April 25th 2023
Going Green: 9 Algae-Based Foods and Products BY Isabel Putinja
Did you know that there are over 30,000 types of algae and new species of this aquatic plant are still in the process of being discovered?
Algae grows in fresh and saltwater as well as on rocky shorelines, and is an important part of the ecosystem as a converter of carbon dioxide into oxygen, as well as a food source for other organisms.
It’s also an important food for humans: algae has long been a staple in the cuisines of Japan, China and Korea, as well as the Philippines and Indonesia. Rich in nutrients and antioxidants, as well as protein, fiber and Omega 3s, this is a healthy and versatile super food that has reached western palates.
But algae has other properties that allow it to be used to produce not only food products but also bioplastics and biofuels. Namely, it’s an entirely renewable resource that can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and unsustainable materials like plastic.
Here are a few food and other products made of this surprising sea plant:
Spirulina’s use as an elixir goes way back. This blue-green algae was used by the Aztecs to boost endurance and treat illnesses. To produce spirulina, algae is dried and processed into a green powder that can be mixed into smoothies, juices and other foods.
Spirulina is full of anti-oxidants and phycocyanin, a plant-based protein that supercharges the body’s immune system and reduces inflammation. Spirulina can also provide pain relief and lower cholesterol levels.
Chlorella is a nutrient-rich form of algae cultivated in freshwater and similar to saltwater-sourced spirulina. It packs a punch when it comes to protein, and contains even more vitamins and minerals than spirulina. It’s also a good source of health-boosting Omega 3s as well as antioxidants, and is known to keep blood pressure under check and improve the function of blood vessels.
You can find chlorella in the form of capsules, or a dark green powder you can be added to smoothies for an extra punch at breakfast.
Kelp is a brown-colored algae rich in nutrients such as iron, iodine, calcium, folate, and magnesium. Called Kombu in Japanese, it’s a staple ingredient in Japan that’s used to make dashi soup stock to which it adds a savory punch. Kombu is an example of “umami”, considered to be the “fifth taste” – in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, which is usually described as “savory”.
There are dozens of different types of kelp that grow in shallow waters along rocky shorelines. Kelp can be bought fresh, frozen, dried, or processed into kelp noodles and added not only to soups but also to salads, or to enhance the flavors of a dish.
This edible seaweed is made of red algae. Once dehydrated, nori is processed into thin sheets and then roasted. Nori is another staple of Japanese cuisine used to wrap sushi rolls, and cut into thin strips and added as a garnish to rice, noodles, and salad.
Nori is rich in plant-based protein and is full of antioxidants. It also has health-boosting anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Nori sheets are usually used to make sushi, but they can also be shredded and added to salads for a protein pick-up, or added to pasta or other dishes to provide a slightly fishy umami taste.
Sea moss (also called Irish moss) is a dark red plant and a type of algae that grows on rocks along the coasts of the Atlantic ocean. It can be grown in a controlled ocean environment or collected directly from its natural habitat. Sea moss has been attracting attention for its health benefits and immunity boosting powers.
This plant contains a type of carbohydrate called carrageenan, which can be found in powder form and used as a flavorless thickener in recipes calling for a gelatin alternative. Sea moss itself has a taste similar to seaweed and can be included in smoothies for an extra dose of nutrients, or to soups and salads to add extra flavor.
This plant-based gelatin substitute is made from two types of red algae called Tengusa and Oganori. Available as a powder, it can be dissolved in hot water to create a jelly-like substance that can be used as a thickener in plant-based recipes. Agar agar has a high fiber content – a health property that’s a bonus for the digestive system.
Much progress has been made in the use of algae as a renewable alternative to conventional petroleum-based plastics. The advantage of bioplastics is that they use less energy to produce and are entirely biodegradable – this means a reduction in plastic waste and carbon emissions.
Bioplastics are made by extracting lipids from algae which are then transformed into a material that’s surprisingly similar to conventional plastic. This is utilized to make packaging for food, for example, and can be 3D-printed to create a variety of objects.
Biofuels are are another renewable resource made from algae. Biofuels include biodiesel, bioethanol, and biogas, energy sources that can power vehicles, provide heating, and generate electricity.
Once algae is cultivated, its lipids are extracted to create biofuels via different processes.