The Algae Alternative

Steve Myers, Senior Editor

November 2, 2012

7 Min Read
The Algae Alternative

"If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." Anthropologist Loren Eiseley (The Immense Journey, 1957)

Water has long been a reservoir of prime sources of omega-3s, which are touted for numerous benefits to the heart, brain and other areas of health. During the past decade, consumers have increasingly taken to omega-3s, making fish oil a rapidly growing health item in the marketplace. However, consumers have several concerns about fish oil, despite some of the innovations to address issues such as taste, repeat (fish burps), quality and sustainability. While fish oil remains popular, there has been a push to develop other sources of these omega-3s, including both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a search that has focused on other water-borne carriers.

Baldur Hjaltson, an executive with EPAX and current chairman of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED), recently reported fish oil supply, including the Peruvian fisheries, will be challenged to meet the growing demand for omega-3 oil.

The quest to find new sources of DHA and EPA has included land plant sourcesCSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research and Food Futures in Australia has been isolating omega-3 genes from algae and transferring them to crop plantsbut the work is in its infancy and has yet to yield high concentrations of DHA and EPA. One alternative source that has undergone decades of research and development (R&D) is algae.

Algae Bloom

Single-cell organisms in cold water synthesize DHA and EPA. Animals, such as fish, get their DHA and EPA from eating algae or other creatures that have eaten algae. Algae and lower food chain organisms such as zooplankton have never been a regular food source for humans, but fish and other seafood have rich histories as food. Thus, fish and fish oil (think cod liver oil) have long been considered healthy, although that omega-3s are the reason behind the health properties was not known until relatively recent times.

Megan Gorczyca, global marketing manager for life'sDHA, DSM, noted in 1985, DHA was not a household term. "People had heard of omega-3s, but that was about it," she said, adding there really wasnt an established market for DHA and EPA, regardless of source. "Fish oil was known as being good for you, but Im not sure how many people knew why. It wasnt until infant formulas launched in 2002 containing DHA and another fatty acid [arachadonic acid (ARA)] that these terms started gaining awareness."

In the late 1980s, Martek (now part of DSM) began when defense and aerospace contractor Martin Marietta tasked a few scientists with studying the beneficial use of algae in long-term space flight. The scientists recognized the potential of algae and spun off their own company, Martek, taking their algae and data with them. "Martek identified a strain of algae, Crypthecodinium cohnii, which is a naturally high producer of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that plays a key role in infant development and adult health," Gorczyca explained. "Martek then developed and patented a method of deriving DHA-rich oil from the algae."

DHA is naturally present in breast milk, but wasn't added to infant formula until after FDA issued a letter of no objection in 2001 to Martek's self-affirmed GRAS (generally recognized as safe) notification for its life'sDHA ingredient for use in infant formula. Mead Johnson was the first to launch infant formula with this DHA-ARA combination in its Enfamil LIPIL product.

The initial phase of marketing algae for long chain omega-3 content focused on DHA because that is where the science was, according to Gorczyca. "DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and the retina, representing about 97 percent and 93 percent of all omega-3s respectively," she noted. "DHA (and ARA) are considered conditionally essential nutrients for the development and function of infant cognition and vision. More than 100 studies have been conducted evaluating the benefits of DHA and ARA in infant health and development."

She further noted on the basis of the clinical evidence, recommendations have been made by several international expert groups and regulatory bodies to ensure the adequate intake of DHA and ARA during infancy. The success of algal DHA in infant formula paved the way for the ingredient's use in supplements, foods and beverages. Additionally, market demand for vegetarian sources of the omega-3s found in fish oil has also driven development of algal EPA. According to GOED and Frost & Sullivan, algae accounted for 4 percent of the raw materials in the worldwide omega-3 marketfish oil dominated with 79 percent of the market.

The blossoming algal DHA and EPA segment is having a positive impact on supplemental algae products including cyanobacteria (blue green algae), which can be found in both marine and freshwater environments. Spirulina is a coil-shaped cyanobacteria, while chlorella is a spherical green algae that grows in fresh water. Both are protein-rich, but also contain DHA and EPA.

"For vegetarians the trend is quite exciting since plant-based sources are the only form of omegas that are veggie friendly," said Guinevere Lynn, director of business development for Sun Chlorella, who noted chlorella naturally contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. "As more and more consumers become aware of the healing benefits of algae, algae companies stand to benefit greatly."

The awareness and demand for plant-based food and health products has grown in recent years. Lynn noted documentaries such as Food Matters have specifically highlighted both the importance of a plant-based diet, but they have also discussed the nutrient content of superfoods, a term used for chlorella and spirulina. "When compared ounce per ounce, its protein content is competitive with beef; however, overall so much more nutritious," she said. "Because of this, chlorella and spirulina have been added to many functional food products (drinks, bars, etc.)." In fact, she said functional foods have been a major area of development for green foods; products such as nutritional bars, specialty drinks and juices containing or focused on green food content (chlorella, spirulina, etc.) can be found in both mainstream supermarkets and convenience stores. " Functional foods are making green foods, more accessible and acceptable, and thus opening the category up to a newer and often untapped customer demographic," she said, adding cosmetics are another growth area. "Sun Chlorella produces a multipurpose skin cream called Sun Chlorella Cream, which contains chlorella growth factor extract, which has been demonstrated to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles."

Lynn sees the future of this algae-sourced superfood segment as bright. "As the popularity of superfoods and plant-based nutrition continues to resonate with mainstream media, more products will be developed to coincide with market trends."


Algae for DHA/EPA is processed by either photo bio-reactor or open pond. Open ponds are the original method, but are land-intensive and face cross-contamination and evaporation challenges, according toBiomass Magazine. They are generally the cheaper method, but bioreactors' photo bio-reactors deliver higher yields, the same as 14 acres of open pond (280 tons of oil/year). According to industry consultant Anthony Bimbo, a number of algae start-up companies went out of business, and only a few remain, including Martek, Solazyme and Lonza, all of which use photo-reactors; Sapphire Energy uses open ponds, but targets the alternative energy market, not health and nutrition.

SupplySide West is presenting a post-conference, "Omega-3 Insights Workshop, Omega-3s and Consumers: What You Need to Know," on Fr. Nov. 9 from 8:30 to 11:30  a.m. Speakers will discuss global new product introductions, omega-3 user trends, consumer education efforts and how to involve health practitioners.

SupplySide Omega-3 Insights is an online destination for companies that currently develop or are looking to develop products with long-chain omega-3 ingredients. The site delivers ingredient information, regulatory analysis, best practices, product solutions and more. This resource is a collaboration between VIRGO and GOED, and the first two underwriters are Aker Biomarine and Neptune Technologies and Bioressources.

About the Author(s)

Steve Myers

Senior Editor

Steve Myers is a graduate of the English program at Arizona State University. He first entered the natural products industry and Virgo Publishing in 1997, right out of college, but escaped the searing Arizona heat by relocating to the East Coast. He left Informa Markets in 2022, after a formidable career focused on financial, regulatory and quality control issues, in addition to writing stories ranging research results to manufacturing. In his final years with the company, he spearheaded the editorial direction of Natural Products Insider.

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