Analyzing algae as a plant protein source

by Jeff Gelski
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Food and beverage form-ulators may have reason to research a raw material normally known for being fish food. Algae-based ingredients may offer health and wellness attributes for human food as well. For example, they may boost plant protein levels in cheese crackers or smoothies, or they may improve the nutritional profile of an ice cream product.

A market also may exist for consumers seeking novel protein sources. A recent report from The NPD Group, Chicago, found three-fourths of consumers agree protein contributes to a healthy diet. One consumer category, called flexible protein users, accounted for 14% of the people in the study. They are more open-minded about protein sources and tend to shop at specialty stores.

Microalgae supplier Allma, based in Portugal, and Solazyme, Inc., based in South San Francisco, both will enter 2015 ready to detail reasons for formulating with algae-based protein ingredients.

Allma promoted its new Chlorella powder during Health Ingredients Europe in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, earlier this month. Chlorella (Chlorella vulgaris), a green alga, contains a range of essential micronutrients and phytochemicals and also is used as a natural food colorant, said Sofia Mendonca, business development manager for Allma. Chlorella powder from Allma contains vitamin B, vitamin C and vitamin E. The powder has iron, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium.

“Sun-grown chlorella by Allma is more than 55% protein, which means more than half of the powder, as supplied, is a complete vegetable protein,” Ms. Mendonca said. “This means that from 5 grams of chlorella, you would have about 2.75 grams of protein, or approximately 5.5 grams of protein
from 10 grams of chlorella.”

Higher chlorella powder concentrations are easier to achieve in such applications as smoothies, ice cream, cereals and sauces, she said. At Health Ingredients Europe, the company displayed tea, olive oil, a savory spread and chocolate, all enriched with the chlorella powder.

Allma this year introduced Chlorella Crunches, which are bite-size products that contain 17% chlorella powder. The crunches are suitable as inclusions in products such as yogurt, snack bars and salads, and they may be eaten on their own, too. At Health Ingredients Europe, Chlorella Crunches were featured in three flavors: carrot and raspberry, ginger and lemon, and rosemary and piri piri.

Chlorella comes with processing considerations.

“Being a microscopic alga, it has a strong odor and flavor, reminiscent of seaweed or sometimes even fresh grass or tea,” Ms. Mendonca said. “As such, it should be blended carefully, especially in food and beverage formulations, so that the intended taste of the end product is achieved.”

Santini, a Portuguese ice cream brand, features chlorella in a lemon sorbet.

“The sharp citrus flavor of the lemon complemented the fresh taste of the chlorella perfectly, and the sorbet quickly became one of Santini’s biggest selling products,” Ms. Mendonca said.

Allma grows chlorella in the Portuguese sun in photo-bioreactors, which allows for better control over parameters such as nutrient concentration, temperature and pH. Allma does not grow chlorella in open ponds.

“Almost all chlorella products currently originate from China, Taiwan and other Asian countries where production is carried out in open systems like ponds and raceways with lower associated costs,” Ms. Mendonca said. “Allma’s production systems are unique in terms of technology, and due to the fact that the whole production process takes place in closed, highly controlled systems called photo-bioreactors. This means the final product will present a much higher level of purity and also significantly higher levels of quality and food safety.”

Solazyme offers AlgaVia, a whole algal protein that contains not only protein but also fiber, healthy lipids and micronutrients such as lutein and zeaxanthin, said Kathy Samuelson, Solazyme food applications scientist. AlgaVia protein contains all the essential amino acids.

Crackers are one potential application for algae protein.

“For a cheese cracker formulation, we added about 19% AlgaVia whole algal protein and doubled the protein of a standard cheese cracker from 4 grams to 8 grams in a 30-gram serving,” Ms. Samuelson said. “Because AlgaVia whole algal protein also contains about 15% insoluble fiber, we were able to double the fiber content from 1 gram to 2 grams.”

The algae protein works well in high protein smoothies and may be added to a low pH beverage at 4% to achieve 6 grams of protein per serving, she said.

“The whole algal protein is easily dispersed, has no precipitation, has a minimal impact on viscosity and does not require the addition of other ingredients such as stabilizers,” Ms. Samuelson said.

AlgaVia whole algal protein may increase protein content in vegetarian soups such as tomato bisque, and incorporating AlgaVia at 2.5% of a salad dressing may add 1 gram of protein per serving. Solazyme formulated a chocolate shake with AlgaVia protein that had 10 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving, said Beata Klamczynska, food applications and technical services manager.

“AlgaVia whole algal protein has minimal interaction with other ingredients, allowing incorporation of protein into challenging applications,” she said. “The texture of AlgaVia whole algal protein is very smooth and doesn’t exhibit the grittiness associated with isolated proteins, especially in low pH systems.”

Solazyme offers another algae-based ingredient. AlgaVia whole algal flour replaces or reduces ingredients such as butter, egg yolk and oil. It is a lipid powder, said Sally Aaron, AlgaVia marketing director.

“The term flour is a description of the ingredient’s appearance only, and the ingredient itself is not a grain, does not contain any gluten and is not intended as a substitute for traditional wheat flours,” she said. “AlgaVia whole algal flour is a lipid powder that can be used to make food products with reduced fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories provide the same indulgent texture and taste as full-fat versions.”

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