Protein has never been hotter - at least that’s what the market researchers tell us - and vegetarian proteins in particular are top of the pops right now.
But how attractive is protein from microalgae compared with pea, soy, rice, potato and all the other dairy and meat-free options hitting the market today?
Algae is a more efficient protein source than soy
One firm that is convinced of its appeal is California-based Aurora Algae, which is building a commercial-scale facility in Karratha, western Australia, where it will grow (via photosynthesis) proprietary strains of microalgae that feed on nothing but sunlight and waste carbon dioxide from nearby industrial emitters, a carbon neutral to negative process.
Aurora is initially focused on producing long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for the food and pharma markets, but ultimately plans to produce everything from biofuels and animal feed to high-end proteins for the human nutrition market.
Because the algae is grown in seawater and thrives in hot, dry weather, Aurora is also able to use arid land unsuitable for other forms of agriculture and has a water requirement less than 1% of that used to grow similar products from soy beans, the firm tells FoodNavigator-USA.
Scale of new facility will dwarf rival algal producers
It will also be capable of producing significantly more protein per unit area than soy beans, adds the firm, making it very attractive to companies in the natural foods, specialty and sports nutrition arena looking for high quality sustainable alternatives to dairy proteins.
Its demo facility, consisting of six one-acre open ponds, is a prelude to a full-scale facility set to break ground in 2014 that will consist of 100 hectares of algae ponds capable of producing up to 600t of algal biomass per month and scalable to 2,000 hectares.
We can manipulate the protein content in our nannochloropsis strain to be anything from 10% to more than 50%.
Given that a protein product will not be commercialized for at least six months to a year, the conversation is purely theoretical at this stage, cautions VP of product management Dr Jim Astwood.
However, in principle, he says, algae is a highly efficient protein source. “The yields per acre are really quite impressive compared with soybeans or other crops. We can manipulate the protein content in our nannochloropsis strain to be anything from 10% to more than 50%.
“For animal feed and aquaculture, we would take the oil fraction (c.15-20% of the biomass) out and be left with a combination of carbs and protein. For the human nutrition market we can separate the protein from the carbohydrate in several different ways and get isolates and concentrates, but the kind of properties we are looking for will vary by potential application.”
Algae protein has the potential to have a better sensory profile than many competing proteins
He added: “The same applies to soy. A good meat mimetic will not be what you are looking for in a beverage. And there are sensory questions as well. You have to get the solubility and the mouthfeel right, just having the right nutritional profile isn’t enough.
“Some companies we are talking to are also interested in combining protein and the omega-3s. But it’s just too early in our development cycle to say exactly what we will be doing.”
But based on preliminary work the company has done, he says, its algae protein has the potential to have a better sensory profile than many competing proteins.
In the meantime, the company will need to move ahead with securing GRAS approval in the US and Novel Food approvals for its products in Europe, which is a challenging process at the best of times, he says, although there is nothing particularly exotic about the products that should create delays.
Aurora’s products are derived from nannochloropsis, a photosynthetic saltwater organism that grows in the wild. However, bosses have optimized it to develop a lighter colored strain that allows for greater penetration of sunlight into an algae pond, significantly increasing production yields.
Click here to read about algae proteins from Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals.
Click here to read more about Aurora’s plans for the long chain omega-3 fatty acid EPA.