For most people, eating “meat” means a juicy steak, burger, pork chop, chicken breast — or even fish and seafood. However, meat alternatives are also gaining popularity in the US. A recent survey reveals that as many as 65% of Americans consumed a meat substitute, and 20% ate products that mimic meat at least weekly.
Eating plenty of proteins while reducing dietary sugars is healthy.
Microalgae are being used more commonly in human and animal foods.
The booming market for meat-based alternatives is driving innovation and the popularity of meat alternatives.
As the interest in novel protein sources grows, new products continually enter the market. Could microalgae replace a real steak or burger? Scientists believe the answer is “Yes”.
Animal proteins alternatives
Protein consumption has increased over the years as Americans are more aware that eating enough proteins while reducing dietary sugars is beneficial for their health.
By far, the most common meat alternative available in grocery stores is plant-based meat. These products contain soy protein, wheat gluten, pea protein, and other plant-based compounds. Although they mimic the texture, taste, and look of animal products, many people are unable to consume them as wheat and soy are top food allergens. For example, individuals with celiac disease must completely avoid wheat to manage their condition.
Cell-based or cultured meat and fermentation-based mycoprotein are other common types of meat alternatives.
Using microalgae for creating meat alternatives is an attractive option for various consumers, but especially for vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, and those with food sensitivities to wheat or soy. Additionally, many meat eaters are looking to reduce their animal protein consumption. Therefore, microalgae, single-cell microorganisms found in fresh water and salt water, offer a sustainable protein source while providing other key nutrients.
Microalgae as a protein source
The use of microalgae biomass as a protein source in food has been tested by scientists for decades. Instead of using the whole biomass, the proteins from microalgae can be extracted, concentrated, and purified to further increase the bioavailability of its nutrients.
Microalgae are rich in proteins. The protein content of some microalgae is twice as high compared to conventional protein sources. They are complete proteins because they contain all essential amino acids.
While the nutritional value of microalgae depends on the species and other factors, proteins are always a key nutrient. Under cultivation, many species of microalgae contain significant amounts of protein, usually 40–60% of dry matter, followed by fats and carbohydrates. They also contain omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Additionally, microalgae are rich in vitamins — particularly B and C — minerals and antioxidant compounds.
Using microalgae for human foods is still in the very early stages. However, these tiny microorganisms have great potential to serve as an alternative to animal proteins.
A handful of species of microalgae, like Spirulina and Chlorella, are currently produced at a commercial scale as food for humans and animals.
Other uses of microalgae
Although microalgae are considered a novel protein source in the Western world, China has used them for food for about 2000 years. At that time, people consumed them to survive famine. Indigenous people have also been eating algae for centuries. Scientists started researching microalgae in the 1950s, and Japan was one of the first countries to cultivate algae following World War II. Similar efforts to mass cultivate microalgae were made in Europe and the US.
In the US, microalgae were used initially to produce chemicals and for wastewater treatment.
Overall, researchers believe that microalgae are extremely versatile. They can be used in food for humans and animals and the chemical, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries.
Microalgae are also popular in health food stores as supplements. Among various species, Chlorella pyrenoidosa (CP) is one of the most common algae-based supplements. According to research studies, chlorella is not only a safe source of protein but may also improve high blood pressure, decrease cholesterol and blood sugar levels, promote wound healing, and support immune function.
Microalgae — environmental benefits and market availability
Best of all, growing microalgae is environmentally friendly. They have the lowest carbon, water, and arable land footprint of any crop. Microalgae transform sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2), and nutrients into biomass, and they are widely found in the water and land. They are extremely resilient, with a high ability to adapt to various environments.
According to Sophie’s Bionutrients, a start-up company that creates microalgae meat substitutes, the algae ferments in just three days. Furthermore, they use a fraction of the water and energy used in conventional agriculture. In addition, growing these algae does not involve any fertilizers, herbicides, antibiotics, or growth hormones. A Canadian company that makes protein powders from microalgae also confirms that the algae powder can be produced via fermentation in a short period with minimal water, land, and energy requirements.
Another option is to produce meat substitutes from red algae via a cold process without using organic solvents. This is the approach an Israeli company uses to make algae-based burgers and steaks. The red algae not only provide the food’s red pigment but also browns like real meat when cooked.
Large companies like Unilever and Nestle recently announced partnerships with companies that produce meat alternatives based on microalgae. This means that microalgae meat will likely be available in grocery stores in the next few years.
Testing the microalgae for contaminants is important, as these microorganisms can accumulate toxins. Therefore it is important to buy algae-based products from a reputable company or supplement brand that rigorously tests their raw ingredients.
Microalgae are an innovative source of renewable nutrition. The market is booming because of the growing interest in using them for meat alternatives and dietary supplements. Because using microalgae for human foods is still in the very early stages, and only a handful of companies have started using them to produce meat substitutes. However, because of the explosive market for meat-based substitutes, products may find their way to grocery shelves soon.