What foods can algae microfarms grow?
May 29, 2016 — by Mark Edwards
he Green Friendship Bridge project focuses on enabling microfarmers throughout Mexico and Central America to grow food locally so they do not have to migrate north. The initial training will use spirulina because it is easy to grow, harvest, and make into a wide variety of foods.
The next question is: “What is the range of food products microfarmers can grow?” The answer is nearly unbelievable, until one understands unique attributes of the oldest and fastest growing plant on the planet, algae.
Any food, fibers or special compounds that can be made from land-based plants can be made from algae because land plants evolved from algae 500 million years ago. Terrestrial plants inherited their DNA from algae and somewhere an algae species resides in a moist habitat that retains the target compounds. Algae offer a much wider array of colors, textures, tastes and compounds than land plants.
Land plant species number less than 300,000, but only a few are useful as food for people. In the leading textbook, Algae, James Graham, Lee Wilcox and Linda Graham estimate algae species number over 10 million. Well over 95% of all their special compounds remain to be discovered, described and cultivated. Algae produce far more compounds than found in land plants because there are so many more species of algae than other organisms. Algae benefit from over 3 billion more years of adaptation and evolution than land plants. Algae have created ingenious survival strategies to maximize their growth and vitality and to repel predators.
Not only are algae far more diverse than terrestrial plants, algae grow far faster. A farmer growing corn must wait 120 days to harvest the first ounce of protein from the single crop a year. An algae microfarmer may wait 30 days for the inoculate to mature and then harvest daily the rest of the year in warm climates. Each kilo of algae harvested contains 3x the protein of corn.
Corn is a greedy crop and requires substantial cultivation and expensive NPK fertilizers as well as agricultural poisons. Heavy cultivation creates dust clouds and adds to soil loss. Corn consumes 10x more nitrogen than wheat, polluting the atmosphere with considerable NOx (nitrous oxides). Corn, a row crop, magnifies soils losses as wind and water move topsoil, (and fertilizers) quickly down the rows.
Besides superior nutrition, spirulina offers multiple advantages to the environment and those who cultivate it. Spirulina grows quickly and reproduces at a growth rate of about 30% a day. Growers can produce 30x more protein each year on each acre. Spirulina requires 20x less water than other vegetables, 50x less than field crops such as corn and 80x less than growing beef protein. Growers do not have to expend heavy labor, work with dangerous equipment, be exposed to agricultural poisons or farm in bad weather. Microfarms can be tailored to enable young, elderly and even handicapped people to grow food locally.
Algae in food
Consumers eat lots of algae in modern foods as algae ingredients are already integrated throughout our food, feed, cosmetics and medicines. A market basket test at Arizona State University found that nearly 70% of products consumers commonly buy at the supermarket contain compounds sourced from algae. These products include ice cream, functional foods, health foods, dairy, beer, soft drinks, jams, bakery products, soups, sauces, pie fillings, cakes, frostings, colorings, ulcer remedies, digestive aids, eye drops, tooth paste, skin creams and shampoos.
Many dairy products contain carrageenan extracted from red macroalgae, (seaweed) to give creamed soups, sour cream, chocolate milk and cheese a denser consistency. Many dairy products such as milk shakes contain alginic acid that acts as both a stabilizer and emulsifier. Gelatin contains agar that can solidify most foods that come in a liquid form. Agar was first used in China in the 17th century and is now found in hundreds of foods such as pie crusts, pumpkin pie filling, breads, pastries and flavored gelatin.
Most people outside of Asia do not eat algae directly but enjoy the products made from algae components that include: algae flour in lieu of wheat, corn or soy flour; algae oils that are healthier and less fattening than food grain oils, and algae nutrients such as essential vitamins, minerals, trace elements and omega-3 fatty acids.
