This bio-designer is creating flavorful future food with microalgae

CNN  — 

The year is 2050. Agriculture happens in labs, as well as fields. And on the menu for dinner? Microalgae.

That speculative future meal might not sound very appealing, but microalgae are packed with proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals – including vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and E, iron, calcium and folic acid.

Microalgae “superfood” supplements like spirulina and chlorella have been a fixture of the wellness scene for decades. But with a bitter, grassy or fishy flavor, the single-celled organisms have remained niche, reserved mostly for those willing to overlook their pungent aromas in pursuit of health.

That’s why German designer Malu Lücking decided to give microalgae a makeover. “There’s already interest in the nutritional part (but) how can we actually get people to eat this?” she says.

Hoping to make microalgae appeal to the masses, Lücking undertook a project she called “Landless Foods” as part of her master’s degree in bio design at Central St Martins in London. She developed a process for growing concentrated microalgae solution on edible agar jelly, a gelatinous, tasteless substance made from red seaweeds.

The microalgae can be scraped off and eaten alone, or when consumed with the jelly it functions like a stock cube and can be added to soups and sauces for a burst of flavor. “In the future, it could maybe give us the taste of different spices,” says Lücking.

‘High-end, beautiful foods’

As Lücking began exploring how to make microalgae palatable, she came across research on flavor profiles conducted by Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) in Belgium.

A green microalgae, tetraselmis chui has a strong seafood taste, similar to mussels or prawns.

Lücking focused on three microalgae: rhodomonas salina which tastes of crab, prawn-flavored tetraselmis chuii, and the unexpectedly floral dunaliella salina.

Microalgae usually grow in salt water with just sunlight, and can be farmed in tanks. Together with her project mentor, Lorraine Archer, a research associate at Cambridge University’s department of plant sciences, Lücking experimented with different growing methods – eventually utilizing the edible gel, which supplies the microalgae with water and nutrients and eliminates the need for space-consuming tanks.

Using 3D-printed reusable resin casings to protect the gel from bacteria, Lücking was also able to create a “visual identity” for the microalgae. “When growing algae in liquid, it will always just look like water because the algae is too small to be seen with the naked eye,” she says. The distinctive shapes could help connect consumers to the products – and make microalgae instantly recognizable as a food. “When you see an apple, you know what it tastes like,” she says.

The casing on the red, crab-flavored microalgae recreates the "shell" of a leg or claw, and the microalgae gel can be teased out, echoing the eating experience of real crab.

By developing “novel ways of creating really high-end, beautiful foods,” Archer says that Lücking is making microalgae an attractive product beyond wellness circles.

Archer adds that she likes Lücking’s focus on fishy flavors, which “a lot of the microalgal food industry tries to get rid of.”

Unraveling taste

Some food-tech companies are embracing microalgae’s high-protein content for the alt-meat market. Israeli startup Brevel is creating a microalgae powder that can be added to vegan proteins, while New Zealand startup NewFish is creating “meat-free charcuterie” with a microalgae-derived mortadella-style cold-cut.

But with most work being done on neutral-tasting species that can be adapted to a variety of foods, hundreds of thousands of microalgae species remain untapped – and new research is showing they contain a range of tantalizing tastes that could sweeten the deal for future consumers.

ValgOrize, the flavor-profile project from Belgian research institute ILVO, is working to unravel the undiscovered flavors of microalgae, explains project lead Johan Robbens.

ILVO’s expert tasting panel ranks microalgae’s different qualities such as saltiness, umami and bitterness. Robbens and his team then match the flavors to ingredients already used in products, including vegan eggs and cookies, with the aim of offering an alternative.

Typically grown in salt water, seafood flavors are common in microalgae -- although the dunaliella salina, a green microalgae that produces orange pigments, has an unexpectedly floral flavor.

And ILVO is not just unraveling these tastes – it’s trying to optimize them. By adjusting growth conditions such as nutrients, light wavelengths and temperature, Robbens says natural flavors can be altered and enhanced.

ILVO is also exploring new ways to process the microalgae because common methods such as drying often result in a bitter aftertaste.

Lücking says the microalgae grown on the gel “tastes much better” because it can be served fresh. The gel also helps to reduce the saltiness – which in dry powders has to be washed out – because “the algae grows like a paste, which you can scrape off, while the salt remains mainly in the gel,” she says.

An industry in bloom

According to the UN, the world produces enough food to feed everyone on the planet – but 800 million people are still “chronically undernourished” due to food quality and lack of access. The organization estimates that as the world population continues to soar, we’ll need to increase food production by 60% by 2050 – so nutrient-rich foods like microalgae are going to be essential.

Microalgae has also been heralded as a sustainable cure-all for a range of industries, from biofuels to pharmaceuticals, thanks to its ability to sequester carbon dioxide and because it can be farmed on non-arable land and does not need fresh water.

But while enthusiasm for microalgae is blooming, scaling up from the lab to commercial production is a major challenge.

Lücking developed a method to grow the microalgae using a concentrated solution on edible agar gel.

Automation in microalgae farming and harvesting is still limited – so along with processing costs, it’s an expensive food product. Regulations are another hurdle for commercial enterprises to overcome with any novel food product – just seven species of microalgae had been approved for consumption in Europe as of September 2022.

Microalgae food technology is still “very much in the developmental stage,” says Archer – although because it is so nutrient-dense, microalgae could make an impact on our diets even with a smaller production scale, she adds.

‘Culinary memories’

Lücking’s unusual approach to microalgae production and presentation, as well as the focus on flavor, has put the project in the spotlight: it won the MullenLowe NOVA Awards and Central Saint Martins x The Mills Fabrica Prize 2022, as well as exhibiting in Dutch Design Week in December 2022.

With very strong, concentrated flavors, Lücking's microalgae can be eaten in small quantities as a snack or added to a dish as a natural flavor enhancer.

And in May this year, Lücking will be taking up a residency in The Mills Fabrica, a sustainable tech accelerator in Hong Kong, where she hopes to advance her growing process, and collaborate with chefs to develop recipes using microalgae.

Lücking says her focus on flavor was inspired by a conversation with her grandmother about traditional German dishes that are being forgotten as farming and food processing evolve. She hopes that one day, microalgae will be able to recreate a whole host of flavors that will reconnect diners with “culinary memories” of their food heritage.

“The pleasure of eating, the diversity and culture behind it, is as important as the nutrient itself,” she says.