HomeInnovationThe role of microalgae in food and feed, state of the art. #ProFutureEU

The role of microalgae in food and feed, state of the art. #ProFutureEU

The state of the art on the role of microalgae in food and feed is presented at the final conference of the #ProFutureEU research project, in Brussels, Sept. 13-14, 2023.

#ProFuture – 'Microalgae for the foods and feeds of the future. Insights into microalgae value chain & alternative proteins' – in Horizon 2020, has engaged the 31 members of the research consortium for four years. (1) The results, in summary, to follow.

1) ProFuture, introduction

The scientific coordinator of the ProFuture project – Massimo Castellari of IRTA (Institut de Recerca i Tecnologia Agroalimentàries, Gyrona, Catalunya, Spain) – recalls why research on the 'future proteins' has focused on microalgae. These primitive organisms, through photosynthesis, capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to turn it into biomass and produce more than half of the oxygen on earth.

The dietary use of microalgae has been documented since the time of the Aztec civilization, in Mexico, in the 2th century. (XNUMX) Thus, their use for human and animal nutrition has a very promising potential that is, however, still unexpressed in Europe for various reasons:

– biomass production costs still too high due to unoptimized technologies,

– extraction yields of protein isolates, in particular, tend to be insufficient,

– European regulation of novel foods is complex and onerous.

The ProFuture consortium partners therefore evaluated: 

– available technologies, with a view to optimizing sustainable production processes,

– the nutritional, technological and organoleptic properties of four microalgae,

– experimental applications on a variety of foods and feeds,

– the market scenario and outlook, including in light of consumer surveys,

– the procedures, including simplified procedures, for the authorization of novel foods in the European Union.

2) Cultivation of microalgae

Wageningen University (NL) – through Iago Teles, research manager, Microalgal Bio-technology – highlights the extraordinary versatility of these primitive plants, which are able to grow in fresh and salt water in a wide variety of conditions, in light and dark. The research conducted in the ProFuture project followed a scale-up approach, from the laboratory to the production park, to consider:

– biodiversity. Examination of the characteristics - e.g. protein and glutamic acid levels (with influence on umami flavor), colors (green, yellow, white) - of different strains of microalgae, not genetically modified,

– circular economy. Use of insect frass as substrate for Chlorella cultivation, at the Norwegian Research Center (Norce), (3,4)

– heterotrophic growth (in the dark). Cost and benefit analysis, comparing with photosynthesis, at Allmicroalgae (Portugal),

– reduction of energy consumption. Transparent glass photobioreactors and photovoltaic panels have been installed in the Necton (Portugal) facilities, where different conditions of microalgae cultivation are being tested (i.e., off-the-grid, with energy autonomy provided by solar panels; periodic pump shutdown at night times),

– protection from ravenous amoeboid single-celled organisms (using ammonia, as an alternative to nitrite).

3) Protein ingredients

Algosource (France), through the voice of the project manager Imma Gifuni, expresses the results of the research on how to implement protein ingredients from microalgae with sustainable and affordable processes:

– unicellular proteins (Chlorella, Arthrospira platensis – spirulina, Tetraselmis chui, Nannochloropsis oceanica). Stabilization with solar drying has shown promising results, albeit with variable results depending on the microalgae used, (5)

– protein isolates. The goal of using only mechanical and electrical technologies, without using solvents, was achieved with extraction and appreciable results (30,5 percent. 18,5 percent at purification outcome) in the case of spirulina alone. Its isolate is distinguished by its high protein digestibility, dark blue color, and technological performance (high water solubility, foaming properties) foaming) but costs remain high (see section 7 below).

4) EABA (European Algae Biomass Association), EU4Algae, Algae Awareness Day

EABA (European Algae Biomass Association) is presented by its vice-president Jean-Paul Cadoret, chief scientific officer of Algama (France) with thirty years of experience in the production of microalgae. The European association is made up of 230 members including Allmicroalgae, Green Aqua and Necton (Portugal), Algalif (Iceland), Roquette (in Germany, since 1999), Mixrofit (France) and various others in Spain, Holland, Israel. Relatively small cultivation basins are operational in France (Biomarine) and Italy (Livegreen in Sardinia, Archimede Ricerche), Spain (Biorizon).

EU4algae, as noted, is a European platform aimed at promoting synergies in the algae and microalgae sectors. (6) 670 registered members, 7 working groups.

