Food start-up bets big on algae: ‘It’s inevitable that algae will become a larger part of the food supply in the future’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Food start-up bets big on algae: ‘It’s inevitable that algae will become a larger part of the food supply in the future’
What kind of food company names itself ‘nonfood’? The kind that wants to start a conversation, at the very least, says founder Sean Raspet, an artist turned flavorist who used to work at Soylent, and clearly shares that brand’s interest in redefining what ‘food’ is (along with its minimalist design aesthetic).

The name is in part because we’re an upstart company, and we want people to raise an eyebrow; it’s a bit jokey” ​said Raspet, who like Soylent founder Rob Rhinehart, likes to challenge received wisdoms in contemporary food culture, and urges consumers to put aside pre-conceptions about biotech crops and look at the evidence. (He also questions whether how ‘natural’ an ingredient is, has any bearing on its nutritional or environmental credentials.)

“But ​[the nonfood​] name is also designed to make people to think again about algae​ [the brand’s core ingredient is blue-green algae spirulina, combined with the protein-rich aquatic plant lemna, part of the duckweed family and commercialized by Parabel​] as food​,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.

“I think right now, a lot of people still think of it as pond scum, and we want to start a conversation about the fact that algae is actually a great food source, a future food staple, the most ecologically efficient food source. It sounds kind of grandiose, but we want to rethink what ‘food’ is, what it could be. In future, can we provide platforms enabling people to produce their own food in their own homes?”

Flavor and color

The first product in the nonfood pipeline – which will launch in November - is a low sugar protein- and fiber-fueled ‘non bar’ made with spirulina, lemna, algae oil, and a fiber syrup binder that will be produced in California by a co-packer.

“Spirulina has an earthy flavor while lemna is a bit like matcha​, but we also add in some flavor to balance out the profile,” ​said Raspet. “The color will be very dark green. When you mix in the binder syrup the bright green color of the powders turns almost black. It’s not cooked, but it has a shelf-life of a year because it has very low water activity.”

Road-mapping

The initial focus will be online sales through the nonfood​ ​website, and other online channels, but Raspet is also talking to bricks and mortar retailers, and says feedback has been very encouraging. The first bar will be a rectangular 80g bar with 20g protein and 20-25g fiber, with a square one to follow in the new year. Other algae-fueled products are also in the pipeline, although the initial focus is on snacks.

The retail price is likely to be around $5 per bar, with a significant discount for people that sign up for a subscription service, said Raspet, who noted that the bar was quite substantial and could serve as a meal replacement.

As for investor interest in algae, while TerraVia’s financial difficulties​ have garnered a lot of media attention, “I think there is a feeling that it’s inevitable that algae will become a larger part of the food supply in the future​,” added Raspet, who has been working with food innovation accelerator Food-X​,​ which helps early stage companies access capital, refine their strategy, and learn from experts.

“We’re launching within a month, so you can get very focused on the immediate future, but they are also helping us map out what the next two, three four five years might look like.”

Early adopters

So who’s the target consumer?

“I think people are getting more familiar with spirulina in food products​,” said Raspet, “but it’s unusual to see it as the number one or number two ingredient in a product, and that’s going to be a new thing for consumers, so it’s going to require some education.

“I think early adopters will be people that are into innovation, people in the tech community, people that are looking for the next new thing in all areas of their life from tech to food.”

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