Could algae-based Omega 3s eventually replace fish oil?
A Toronto-based start up is aiming to put algae-based Omega 3s in literally everything.
When I wrote about a vegan cheese that was actually quite good, one commenter noted that it had few of the nutritional qualities one would normally get from a dairy-based cheese.
It was a fair point.
If the recent hype about bleeding veggie burgers and plant-based 'tuna' really takes off, it's going to be super critical that we keep an eye on nutrients that have traditionally been derived from animal products.
Of course, protein we can get from beans. (And our planet will be better for it.) But what about essential fatty acids like Omega 3s? Traditionally, humans have consumed those in the form of nuts, seeds and fatty fish or fish oils. But while nuts and seeds can provide ALAs, many nutritionists advise that humans also need DHA and EPA—both of which are primarily found in fish... and algae.
So could algae one day replace fish oil in our diets?
We caught up with Ben Kelly, co-founder of Algarithm—a company creating algae-based ingredients for the food and beverage industries. The goal of the company, says Ben, is to "put Omega 3s everywhere". Here's how the company came about:
"Our parent company—POS Biosciences—had been doing work extracting nutritional lipids from algae. Primarily, those products went into infant formula and prenatals. In recent years, however, the market has shifted. Some algae-based processes have fallen off patent, and the decline in crude oil prices has led biofuel start-ups to start taking value added, nutritional applications more seriously. We created Algarithm as a spin-off company to help grow this new and exciting market."
The goal, says Ben, is not to simply create nutritional supplements that reach a limited audience. Instead, Algarithm has developed emulsions and cold- and heat-tolerant powders that allow companies to incorporate algae-based DHA into products like pancakes, veggie burgers, vegan ice cream or smoothies. Algarithm has demonstrated products ranging from energy bars to ice creams. Now, together with a company called Virun—which was instrumental in helping to launch Algarithm in the first place—the company is launching a range of smoothies that incorporate algae-based DHA. The vision of Virun CEO Philip Bromley, says Ben, was to create dietary supplements that "provide consumers with a good tasting experience without sugar by using healthy fats and natural flavors."
Of course, all this is still a far cry from TreeHugger's usual focus on real food and pastoral organic farms (yes, I too did a double take at the "breakfast with bacon flavor" smoothie!). But given the dire state of our oceans, and the unpredictability of our climate, I suspect humans would be well-placed to develop more climate resilient alternatives to fish-based nutrients.
I ask Ben if he ever sees a day when algae-based omega 3s completely replace fish oils, and his answer is interesting:
"That's really up to the fishing industry. Clearly, we can't keep mining our oceans at the rate we currently are. And much of what we're catching is contaminated with mercury, pesticides and other pollutants. Climate change is also having an impact, as mackerel and anchovy are producing lower quantities of omega 3s as the water around them warms. So it's a question of whether the industry can sustain itself and weather these trends."
Certainly, Ben sees a time when the price gap will narrow and eventually converge. Currently, he says, algae-based DHA is trading at between $50 and $75 per kilo, compared to $10 or $15 for fish-based oil. But he sees a medium-term prospect for bringing the price down to below $50, and maybe even further. If fish oil prices go up at the same time, there could well be a tipping point.
With some experts predicting we'll be out of seafood by 2048, it's certainly not too hard to imagine a world where we replace fish with plants.
Whether that means we'll be drinking bacon-flavored smoothies, that remains to be seen.