Algae Awareness Day. The first European algae awareness summit is being held in Paris, at the Maison de l'Océan, on October 5-7, 2023. An opportunity to recall the 23 actions proposed by the European Commission (2022) to support algae and microalgae supply chains. (7)

5) #ProfutureEU. Reformulation of foods with microalgae

The addition of microalgae to foods – coordinated in ProFuture by IRTA, through Josep Composada – has been successfully tested on a variety of products. Research and development have been focused on specific objectives - nutritional, technological and organoleptic, in the different food categories - to identify the ingredients (microalgae strains, unicellular proteins or protein isolates) most suitable for the purposes. With a view to increasing protein contents, as well as replacing some food additives (8,9). This was followed by the industrial partners in the research consortium and the innovative foods developed by each:

– Tradizioni Padane (Italy). Vegan noodles with spirulina and veg fusilli with spirulina (3 percent) and apple fiber (5,2 percent), both rich in protein and fiber,

– Alver (Switzerland). Powdered vegetable soups with honey chlorella (5%) and pea proteins, carrot and ginger flavour, rich in protein,

– Viva Maris (Germany). Vegan sausages with golden chlorella (3%),

– Calé (France). Grissini (bread sticks) with chlorella (3,5%), croutons and crackers,

– Gutarra (Spain), vegetable cream rich in protein, without altering the taste compared to counterpart products, (10)

– Enervit (Italy), protein bars with spirulina (5%) and 'instant shake meal replacement' with Smooth Chlorella (5%),

– IRTA (Spain). Baked goods (grissini, crackers, croutons, muffins, brioche) with added A.Platnesis (spirulina), Smooth Chlorella, Tetraselmischui in various concentrations (1,5 percent, 2,5 percent, 3,5 percent).

6) #ProFuture. Feed reformulation with microalgae

Nutrition Science NV (Belgium), through Geert Bruggemann, lays out the challenge of reducing the soy dependence of the feed industry, which today absorbs about 80 percent of global production, 25 million tons in the EU alone. Soybeans are one of the leading causes of primary forest destruction in South America, and are therefore now subject to the Deforestation Regulation' (11) The use of European soya and other legumes in livestock farming, on the other hand, does not solve the problem of competition with their food destiny. Attention is therefore directed towards the insects, black soldier fly (in primis), (12) and other biomasses such as microalgae.

Microalgae have been included in feeds, in addition to and/or as a replacement for the protein ration, used in poultry farming (broilers), piglets, shrimp and fish (carp, African catfish, 10 and 20 percent microalgae in feeds). With results:

– very promising in piglet breeding (with unicellular Nannochloropsis proteins),

– equally positive on fish (Vitafort. Nannochloropsis for carp, Chlorella for African catfish),

– not as favorable with chickens (due to slower growth rate and yellowing of meat and skin),

– awaiting results on shrimp. However, costs, predictably, are not competitive with international GMO soybean listings.

7) Microalgae production on an industrial scale, feasibility studies

Necton SA (Portugal), through Alexandre Rodrigues, presents feasibility studies conducted in the ProFuture research project, with the objective of evaluating optimizing the costs of sustainable production of microalgae and protein ingredients. Experiments have included the use of technologies to follow:

– cultivation. Photobioreactors for Nannochloropsis and Tetraselmis, in the Necton plant; fermentation to produce Chlorella and 'raceway ponds' for spirulina, in the Allmicroalgae plant (Portugal),

– drying. Freeze-drying for Nannochloropsis, spray-drying for Chlorella, solar drying for Spirulina,

– protein extraction from frozen Tetraselmis and Spirulina by mechanical processes (mixing, centrifugation, microfiltration and ultrafiltration, at Agrosource (France).

The production challenge is to optimize the costs of solvent-free protein isolation (from the most suitable microalgae strains for this purpose) and offset them with a strategy that includes:

– communication of the added value of the final product,

– the parallel isolation of other valuable substances (i.e. Omega 3 fatty acids),

– the enhancement of coproducts (e.g. spirugrass) that maintain appreciable contents of essential amino acids and other substances. Although stabilization costs by HPP (High Pressure Pastorization), which better preserve nature and functionality of the goods, still have high costs compared to heat treatments.

