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Algae Burger, with Extra Slime

woodleywonderworks on Flickr

What comes to mind when you think of algae? Seaweed in the ocean? The sludge on the bottom of a fish tank, perhaps? What about… burgers?

While beef or lamb are among the most common burgers in the supermarket at the moment, Professor Benu Adhikari says that might not always be the case.

“Five years ago, the focus was on plant proteins,” says Benu, a researcher in food engineering and processing from RMIT University, Melbourne. “Now, vegetable burgers are readily available in the supermarket, primarily made from soy or pea proteins. In our research, we want to diversify this protein, so that we can source it from corn, lentils, potato, and even algae.”

Compared to growing livestock like cattle and sheep—and even compared to other plant proteins—algae is much cheaper and more sustainable to produce. “Algae doesn’t use as much water or land as other proteins, and it requires fewer nutrients to grow,” says Benu. “In fact, algae actually cleans the water that it grows in.”

But don’t worry, we’re not going to be eating green, sludgy burgers anytime soon.

“When we extract the protein from algae, or from a plant, it’s in powder form, so it looks a lot like milk powder,” explains Benu. “You can treat it as an ingredient and use it in any food product you like. Even ice Cream.”

Benu says these powders are already used industrially, and the next step is to make consumers aware, so this product can be more widely accepted for domestic use, as well.

Benu and his team are also working on increasing the purity of algal proteins. “Spirulina is a blue-green algae that’s already available to buy in pharmacies,” says Benu. “It’s produced when spirulina is harvested, dried out, ground, and bottled, and is usually around 50% purity, in terms of protein. We’re working on extracting the protein component of this spirulina so that we can develop a product that’s 80% or even 90% purity.”

While algal proteins could prove valuable in helping to meet the world’s growing protein demands, Benu doesn’t suggest consumers switch to an entirely algal diet.

“It’s important to have balance,” says Benu. “In the future, sometimes you might have protein from meat, sometimes from milk, egg, plants, or algae. We often talk about a balanced diet, and this will be a balanced protein diet. As the human population grows, and as our knowledge and technology develop, people will likely be getting protein from very diverse sources.” A green future, for sure.

Learn More

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A Simple Guide to Eating Algae