Algae for dinner? Scientists believe it can be the next sustainable superfood

SAN DIEGO — Algae could be the future of food, according to researchers from the University of California-San Diego. In a new review, they break down the environmental and nutritional benefits of introducing the superfood into our food system, as well as the challenges that come with it.

Algae has been heavily studied as a source of biofuel due to its high fat content, but researchers also consider it to be an efficient food source due to its high protein and impressive overall nutritional profile. The new work highlights current technologies used for developing and growing microalgae on a commercial scale as well as the variety of kinks that need to be worked out before it can be used as food.

“Many of us have known the potential of algae for food for years, and have been working on it as a food source, but now, with climate change, deforestation, and a population of eight billion people, most everyone realizes that the world simply has to become more efficient in protein production,” says study co-author Dr. Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UCSD and director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, in a media release.

Growing lots of algae takes a lot less space

A 2014 paper found that algae can produce 167 times more useful biomass (matter used for energy production) than corn, while using the same amount of land to produce it. Other prediction models suggest that existing algae strains could possibly replace 25 percent of European protein consumption and 50 percent of the total vegetable oil used when grown on land not used for conventional crops.

“The biggest advantage is the protein production per acre,” Mayfield notes. “Algae simply dwarf the current gold standard of soybean by at least 10 times, maybe 20 times, more production per acre.”

Some algal species can grow in conditions like salt water, which means that freshwater areas can be preserved for more important things. Additionally, aside from being a great protein and fat source, algae checks off the boxes in other areas of nutrition too. Many varieties are high in vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the body.

While evidence continues to support how beneficial different strains are, it’s still tough to find ones that meet certain needs like yielding lots of biomass, being high in protein, having a complete nutrition profile, and being able to be grown efficiently with regards to land use, water requirements, and nutrient inputs. Mayfield and the team have highlighted the ways researchers can use different scientific tools to develop algae that possess all of these traits. For instance, a previous experiment described enhancing astaxanthin, which is an antioxidant pigment that has several health benefits, using targeted genetic mutations.

Algae can use the same farming techniques as modern crops

Mayfield says the most likely approaches for commercial development of a superior algal crop would involve a combination of traditional breeding with molecular engineering.

“This is the way modern crops are being developed, so this is the way algae will be developed,” the researcher explains. “They are both plants – one terrestrial and one aquatic.”

Above all else, the biggest challenge to getting the product out there is figuring out how to scale production worldwide.

“You just can’t know all the challenges of going to world scale, until you do,” Mayfield continues. “But the world has done this [with] smartphones, computers, photovoltaic panels, and electric cars – all of these had challenges, and we overcame them to take these ‘new’ technologies to world scale, so we know we can do it with algae.”

Mayfield is determined to figure out a way, though. He emphasizes that seeking alternative viable food systems is necessary as the population continues to boom and resources get stretched thin.

“The only way to avoid a really bleak future is to start transitioning now to a much more sustainable future, and algae as food is one of those transitions that we need to make.”

The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

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