(This article covering blue-green algae (spirulina) is part of a series we’re calling Ingredients on the Rise, where we’re tracking emerging consumer interest in healthy and functional food, beverage, and supplement ingredients through a mix of social listening and online research. Read further for insights on the commonly understood benefits and use of spirulina, its formulation considerations, and the broader cultural lens that marks its rising popularity.)
Everyone knows that the 2020s are a whole new world; a world where science, consumer values and behaviors, and the global market as a whole have taken one big bunny hop in an uncharted direction. A world where the trends are now vibes and aesthetics, where youth are health-conscious, thrifty, homebodies, and maximalism and efficiency live in harmony. To keep pace with the rapidly changing market and culture, savvy brands should focus on products and ingredients that sit at the intersection of thoughtful and trendy. Useful and lovely. Traditional and novel. Spirulina.
Blue-Green Algae (Spirulina) Composition and Origin
The blue-green algae spirulina is not a new product; indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica, and Central Africa were already harvesting this aquatic resource on a large scale when the conquistadors landed in the Aztec empire.
In the 1960s the first modern processing plant for spirulina was established in Mexico. It’s been approved as a natural food colorant by the FDA and “generally recognized as safe” since 2014. And now, aquatic superfoods, vitamin seaweeds, and healthy algae are trending with searches skyrocketing on platforms like Pinterest and R&D departments are making gains in every direction. This blue-green algae is beautifully colored, nutrient-dense, and sustainable; what’s not to like? (Actually, more on that in a moment.)
Spirulina provides an excellent substrate for probiotic beverages, as it is a prebiotic that micro-flora can’t get enough of.
Health Benefits of Spirulina
Nutritionally, spirulina is on another level. In addition to the antioxidant phytopigments that give cyanobacteria their name, this algae boasts up to 70% protein when dried, is rich in essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and 8 of the 9 essential amino acids.
Clinical and pre-clinical research is also being conducted into its bioactive properties which indicates it may have a positive effect on cholesterol and blood pressure, immune regulation, anti-cancer processes, colitis, gut health, mood disorders, nasal allergies, periodontal health, and type 1 diabetes. Really! What’s not to like?
Beyond the direct health benefits of spirulina, the phytopigments in blue-green algae can be extracted and utilized as a heat- and cold-stable natural food coloring. Modern consumers are more aware than ever of the health risks of artificial coloring, and this ingredient opens the door for all-natural food formulations in the exciting and delectable colors that make products stand out.
Environmental Benefits of Spirulina
Spirulina is a single-cell filamentous organism, a healthy cyanobacterium that is photosynthetic and thrives in extremely alkaline brackish or salt water. Spirulina is excellent at carbon sequestration with our current closed system production operating as carbon neutral. Other ways that this trending ingredient meets the sustainability brief are by thriving on upcycled clean-carbon waste (from processes like brewing and ammonia production), using relatively small amounts of water, and providing nutrient-rich wastewater for additional agricultural purposes.
Formulation Opportunities of Spirulina
Contending with Spirulina Taste Perceptions
So. The elephant in the room. The flavor of spirulina has been described as “fishy”, “salty”, “slightly sulfuric”, and “like a mouth full of lake water.” The more adventurous (and kinder) reviewers say that spirulina’s taste is “earthy”, or “herbal”, or simply “healthy”. Consumers love the idea of spirulina, but the flavor has been a real stumbling block.
Emerging food science has found a way to turn that negative into a positive. Leaders in spirulina research and development now understand what it takes to sidestep the flavor problem entirely. Whole and fresh preparations of spirulina taste mild and have a creamy consistency with a smooth, buttery mouthfeel.
And this much gentler flavor profile is better preserved in freeze-drying than the oven and spray-drying preparations that are most common. Products that do not account for the higher production costs of this method may benefit from other low-heat drying processes that can adequately prevent off-flavors caused by nutrient breakdown during heating. This will enable the creation of palatable formulations with impressive nutritional values
Spirulina is an excellent nutritional fortifier in dairy products as it promotes lactic acid fermentation, extends shelf-life, and provides a substantial protein boost.
Extraction of Natural Coloring Presents Additional Use of Spirulina Protein
The process of extracting the amazing all-natural blue color from this raw ingredient left food scientists with a ton of algal protein in their hands. Spirulina protein has a distinctly savory flavor profile and is an excellent source of “heme” flavoring. Heme is the literal secret sauce that gave veggie burgers a fighting chance at America’s barbeques by finally making plant patties taste “meaty.”
This non-soy heme has several benefits over the first successful plant-heme flavoring which is fermented from soy proteins. It is more efficient to extract, non-GMO, and already a GRAS ingredient. Plus, the umami is off the charts!
Spirulina and similar microalgae are poised to become a huge part of the modern foodscape. From bright and beautiful all-natural colors to next-level nutrition to social concerns about animal cruelty and climate change, expect spirulina to show up in a big way.
Applicable Cultural Trends
Consumers are looking to foods and supplements with ingredients that are grown sustainably and responsibly. Natural colors are in, artificial coloring is out. And consumer wellness, clean labels, alternative protein options, and probiotics are sweeping the functional food and beverage and supplement industries by storm.
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