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Microalgae: a sustainable solution to our growing nutritional needs

July 26, 2023

Algae-based ingredients have piqued food industry interest in recent years as a sustainable, animal-free source of protein. Eugene Wang, CEO & Co-founder of Sophie’s Bionutrients, explains some of the exciting applications and benefits of this wonderful natural ingredient

In one way or another, Eugene Wang, the CEO & Co-founder of Sophie’s Bionutrients has pretty much spent his entire life making plant-based foods. His family, Taiwanese, are fourth-generation Buddhists. Between them, they also established several vegan businesses in the country’s food-service sector. So, eating vegetarian food is not just a religious belief but a way of life.

Of course, that’s a far cry from transforming microalgae into protein flours for plant-based meat and alt dairy products, the goal that Wang set his sights on achieving more than a decade ago. “Sophie, my daughter, is allergic to shellfish,” he reveals, when asked how the company first came about. “My first venture, back in California in 2010, was ‘Sophie’s Kitchen’. Initially, I was searching for a way to make a perfect seafood replacement using plant-based ingredients. The more we researched, though, the more we realized it was an opportunity that was much bigger than we first thought.”

He subsequently started an independent company, utilizing fermentation to grow microalgae for alternative proteins.

In pursuing these non-allergen alternatives for Sophie, as well as for other families, Wang also gained a much clearer understanding of the environmental impacts of the global food production system. Adding to that, a rapidly growing human population – with an increasing global middle class – is set to drive global demand for proteins to unsustainable proportions. Meat consumption generally increases as incomes rise – so the richer the country, the more meat is consumed. China’s meat consumption alone, for example, is projected to account for 27% of the global meat market by 2025. Yet around 60% of the world’s ecosystems are already degraded or used unsustainably, and animal agriculture is considered one of the main drivers. The real conundrum is on the horizon though: we will need to produce around 70% more food with fewer natural resources, which will add pressure onto our already fragile land and ocean ecosystems.

Protein is one of the very few food ingredients that is still growing dramatically in terms of consumption, with animal proteins projected to grow steeply into 2030 and beyond. “Proteins are the most demanding ingredients to grow in regard to input and footprint, especially animal proteins,” Wang continues. “With ongoing global warming and deforestation, we all see clearly that our current trajectory of growing proteins is just not going to be sustainable in the longer run.”

Some people, though, argue that there is too much of an emphasis on a protein transition and not enough on an overall sustainable food transition, which bemuses Wang. “One of the key reasons for a protein transition is exactly due to ‘sustainability’,” he asserts. “I think the spotlight on that initially was definitely enough. However, to the majority of consumers, ‘sustainability’ is not on the top of the list when they consider a protein transition. Health is usually the first driver. It is the consumers who choose to listen to what they want to hear. But that’s not how we, the industry participants, started the journey initially.”

With ongoing global warming and deforestation, we all see clearly that our current trajectory of growing proteins is just not going to be sustainable in the longer run

Honest feedback

If recent headlines are to be believed, demand for plant-based foods, meats in particular, are waning. In early 2023, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article claiming plant-based to be a fad, which was somewhat of a contrast to an August 2021 Bloomberg Business Intelligence article that predicted fivefold growth for plant-based foods by 2030. Wang, though, does concur with some of the criticisms highlighted in that now infamous article published at the start of the year. “The way the whole industry benchmarks its products against animal protein counterparts is just not sustainable,” he feels. “I think we ‘may’ need to figure out a whole new and different direction for plant-based foods that doesn’t even compare or replicate old animal protein experiences. We should find a new protein with its own personality and character. By doing so, it will reduce the level of processing needed and make the products healthier for consumers. That, in my opinion, is the best way to win consumers over.”

Feeding the world

Fundamentally, new sources of protein present a unique opportunity to feed a rapidly growing global population with nutritious and delicious food while safeguarding public health and valuable natural ecosystems. Sophie’s BioNutrients, a Foodtech 500 start-up and winner of the MassChallenge 2021, produces a neutral-hued microalgae flour naturally cultivated from Chlorella vulgaris and harvested within three days in a protected environment. The microalgae strains are US GRAS and EFSA approved for use as food ingredients or supplements.

Highlighting the versatility of Chlorella vulgaris, Wang and his team collaborated with the Danish Technological Institute in late 2022 to produce an algae-based dairy-free ice cream. A 1oz serving of chlorella ice cream has the potential to provide double the recommended daily intake of B12. Chlorella is also a good source of iron, which is notably absent in cow’s milk. It is also sustainably harvested with no cows harmed during the process and a significantly lower carbon footprint.

“Microalgae is one of the most nutrient-rich and versatile resources on the planet,” believes Wang. “Our collaboration with DTU showed another facet of the possibilities this superfood can offer – a dairy and lactose-free alternative to ice cream that, thanks to microalgae, offers a higher nutrition content than most available dairy-free alternatives.”

Wang’s message is that anything is possible, and the sky is the limit. Along with the opportunities, though, the field of alternative proteins faces numerous risks and challenges, but Wang believes all technological, regulatory and social hurdles are there to be overcome eventually. There are some, though, that pose more of a challenge.

On the topic of fundraising, Wang admits it’s a bugbear. “We have our own fair share of blame for not being able to get sufficient funding fast enough,” he confesses. To be fair, though, the current economy and inflation have not been favorable. Even discounting the turbulent economic climate, however, Wang believes there is something wrong with the VC-startup model.

“I have talked with a lot of VCs who put money into cell-based technologies,” he reveals. “My thinking was that they would be the ones who really had the necessary vision and were more risk-tolerant, but I was wrong. To my surprise, they all said our project was ‘too risky’. So, I’m left thinking, ‘What?!’ You reckon cell-based – which will take more than five to 10 years to mature – is less risky than ours? I later found out that the way they see risk is very different to how we entrepreneurs see risk.”

Ultimately, Wang believes many VCs don’t actually understand the tech, although invariably they always claim to. “The way they understand technology is very similar to how those who work in the media see it – from the information they gather. And a lot of the time, the information the VCs have comes from the media! Cell-based has been talked about a lot by different journalists. It has also been covered in different types of media as well. And quite frankly, this is also where the narrative gets carried away. Journalists always want a ‘sensational’ piece of ‘breakthrough’ news. Entrepreneurs also want to ‘stand out’ and be featured. Some are prone to making big and unrealistic claims such as, ‘You’ll get the exact same meat experiences through our technologies’, or ‘We’ll lower the production cost and be competitive in less than, say, three years’.

“And this is the reason why one of the year’s most talked-about news stories was a mammoth meatball (plus the lawsuits that followed),” concludes Wang. “Don’t get me wrong, this ‘breakthrough’ is good and bad – good in terms of a technological breakthrough, but bad in that it became a monkey show for the media. But it is just pointing out the sad truth of human beings. People remain the biggest stumbling block to the success of alternative proteins.”

For more information about Sophie's Bionutrients, please click here

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

About the Speaker

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