8) European value-chain

The European value-chain analysis  offered by Apexagri shows how the microalgae sector, in the Old Continent, is experiencing a transition phase while waiting for the big leap forward. Indeed:

– the market is still far from its reasonable growth prospects, consumers are unfamiliar with microalgae that are still relegated to a niche,

– producers are few and their financial structures are still fragile, beyond a small number of textbook business cases and/or acquisition and/or membership in large industry groups,

– the immaturity of the supply chain is not conducive to the cohesion instead needed to communicate its value and achieve the deserved returns in terms of public funding and commercial success. (13)

9) Growth forecasts, decision support tool

AXIA Innovation (Munich, Germany), thanks to Marinella Tsakalova, confirms the promising growth forecasts of microalgae on the European market:

– sales volumes of microalgae-based products are estimated to rise from 6.266 t in 2021 to 9.720 t in 2031 (Transparency Market Research data),

– overall annual growth (CAGR) is estimated at +5,7% (US$ 918,2 million to US$ 1,6 bln, over the period 2023-2031), +7.2% in the feed sector (Mordor Intelligence data).

However, there is a widespread need--by operators--for human resources and expertise, databases and software useful for planning investments, optimizing production and the value chain. AlgaVantage is the software developed for this purpose by AXIA, a Decision Support Tool (DST) dedicated to the microalgae supply chain, which has already been invited to participate in the EU Innovation Radar Prize 2023.

10) LCA, LCC

ESU service (Switzerland), through Marina Busta, presents issues related to LCA and LCC (Life Cycle Assessment, Life Cycle Costing). The functional unit considered is 1 kg protein, applying the method Environmental Footprint 3.0 (background: ESU Database, ESU World Food Database).

Energy consumption it is still high, to the point that microalgae can compete with animal proteins but not with plants. In this regard, however, it is worth noting that:

– LCA does not consider the savings in arable land that microalgae cultivation provides, nor the indirect impact of soybean consumption on deforestation,

– optimization of production processes-i.e. combination of photobioreactors and fermentation (see section 13), use of solar dryers, use of renewable energy sources, etc. - enables further reduction of the environmental impact of atmospheric CO2 capture players. (13)

11) Consumer perspective

Christine Yung Hung of Ghent University (Belgium) presents the results of research conducted in ProFuture, together with Wageningen University and IRTA, on European consumers' perceptions of microalgae:

– familiarity, perception, willingness to try and buy foods with microalgae vary significantly among consumers in different EU countries,

– Big Data analysis shows a strong positive association of microalgae with health benefits, favorable nutritional and organoleptic properties, sustainability,

– positive feelings toward these superfoods seem 'over-optimistic,' not even supported by scientific evidence, which is therefore appropriate to communicate,

– the difficulty of finding foods with microalgae in supermarkets and the risk of running into ultra-processed foods are the two downsides. Their incidence is marginal on the web and yet substantial on the shelf supply side for market development.

11.1) European consumer survey

At the end of the treatment surveyed European consumers among 3.027 participants-in 2021, before the permacrisis - that showed an appreciable 'willingness to try and to pay'. All the more so in the presence of organic logos (with willingness to spend estimated at +1,38€/500g pasta with microalgae), Nutriscore with A score (+1,16€), Vegan logo (+0,89€). Four groups of consumers were identified::

– enthusiastic (27,4%). The typical profile is a consumer in Italy, 18-29 years old, university education, favorable financial situation, 'flexitarian' diet,

- 'cautiously waiting' (29,6%). Same profile, also in other demographic groups,

– undecided (29,7%). Typical young consumer profile (18-29 years) in Hungary, secondary and higher education, average economic status, sometimes underweight,

– not interested (13,3%). Typical consumer profile in Germany and Hungary, age 66-75, secondary education, economic difficulties, possible underweight.

The two central groups the ones of greatest interest to marketers. marketingTransparent information and communication about microalgae can increase general interest in their health, environmental value and nutritional properties (proteins, fiber, Omega-3, vitamins). Without neglecting the two factors:

– organoleptic. The appreciation of foods with microalgae proteins is strongly influenced by their sensory attributes,

- price. Exaggerated food inflation in 2022-2023 may now affect the willingness to recognize the higher value of products (writer's note).

Key messages – ProFuture

  • Perceptions are generally favorable despite the unfamiliarity
  • REadiness-to-eat varies between countries and carrier products
  • Optimism surrounds the innovativeness, sustainability and healthiness
  • Future marketing efforts should be tailored to consumer segments

12) Market outlook

Lina Vaher of CIVITTA Eesti AS (Estonia) exposes the market dynamics of microalgae, in terms of 'business opportunities":

- request. Four geographical areas in Europe express different attitudes towards food. In Northern Europe, a highly digitalized society shows a high propensity towards innovation, with growing attention towards aquaculture, organic and natural foods. In Central Europe there is a growing integration with the culinary cultures of other countries, the propensity towards the bioeconomy and organic. In Eastern Europe there is a wide diversity of culinary practices. In the South, cultural links with tradition are integrated with a favorable attitude towards health and aquaculture,

- supply. 255 companies today in Europe offer products containing 15 microalgae. France ranks first (56,5% of producers), followed by Spain (8,6%), Italy (7,8%) and Germany (7,5%). Spirulina, offered by 166 operators, dominates the scene. (14) The main applications concern food and 'food supplements' (68% of operators), cosmetics (11,5%), drugs (6,5%), feed and agricultural biostimulants. (15,16) However, supply is fragmented, with a prevalence of small, rarely interconnected producers working on a few product categories and applications.

