Certain kinds of algae are already commonplace in our diets. For example, your sushi rolls and musubi are wrapped in seaweed (a marine algae), the food additive carrageenan is derived from seaweed, and algae-derived Omega-3s are used in supplements for those who shun fish oil. But this humble sea plant suddenly seems poised for its superfood moment. “Algae is earth’s original superfood,” says Mark Brooks, senior vice president of food ingredients at TerraVia, makers of Thrive algae oil. “Before kale, chia, acai and quinoa, there was algae.”
There are plenty of good reasons to eat more algae, in terms of both nutrition and sustainability. On the sustainability front, algae, which can grow up to 30 times faster than corn, doesn’t require a lot of space to produce. “Algae doesn’t require fertile soil, fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizers or pesticides in order to grow,” says Mark R. Edwards, an agribusiness professor emeritus at Arizona State University. “Algae can deliver superior nutrition without pollution or waste.”
Nutritionally, algae has lots to offer — especially to anyone who eats a mostly plant-based diet. “Algae is a vegetarian source of protein, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids and B vitamins, including B-12,” says Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “And there is some evidence that the carotenoids, fiber and plant sterols in blue-green algae can play a role in lowering cholesterol, reducing inflammation and protecting against oxidative stress.”
So in what sorts of new ways will you soon be seeing algae? According to Professor Edwards, we can expect algae-based meat alternatives, algae protein powders as a vegan alternative to standard protein powders and algae-based nutrients as functional food ingredients that deliver vitamins and minerals. Products already on store shelves include Thrive, an algae oil by TerraVia. The company claims that the oil has 75 percent less saturated fat than olive oil and that just one tablespoon of it contains 13 grams of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat (the amount in a whole avocado). You’ll also find Follow Your Heart’s VeganEgg, a substitute made from algae that scrambles up just like the real thing. And some protein powders, like Olly Smoothie blends, get their protein boost from algae. “Food manufacturers have been excited about the potential of algae to improve the nutritional, taste and sustainability profile of their products,” says Brooks. “So consumers can expect to continue to see more algae products in the year ahead.”
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.