Algae supply high-protein, low-fat, nutritious, healthy and delicious human foods. Algae provide more vitamins, minerals and nutrients than land plants because their cell size is so tiny, 5 to 10 microns, a small fraction of terrestrial plant cells. Small cell size creates massive surface area for nutrient absorption and adsorption. Adsorption is the process whereby some elements and molecules cling to, (chelate with) the outside of the cell. Algae consumers receive the benefits of all algae nutrients because the tiny cell size makes the nutrients highly bioabsorbable.
Algae provide more nutralence than any other food on earth. Nutralence includes nutrient density, diversity and bioabsorption. Terrestrial plants are extremely limited in nutrient density due to cell size and plant composition. Many plants provide “hidden hunger” where the consumer eats lots of calories but gets only a few nutrients per bite.
Nutrient diversity is restricted in land plants by the reach of their roots and nutrient carrying capacity. If specific nutrients, vitamins or minerals are not present and absorbable in the soil, the plant often grows, but without important nutrients. This amplifies hidden hunger. Many vegetables in supermarkets such as tomatoes have only a fraction of the nutrients found 30 years ago because they are grown on worn-out soil.
It may seem improbable that tiny algae cells can provide sufficient vitamin A, iodine, iron, zinc and other nutrients even when the local diet does not. Typically, these critical trace elements exist in the local water but only in extremely weak dilution. People, especially children, are unable to drink enough water to acquire sufficient iodine. In many ecosystems, little fresh water is available for drinking. Algae’s secret to high nutralence stems from its ability to bioaccumulate nutrients in water at 1,000 times ambient levels. This means that even when some nutrients, minerals or vitamins may be lacking in human diets, algae can concentrate those nutrients in the green biomass.
Algae do not provide a full solution for malnutrition because the biomass delivers very few calories. However, calories are cheap to produce and easy to grow. One smart malnutrition strategy uses algae foods made from spirulina to restore essential nutrients, and algae biofertilizer to enhance the growth of nut trees or peanuts that provide loads of calories.
Algae as food
Macroalgae or sea vegetables have been eaten directly in Asia since at least 600 B.C. A list of common edible macroalgae shows a wide range of sea vegetables. Sea vegetables are known as the “marine medicinal food” because they contain many health-promoting molecules and materials, such as dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. Sea vegetables contain considerable protein, a few lipids and large amounts of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber promotes digestion when passing through the gastrointestinal tract. This function may reduce the risk of colorectal cancers, reduction of bowel inflammation and abdominal disorders and facilitate bowel movements.
Seaweed, similar to other algae species, has low caloric content and high dietary fiber, which can help control weight gain. Consumers feel fuller quicker as the food expands in the stomach, and eat less. Microfarmers along sea coasts can grow macroalgae. In addition, various microalgae can provide nutrients similar to macroalgae.
Microalgae such as spirulina provide an excellent source of foods and food ingredients such as lipids, proteins, polysaccharides, phenolics, carotenoids. Spirulina offers rich protein, about 60% by weight, which is 2½ times more protein per kilo than red meat. It also contains all of the essential amino acids, and 10 of the 12 non-essential amino acids, along with a potent array of other beneficial nutrients.
Spirulina’s protein efficiency ratio is very high, meaning the body efficiently uses the amino acids. Medical research reinforces that spirulina’s bioabsorption by the body is among the highest of any foods. Field studies show that children who received a spirulina supplement five days a week, for two months, had better nutritional status and improved intellectual status compared to those who did not. Web MD posts ratings on vitamins and supplements. Spirulina received 5 star ratings on effectiveness, ease of use and satisfaction. NASA and The European Space Agency are researching how to use spirulina in astronauts’ diets on a Mars mission.
Algae microfarms can produce healthier foods that deliver high nutralence with colorful and tasty forms. Spirulina foods provide superior nutrition and have decades of history with chefs and household cooks. Fresh, frozen or dried into flour, spirulina foods may be protein bars, burgers, drinks, cakes, ice cream or cookies.
Only one factor limits algae cooks — imagination!