Future food: Unilever and Algenuity partner to explore microalgae protein
30 Jul 2020 --- Microalgae-based proteins are the cornerstone of Unilever’s new partnership with biotech start-up Algenuity to “innovate future foods” for Unilever’s plant-based portfolio. UK-based Algenuity specializes in a chemical-free method of removing bitter notes from microalgae, within its alternative protein platform Chlorella Colours, for use in F&B products. The company will work with the R&D team within Unilever’s Foods and Refreshment (F&R) division to explore marketable potential across diverse categories including pasta, bakery, beverages and confectionery.
Microalgae protein is in the spotlight for its high functionality across multiple applications. “The Chlorella Colours platform developed by Algenuity offers a neutral flavor and smell. It is a plant-based functional protein-rich ingredient. Cost-wise, the microalgae ingredient will be more expensive than the current market incumbents such as soy and pea, but cost will come down as market uptake occurs and the microalgae ingredient offers a high-fiber, micronutrient-rich plant-based protein-rich whole-cell ingredient as opposed to an extracted protein only,” Dr. Andrew Spicer, CEO of Algenuity, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“Microalgae-based proteins and ingredients are generally niche at the present time in mainstream food and beverages. There are products with microalgae added as a minor ingredient such as pastas and some bakery products and also, more recently, products using the natural blue pigment of spirulina in beverages and confectionery.”
For Chlorella, the primary barrier has been the intense green color resulting from the very high chlorophyll content (“ten to 20 times the level in spinach”), which gives a bitter flavor that needs to be either masked or used at extremely low incorporation rates, Dr. Spicer notes.
In sustainability terms the resource utilization is detailed by Spicer as “highly favorable,” while cropping cycles are unlimited across the year. “Algenuity’s Chlorella vulgaris is produced through fermentation to high density. Part of the two-year partnership will involve a full life cycle assessment process and identification of further areas where sustainability measures can be further improved upon.”
Demand for microalgae is significantly pushed up by its high protein content, which includes all essential amino acids, as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids (original source of omega 3), vitamins, polysaccharides, carotenoids and other substances beneficial to human health.
Chemical-free processing method
There is no chemical processing step involved in the extraction of the chlorophyll content of microalgae. “These ingredients grow this way,” Dr. Spicer explains. “The varieties of Chlorella vulgaris are developed using non-GM plant breeding methodologies with screening for varieties that are deficient in chlorophyll.
“Just like autumn when chlorophyll is lost from the leaves of deciduous trees, when the chlorophyll is no longer made by Chlorella, we are able to identify variants that are yellow, lime, white and even red. All of these variants are stable and natural. They grow that way. As such, as well as the plant-based protein, they deliver natural pigments, which are almost always antioxidants.”
A primary challenge is noted as maintaining the functionality of the proteins, which will have a direct impact on the breadth of F&B applications, in addition to increasing the relative digestibility and bioavailability of the plant-based proteins. “Algenuity has already developed strong know-how in these specific areas making the partnership more likely to lead to real product launches and innovation,” says Dr. Spicer.
Unilever’s plant-based activities
Unilever invests €840 million (US$988 million) in R&D, including plant-based food innovation. This partnership builds on Unilever’s activities in the plant-based arena, which has made headway over the last year. “We are continuing to launch many vegetarian and vegan innovations, such as Magnum Vegan, Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo, Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice cream variants and Knorr vegan seasoning,” a spokesperson at Unilever tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“Following our acquisition of The Vegetarian Butcher we are expanding the brand’s range of meat alternatives both through retail as well as through our food service channels, e.g. Rebel Whopper with Burger King in EMEA. In 2019, Unilever’s Knorr brand partnered with WWF UK to publish the Future 50 Foods report, which promotes three important dietary shifts and aims to inspire greater variety in what we cook and eat.”
Unilever has invested €85 million (US$99.9 million) in a new, state-of-the-art Foods Innovation Centre at the Wageningen University and Research campus in The Netherlands, called “Hive.” The food technology hub is focused on formulating next generations of meat and dairy alternatives, comprising 500 food innovators.
Algae in the spotlight
Algae is on the rise in product development, particularly in plant-based and flavor-boosting applications. Earlier this year, FoodIngredientsFirst spoke to German producer Viva Maris, at Biofach 2020 in Nuremberg, Germany, about integrating the functionalities of organic algae in a broad range of nutritional foods that tap into consumer’s natural associations between algae and health.
Last month, Marine ingredient start-up Yemoja has opened the doors of its new plant dedicated to the production of low carbon footprint microalgae. The Israeli supplier cultivates microalgae customized to fit functional food applications, among other commercial uses.
Dutch chlorella producer and microalgae wholesaler Duplaco is making significant investments to increase production by 20 times. Upgrading with the latest technology and a modern R&D center, the company continues to drive its transition from start-up to full-scale industrial complex – “the largest in Europe.”
In February, a Danish project received a DKK 750,000 (US$108,600) grant to investigate the opportunities of using microalgae as a sustainable protein source. Also in this space, Nestlé joined forces with Dutch food and biochemicals company Corbion for the development of microalgae-based ingredients for plant-based products.
By Benjamin Ferrer
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