under very different conditions,” said Massimo Castellari, who is involved in the Horizon-funded ProFuture project that aims to increase microalgae production. “We can grow it in Iceland and in a desert climate.” Intensive cultivation techniques for microalgae have been developed since the 1950s.

Today, microalgae are grown in open or closed photobioreactors, which are vessels designed to control biomass production. The closed system version, despite the higher cost of its creation, provides more control over experimental parameters and reduces the risk of contamination.

This substance is by no means just a modern food supplement. For example, in Chad, a landlocked and low-income country, consumption of spirulina harvested from Lake Chad has significantly improved the nutritional status of people because spirulina is an excellent source of proteins and micronutrients.

On top of their nutritional value, microalgae provide climatic benefits through sequestration of carbon dioxide as well as economic advantages through more efficient use of cultivation areas and – through the use of non-arable land – expanding the potential for biomass production.

With a total of less than 57,000 tons planted in 2019, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), microalgae production is still in its infancy. In comparison, primary crop production was 9.4 billion tons in 2019.

food swell
While the benefits of growing organic microalgae for food and feed are significant, market growth will require overcoming obstacles, including a lack of automated production in industry, according to Castellari, who works at the Institute for Agri-Food Research and Technology in Barcelona, ​​Spain.

“Automation has not been fully implemented,” he said. There are small producers in Europe – many steps still involve manual labor. So they are still working on improving the process.

Processed biomass
The challenges go well beyond farming. With microalgae, the biomass must be processed, cleaned, and dried before a usable powder can be obtained. The next step is to increase production to reduce costs.

In addition, there are regulatory challenges. Only a few species of microalgae are currently allowed in the European Union.

“In Europe, it is still in an initial stage of development,” Castellari said. “There are thousands of species of microalgae, but for food or forage consumption, only seven are allowed.”

To gain knowledge about other species’ use possibilities, Castellari and his team are also looking at these other types of microalgae.

Because of these challenges, the range of products containing microalgae remains limited today. But if these obstacles can be overcome, the overall prospects for the microalgae industry are promising. Besides being a food and forage source, the plant can be used for biofuels, cosmetics, fertilizer, and health supplements.

Astaxanthin, a red blood pigment extracted from algae, actually has notable uses. Astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant, can be found in seafood and is commonly used to color shrimp. It is also sold in pill form as a dietary supplement.

Astaxanthin is thought to have a potentially positive effect on brain function, athletic performance, and skin aging, among other things.

Matteo Balotari, associate professor of biotechnology at the University of Verona in Italy, helped start the European Research Council-funded AstaOmega project to simultaneously produce astaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids in microalgae for aquaculture and human nutrition.

Quality and quantity
Most omega-3 supplements are derived from fish oils. However, this raises concerns about sustainability such as the damage to marine ecosystems as a result of overfishing.

“There is a growing demand for high-quality foods, along with an awareness of including omega-3-rich ingredients in our diets,” Balotari said. He said responding to this trend while feeding a growing global population is a “huge challenge”.

Meanwhile, on the astaxanthin front, AstaOmega researchers have made progress. They were able to obtain a new strain that could produce astaxanthin on its own without the need for “stress”. This means that researchers do not have to change production parameters such as light intensity, temperature or nitrate concentration. Extraction of the material has also become easier, resulting in lower costs.

Scientists agree that microalgae have the potential to change the ways we eat for the better.

“Microalgae can help us increase protein production within Europe to reduce our dependence on other countries,” said Castellari of the ProFuture project.

for more information:
European Commission

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