As the search for versatile, sustainable ingredients accelerates, algae take centre stage.
Scientifically speaking, “algae” is an imprecise term. Algae are an incredibly diverse group of photosynthetic aquatic organisms, many of which bear very little resemblance to land plants. Different kinds of algae do not share a common ancestor, and the term includes extremely diverse species. However, these remarkable organisms do share some unique and fascinating properties that make them useful in hundreds of ways. As we continually search for ingredients and materials that are renewable, sustainable, and biodegradable, algae have assumed an ever more important role.
Algae in Food
Seaweed and algae are an incredibly important food source, especially in many Asian countries. Algae are rich in Vitamins A, C, and B-complex, and high in potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium, and beta-carotene. In the West, supplements like spirulina have been popular since the 1980s.
Aside from the nutraceutical properties of algae as a supplement or health food ingredient, however, algae are an increasingly important functional ingredient in the food industry.
Algae hydrocolloids are a safe and effective thickening, gelling, and emulsifying agent, and an excellent replacement for emulsifiers that are linked to allergies or sensitivities in consumers. Molecular cuisine relies on these gelling properties as effective mechanisms for delivering flavors. Health-conscious consumers who want to avoid chemicals in their food are welcoming these new natural alternatives.
Algae in Packaging
For years, scientists and researchers have been searching for sustainable alternatives to plastic in products and packaging. Bioplastics and polymers can easily be made from the cell structure of various plants, most notably corn, but the resulting bioplastics lack the water resistance and mechanical properties needed to replace conventional plastics in most applications. Now, however, algae biomass can be processed in a way that makes it useful for many industrial applications, including compression and injection molding. One key advantage that algae represents in this area is that, should such packaging end up in the ocean or waterways, not only is it biodegradable, but it is rich in protein and nutrients for marine life.
Algae in Cosmetics
The antioxidant properties of algae are making it an increasingly popular ingredient in cosmetics. The nutrients in algae have been shown to promote healthy skin aging, help correct pigmentation, and have antimicrobial benefits. In addition, algae can be used to create natural, organic emulsifiers and pigments with a broad range of cosmetic benefits. Interestingly, because “algae” describes such a sweeping group of organisms that are (as yet) so poorly understood, the specific biocompounds and mechanisms that cause these beneficial effects have not been properly identified or studied. As the cosmetics industry continues to research and explore the benefits of algae, we will understand it better, and use it more precisely.
Algae in Pharma
Algae are an incredibly interesting and effective pharmaceutical agent, partly for the properties listed above. They are rich in bioactive compounds with a variety of therapeutic benefits, including fatty acids, steroids, carotenoids, polysaccharides, lectins, amino acids, halogenated compounds, and polyketides. However, algae are also effective nanocarriers, and can be used as stimuli-responsive drug delivery systems. In fact, a biopolymer found in brown algae shows a great deal of promise as a treatment to kill cancer cells without the side effects of chemotherapy, both because of its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and because of its efficiency as a targeted nanoparticle.
Algae are also a powerful energy source, eco-friendly fertilizer, pollution controller, and more. These amazing organisms have evolved unique properties and chemical compounds that represent a promising area for decades of research and innovation in FMCG.