12.1) Market evolution and current uncertainties

The evolution of the market is pronounced, Lina Vaher continues:

– interest in plant-based, 'functional' and 'health' foods, as well as in protein-historical prerogatives of vegans, people with intolerances and chronic diseases, and athletes, respectively-has reached the 'mass market' in recent years,

– sensitivity to both pesticide residues in food and food additives has increased. (17)

Current uncertainties – marked by war on the Union's borders and rising energy costs – also have an influence on price volatility and consumer choices. The vulnerability of small players exploring niche markets is also reported, with a growth in their dependence on 'online marketplaces'.

13) Case-studies

Allmicroalgae, Natural Products SA (Portugal), is one of the largest producers of microalgae in Europe (> 100t/year). It produces microalgae in powder and paste, as well as organic spirulina in powder and flakes, with a wide variety of products (www.allmashop.pt). The economy of scale is essential, explains Hélena Cardoso of Allmicroalgae, and also presents advantages in terms of yield per occupied territory and water consumption: Nannochloropsis reaches 6.171 kg per hectare with 20 L of water, compared to 665 kg/ha of soybeans with 9.065 L of water.

Production using photobioreactors - compared to fermentation - allows us to obtain higher levels of proteins, Omega 3 fatty acids, chlorophyll and antioxidant pigments. Versatility is also important in product differentiation. By integrating the two systems, the biomass yield can be increased up to 100 times, halving the time. Other research projects have since enabled applications in other food matrices-including bread, cous-cous, and pesto-which, however, have not been industrially developed. The market is still immature.

Algama (Paris. With offices in Avignon, France, and NYC, USA) is another successful example. 22,5 million euros of capital raised, 25 patents in 31 countries, 40 employees with 75% of human resources dedicated to research and development, 4 active spin-offs and 3 products on the market. From Tamalga – a vegetable egg substitute, also intended for industry and the Ho.Re.Ca. – to 'The Good Spoon', the first vegan mayonnaise brand available in four flavours. 

14) #Horizon4Proteins

#Circalgae – CIRCular valorisation of industrial ALGAE waste streams into high-value products to foster future sustainable blue biorefineries in Europe – is the most recent research project, in Horizon Europe, dedicated to the development of the circular economy in the microalgae supply chain. Amparo Jimenez Quero of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), project coordinator, explains the goal of extracting proteins, fibers, pigments and other substances from microalgae coproducts and thus increase the blue bioeconomy with a 'cascading biorefining' approach, to:

– integrate the production model of macro and microalgae, which today produces over 36 million tonnes/year of algal biomass globally throughout the world) and

– valorise the largely underutilized waste and waste streams of these industries, which can add up to 95% of the initial biomass in dry weight).

#Horizon4Proteins is the group of research projects dedicated to the analysis, testing and development of a variety of alternative protein sources to meat, including through upcycling of co-products from other supply chains. (18) 300 partners share activities and information campaigns, webinar and events, 'policy briefs'. (19) In addition to #ProFuture, they are partecipating:

#NextGenProteins. Focus on microalgae and insects,

#SmartProteins. Cereals and legumes (quinoa, broad beans, chickpeas, lentils), plant protein isolates, mushroom fermentation, yeasts,

#Susinchain. Insects (black soldier fly) for food and feed,

#GiantLeaps. Cereals, legumes, microalgae and other plant protein sources, (20)

#Like-A-Pro. A holistic approach to facilitate dietary transition to the above sources.

15) Novel Foods Regulation (EU) No 2015/2286

Novel Foods Regulation (EU) No 2015/2286 is to date the biggest hurdle to face in innovative protein research and development. The potential of microalgae is extraordinary, as only about 72.500 out of at least XNUMX strains estimated to exist are used as food ingredients today. But research players-universities and their spin-offs, innovative startups, and SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises)-are unable to bear the burdens and costs of licensing procedures. Delays in turn constitute a failure for those in the real world who deal with banks and investors.

