Edible algae that cut the calorie and fat content of snack foods, such as biscuits and dipping sauces, may soon be the surprise ingredient in products on supermarket shelves, thanks to a serendipitous discovery by US biofuel experts. The researchers at US biotech company Solazyme found this particular algal strain among hundreds of others being screened for biofuel oils and discovered that it produces an oil with a similar fatty acid composition to ‘healthy’ vegetable oils, such as olive oil or seed-based oils, according to senior vp and general manager of the nutritionals, Michael Golembieski.
The company is already talking to major food distributors to sell the oil and a flour made from the edible algae as a food manufacturing ingredient, Golembieski says. ‘We hope to be able to get it out into the marketplace within about a year,’ he adds.
The algae is a natural non-GM strain of the common algae species Chlorella, which is already sold as a nutritional supplement in health food stores. The oil it produces contains high levels of the unsaturated fatty acid oleic acid, similar to those found in olive and seed oils, Golembieski explains. In addition, he points out that the structure of this particular algal strain is ‘perfect’ for making algal flour, which is essentially emulsified in the oil that it produces.
Home-made biscuits made with the new flour on offer at BIO tasted similar to cookies made the traditional way, with butter and eggs. But Solazyme reports that they contain 75% less fat and 25% fewer calories. And a honey mustard dip made with the oil is claimed to slash fat content by 85% and have 74% fewer calories than the equivalent shop-bought alternative.
The algal flour comprises about 50% oil and as such is a convenient replacement for butter and eggs used in conventional baked foods, Golembieski explains. Its ability as a ‘fat replacer’ makes it more versatile than other oils, such as olive oil, which he says do not offer the same level of functionality.
Compared with oils such as palm oil, Solazyme says that, ‘the overall renewable process to create algal oil, from field to production, is much more sustainable, as it does not require land use or water use, emits lower carbon emissions, uses less energy and does not involve deforestation as palm oil does in some cases’.
The company already has an R&D agreement with the consumer giant Unilever to test algal oil – using a different strain of algae from that used for foods – in its personal care products, such as soaps, deodorants and cleaning agents. Also in the pipeline are potential anti-ageing cosmetics that ‘contain an ingredient better than hyaluronic acid’.