The marine ingredients sector is flourishing, as companies respond to consumers’ growing appetite for more sustainable, healthier ingredients. Whereas in years gone by algae would be used in niche applications, it certainly seems to be enjoying a breakout year.

The health benefits are no secret – in Asian diets, seaweed is a common ingredient. And with such a variety of species of seaweed and algae, it’s no surprise to learn that the nutritional benefits are vast and varied.

For example, microalgae ingredients such as chlorella and spirulina have been widely recognised as healthy superfoods packed with protein, antioxidants and plant-powered vitamins and minerals such as omega-3 fatty acids.

It also seems that it can tick all the boxes when it comes to sustainability. Algae can grow 10 times faster than terrestrial plants, and less than a tenth of the land is needed to produce an equivalent amount of biomass.

Furthermore, it requires far fewer resources compared to other land-based crops, as it can be cultivated in absence of freshwater or pesticides, making it a resilient crop against future changes in climate.

Despite all of this, only 500 of 10,000 species are currently exploited and recognised as food – but that number is on the rise.

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Plant-based growth

Considering the wider explosion of the plant-based sector, it isn’t surprising that algae is being pursued as a functional ingredient. Previously widely used in animal feed, the high protein yield of certain microalgae lend to them being an ideal ingredient for a variety of foodstuffs – plant-based burgers spring to mind in particular.

In fact, earlier this year French biomarine startup Algaia announced the completion of a €2.2m investment round in order to maintain its rapid growth, particularly highlighting its seaweed-based texturing solution, designed to contribute shape and structure and add juiciness to plant-based burgers.

“In 2019, Algaia recorded a 17% sales growth, plus an additional 25% sales growth over the first four months of 2020,” Frederic Faure, business development director for Algaia explained back in May.

“Sales grew dramatically across a range of segments, and we recorded even higher demand in vegan applications where a series of new seaweed-based products was recently launched.”

Indeed, it seems across the industry there is a concerted effort to highlight applications for plant-based food. At this year’s Vitafoods exhibition, Portuguese microalgae specialist Allmicroalgae highlighted three key offerings that are all high-quality sources of macro and micronutrients, including high – over 50% – protein content, which the company avidly highlighted as it targeted applications for the vegetarian and vegan sectors.

Government funding for research

This year has also seen impetus from governmental organisations for more research into algae. In February, Danish research project Microalgae for food, the result of a collaboration between small and medium-sized enterprises and academia, received DKK 750,000 (approximately $109,300) in funding from Danish Ministry of Education and Science to investigate the use of microalgae as a sustainable protein source.

Again, health benefits and the increase in plant-based diets were on the radar, as Anne Maria Hansen, member of the National Bioeconomy Panel and director of innovation at the Danish Technological Institute highlighted:

“The project will precisely address the need for new protein value chains and at the same time microalgae-based foods will support an increasing demand for a more plant-based diet.”

More recently, on the other side of the globe, a new research partnership between several Singaporean and New Zealand science institutes is also looking into the potential of the red seaweed, Karengo, and the microalga Chlorella as everyday alternative protein sources.

Backed with a $3m grant from the New Zealand Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s catalyst fund, the Cawthron Institute will work alongside New Zealand-based researchers from the Riddet Institute, as well as international partners at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

Further to the dietary and sustainability benefits, during the project’s announcement at the start of October lead researcher Dr Tom Wheeler also noted that there are economic benefits for maritime nations.

“Seaweed is set to become the third pillar of New Zealand’s aquaculture industry alongside finfish and shellfish,” he explained. “This kind of research and development will inform investment and policy-making that supports the sustainable long-term growth of the industry.”

Big Food paying attention

As with most niche ingredients, something of an explosion can be expected once Big Food starts to take a notable interest. At the end of 2019, food giant Nestlé announced a partnership with Dutch food and biochemicals company Corbion – a company that certainly can’t be described as a minnow – to develop microalgae-based ingredients for, you guessed it, plant-based products.

In a statement, Nestlé said it was “actively exploring the use of microalgae as an alternative protein and micronutrient source”. If Nestlé and Corbion are looking to ensure they have a stake in, as a Corbion spokesperson surmised, “the next generation of algae-based ingredients”, many would conclude that algae is a fairly safe bet for the future.

Meanwhile, in a similar move, this summer saw global FMCG firm Unilever partnering with UK biotech startup Algenuity to explore the use of microalgae protein in its plant-based food portfolio. Unilever, as well as nodding to the need to address consumer’s plant-based wants, also highlighted that the ingredient has “a significant part to play in food system transformation”.
This potential for improved sustainability is also a vital consideration for the big names in food. Manfred Aben, vice-president of science & technology Research & Development and site leader of Hive, Unilever’s global foods innovation centre, explained when the partnership was announced in July that “transitioning to a sustainable food system requires all of us to work together”.
“It’s one of the world’s greatest challenges and will not happen without partnerships and collaborations,” he added.
So, aside from the need for more functional ingredients in plant-based offerings, the potential of algae to aid Big Food’s commitment to improving sustainability may well attract increased investment, considering the host of environmental pledges that have been made. But it can’t be ignored that the big boys are waking up to algae, and the future looks increasingly green.