EFSA – through Estefanía Noriega Fernández – offers some insights into the authorization mechanism for novel foods where the European Food Safety Authority has the sole, albeit crucial task of expressing scientific opinions on individual dossiers. (21) Since toxicity and cytotoxicity studies represent a primary cost item, some crucial aspects should be recalled:

– Transparency Regulation (EU) No 2019/1381 introduced the obligation to notify EFSA of all studies to be carried out in view of an application or notification in relation to which EU law requires a scientific opinion from the Authority (e.g. novel food, food additives, etc.), under penalty of their unusability,

– the notification procedure for traditional foods from third countries, as an alternative to the authorization of novel foods, can save considerable time and resources, (22)

– EFSA has introduced the Qualified Presumption of Safety (QPS), for a number of microorganisms, which in turn can reduce the evidentiary burden on applicants, (23)

– the authorization and notification procedures can also be activated by groups of stakeholders gathered in 'legal entities' such as research consortia and sector associations (writer's note).

Provisional conclusions

The #ProFutureEU research project has made it possible to complete the goals set, and to open up important perspectives on a high-potential supply chain in the context of the blue bioeconomy. A model of sustainable development of particular use in contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals related to food security (#sdg2), nutrition security (#sdg3), sustainability of production and consumption (#sfg12), climate change mitigation (#sdg13), protection of aquatic ecosystems (#sdg14) and terrestrial resources (#sdg15).

WIISE benefits – by the voice of the writer (24) - recalls the 'policy briefs' already expressed in ProFuture, in which it participates, as well as in Horizon4Proteins. (19) Promoting the 'dietary shift' requires network synergies among stakeholders but also the support of institutions and listening to political demands. A unified vision that considers both the needs for regulatory reforms and the need to promote a concrete and ongoing impact of research and development is essential. EU-funded research projects should include novel food licensing procedures in their results so that open innovation can reach the market and have a positive impact on communities and ecosystems.

Dario Dongo 

Footnotes

(1) Dario Dongo. ProFuture, microalgae to feed the planet. The EU research project. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(2) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Algae and microalgae for food use in Europe, the ABC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(3) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Insects and frass, circular economy in agri-food systems. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(4) Another example of upcycling in microalgae production involves the use of secondary streams from various food chains. V. Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. Upcycling microalgae for vegan ice cream rich in proteins and vitamins. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(5) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. ProFuture, solar drying for sustainable microalgae. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(6) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. EU4Algae, the EU platform to promote algae and microalgae. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(7) Marta Strinati. The European Commission proposes 23 actions for the seaweed industry. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(8) Microalgae and cyanobacteria can also be used to supplement foods and food supplements with other nutrients (e.g. Omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibre), micronutrients (e.g. vitamins, minerals) and other substances (e.g. bioactive compounds with antioxidant and other beneficial features). The ProFuture research project focused on proteins, also observing the technological properties (eg water solubility, water holding, oil holding, foaming, foam stability, gelling, gel strength, emulsifying, emulsifying stability, coloring) that can contribute to making foods with 'clean labels' (see note 8)

(9) Dario Dongo. 'Free from' and 'Clean label', the necessary breakthrough. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(10) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Addition of microalgae to vegetable creams, ProFuture. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(11) Dario Dongo. Deforestation Regulation. Due diligence on critical raw materials begins. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(12) Andrea Adelmo Della Penna, Dario Dongo. Black soldier fly larvae, proteins and oils from organic waste. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(13) Dario Dongo, Giulia Pietrollini. Algae and microalgae. Carbon farming and CO2 upcycling. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(14) Dario Dongo, Marta Singed. Spirulina, the microalgae that nourishes, stimulates the immune system and helps you lose weight. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(15) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. One Health and Antibiotic Resistance, one solution at your fingertips. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(16) Dario Dongo, Giulia Torre. Microorganisms and microalgae in agriculture, sustainable innovation. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(17) Marta Strinati. Special Eurobarometer 2022 on food safety. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(18) Dario Dongo. Proteins for the future, novel food. Challenges and opportunities in the EU. DO (Food and Agriculture Requirements).

(19) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Horizon4Proteins. Protein research compared with EU policies and rules. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 21.5.23

(20) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Agrobiodiversity, ecological transition and mycoproteins. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(21) Dario Dongo, Giulia Torre. Microalgae for food use and regulation of Novel Foods, the state of the art in the EU. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(22) Dario Dongo. Notification of traditional foods from third countries such as Novel Foods in the EU. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(23) Dario Dongo, Giulia Torre. Microalgae, novel food and qualified presumption of safety of microorganisms. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(24) Dario Dongo. Wiise Srl benefit company, impact report 2021. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

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