On November 07, 2019, the kick-off meeting of the European project “Pro-Future” took place in Barcelona. The international research project deals with microalgae as protein-rich ingredients for tomorrow’s human and animal nutrition. The aim is to develop more efficient production and processing concepts to integrate high quality, safe, healthy and sustainable products and ingredients into the food value chain.
The DIL (Deutsches Institut für Lebensmitteltechnik eV) participates in the international community with 31 partners and generates 559,500 euros for research in Quakenbrück, Lower Saxony. We spoke with Dr. Marie-Christin Baun, who studied plant biotechnology at Leibniz University in Hannover. She successfully completed her PhD in Plant Molecular Physiology in 2017 and studies the properties and possible applications of plant-derived proteins in food at DIL.
What exactly is the microalgae project?
The increase in the world’s population leads to an increased demand for healthy foods and high-quality protein sources such as meat, dairy products, eggs and legumes. However, our agricultural land is limited and the production of protein from conventional sources is limited by technical and environmental factors. The “Pro Future” project deals with the development of microalgae as an alternative source of protein for human and animal nutrition, focusing on the efficiency and sustainability of algae cultivation, protein production and its processing into food and animal feed.
The entire supply chain will be taken into account and optimized so that the minimization of land, water and energy use and the maximization of efficiency as well as the use of secondary flows are primary objectives. In addition, the possible applications of algae and algae proteins obtained in human and animal nutrition will be studied in more detail. For example, proteins can have a stabilizing function in foods, such as gluten which ensures the formation of a structuring network during the baking of a dough.
The addition of algae and algae proteins can therefore strongly alter the structure and taste of food. All of these effects must be explored so that healthy and tasty food can be produced in the end. Additionally, consumers need to be involved in product development as concerns need to be clarified, and awareness and acceptance of seaweed and seaweed-containing foods in the population must be created so that seaweed can represent a source of promising proteins in the future.
What plant products can be made from microalgae?
In principle, microalgae could be used in all processed foods. However, it depends on whether they are only added as a taste component or whether they should perform a certain function. To what extent algae proteins can take over certain functions in food and thus replace, for example, chemical additives or other ingredients, should be clarified in “Pro Future”. The project will cover a wide range of vegan products, for example bread, pasta, sausages and protein shakes. The development is carried out in cooperation with companies who then wish to introduce these products to the market.
What are the beneficial properties of microalgae as a source of protein?
Microalgae have high photosynthetic efficiency, that is, they can produce oxygen and sugar from solar energy, water and CO2, just like terrestrial plants. Compared to plants, however, they have higher growth rates and therefore higher yield (50-80 tons per hectare per year). Another great advantage is that microalgae are not in competition with other plants or animals for agricultural land, as they can be grown in artificial or natural ponds and, in the case of seaweed, directly in the sea. Microalgae have a protein content of 30-60%. This is highly dependent on the type of seaweed but can be significantly higher than the protein content of skimmed milk powder (36%), soy flour (37%), chicken meat (24%), fish (24%) or peanuts (26%). %). While certain essential amino acids, i.e. amino acids that our body cannot produce on its own but which are important for our metabolism, are often limited in vegetable proteins, microalgae have an amino acid profile very balanced. In addition, microalgae are rich in vitamins, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
Could animal barns be converted into microalgae production facilities?
Converting animal barns into microalgae production factories is certainly feasible. But in my opinion, it misses the sustainability objective because in an enclosed facility, artificial light would be needed to allow the algae to photosynthesise. This would require additional electrical power. However, it is conceivable to operate microalgae farms with waste heat and CO2-rich exhaust air from stables, large factories or power stations.