By now, algae have reached a kind of superstar status: as climate savers, biofuel producers but mainly as food of the future. Can a small plant really be the solution for our big problems?
Algae definitely have the potential for it. They have been used in Asian cuisine for thousands of years- for example for sushi. For us, however, it is more important to identify and evaluate new food resources. The big challenges of our society like climate change, population growth and food security require a rethinking in the use of resources. In particular micro algae could play an important role in the future because they are rich in protein and healthy fats. And they are very simple to produce. Especially when taking a circular economy into account, we need to ask ourselves: How can we use food at as an early stage as possible that can be reproduced easily? And in this respect, algae are a very promising candidate.
According to a current study, in 2023 the estimated market value of algae and algae products will be approximately 45 billion USD,...
...that is absolutely realistic. We are currently observing that start-ups around the globe are working on new ways of cultivating algae. And the demand is definitely there. We need substitute products for animal protein derived from intensive livestock farming. There are already 17 billion chickens and approx. 280 million cattle on the planet. Animal farming is not only resource intensive but also releases a lot of methane thus accelerating climate change. Therefore we have to resort to an alternative source of protein - and algae are such a source.
What algae products are already available on the market?
There are already various products on the market that contain algae, for example in cosmetics. However, the food sector has also lots to offer. METRO Cash & Carry in Japan has a selection of more than 100 different types of macro algae. In addition, we are continually looking for innovative products and solutions that we could include in our product range. We also are collaborating with StartLife, among others, an incubation programme of the University of Wageningen for start-ups from the food and agriculture sector.
Have you tried some algae products yet?
Of course! In fact, a huge variety of them. Currently I have a product by the Danish company Syngja on the desk that produces a shot from spirulina algae and cricket powder. It is an acquired taste particularly when you think of the individual ingredients. However, I am convinced that such products are the food of the future.
Your prediction: Will insects succeed - or will algae be our main source of food by 2030?
I think that consumers will not find it as difficult to get used to algae as to insects. Even though insects have a huge potential for the food sector. In particular, in western countries is the objection to consumption fairly high, even if the insects are processed into powder or flour and only are used as ingredients in other products. By contrast, algae are already significantly more widely used than insects and the market entry barrier is therefore a lot lower. My prediction consequently is that algae will win the race ahead of insects.
Fabio Ziemßen is an expert for Food Tech and Food Innovation at Horeca Digital, a business unit of the METRO AG. He investigates innovations in the food sector that can change the existing food system sustainably and offer important solutions with a view to global challenges such as population growth, urbanisation and climate change.