It’s funny, sometimes, the random facts you remember from when you were growing up. One I vividly remember is my 9th grade biology teacher telling us that lecithin, a common additive in food and cosmetics, was originally derived from algae. Who knows why this fact stuck with me (maybe because she challenged us to find a product that contained lecithin – and not the more common soy lecithin, but just normal ‘lecithin’), but it did, and last weekend I dropped this knowledge on an unsuspecting friend as we were drinking almond milk (which contains soy lecithin as a thickening agent and emulsifier). This random recollection opened up a whole other rabbit hole about other food products derived from our favorite charismatic micro-fauna (algae!). And now I’m subjecting you, the reader, to the same rabbit hole.
Disclaimer: Writing this post made me very hungry…(or maybe it was just around lunch time).
First, let’s talk about why algae might be a good food source in general. Mainly, 1. It can grow super fast; much faster than many land-based plants. 2. It’s incredibly dense in nutrients, proteins, and amino acids (all things we need). 3. It can be super efficient at taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The downsides? 1. You’d have to eat a TON of algae in order to feel full (or get the necessary amount of nutrients and calories needed to keep you going). 2. A lot of space (and water) is needed for tanks to grow pure algal cultures for food consumption. 3. It doesn’t taste very good….(think super fishy and seaweed-y). So as a primary food source, algae probably aren’t the best (at least until the technology catches up), but algae can be used for a variety of ingredients in food, particularly as thickening agents, emulsifiers, and preservatives. Here’s a few of those such ingredients (and where they come from!):
Nori (aka: dried seaweed) – We’ll start the list with the most common (and obvious!), nori, the green, fishy smelling, stuff that wraps most sushi rolls. Nori comes from the red macroalgae Pyropia and is grown and harvested in the sea from seedlings attached to nets at the sea surface. This type of red algae is kind of like grass (or lettuce) where multiple harvests can come from the same seedling. The Pyropia is harvested, shredded, pressed and dried to make the familiar sheets of nori (the drying process has been likened to paper making). Nori can then be used to wrap sushi rolls, dried (and seasoned) as a crispy snack, or added to many dishes as flavor. Yum!
- Carrageenan – Another relatively common algae derived food ingredient, is carrageenan. Unlike nori, this is more of a food additive as opposed to its own food ingredient, and is used mainly as a thickening agent in dairy and meat products (read any common dairy item, and you’re sure to find carrageenan listed as an ingredient…). Carrageenan is produced by a variety of red macroalgae species. The red algae is grown in the ocean at shallow depths, harvested, and the carrageenan extracted. You probably wouldn’t want to eat carrageenan on it’s own (it would have a super weird, jelly like, flavorless consistency), but it’s found in a whole list of products (both food and cosmetics) and is pretty easy to find on food labels…(and is even found in beer!).
Spirulina – And, let’s not leave out my favorite algae, phytoplankton! Spirulina has received lots of attention in recent months in the food blog world due to its high protein, antioxidant, iron, nutrient, and amino acid quality. Spirulina is actually a cyanobacteria (hello, blue-green algae!) and grows best at high pH and high temperature in freshwater ponds. Spirulina can be consumed in a variety of ways – in smoothies, tablets, pills, on toast, you name it….just be warned about it’s bright blue-green color and it’s fishy taste! In recent years, it has been investigated as a potential food source for the worlds growing population, but research indicates Spirulina has been consumed by humans since the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican populations used it as a food source way back until the 15th and 16th centuries.
So you can see that algae are already a pretty important ingredient in the food industry (even if they aren’t a primary food source… yet). And now I challenge you to find some products that contain algae! Bon appétit!