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Algae whet the appetite

Mariliis Holm of Nonfood describes the development of a nutrition bar from algal sources that contains more than a quarter of daily protein requirement.

Since almost the beginning of life on Earth, algae were the original source of food and oxygen for animals. Although they have been consumed for centuries in Africa and Mexico, most people in the US and Europe have never thought of algae as a possible food, with the exception of the space industry. In the sixties, the US, EU and Soviet/Russian space agencies started exploring algae as a potential food and oxygen resource for space flights.

In 1974, the United Nations World Health Organisation declared one species of alga - Spirulina - to be the best food for the future. However, today, more than half a century later, algae are still considered an unfamiliar and therefore underused, source of food.


Algae under scanning electron microscope. Photo credit: BioBus

Algae transform solar energy into food with minimal resources and no intermediary species. They use only a fraction of the resources of any other food. In terms of water, land and energy use as well as carbon emissions, algae are 100 times more sustainable than common crops  like corn and soy and 1000 times more sustainable than animal products. They grow extremely fast and can even be cultivated on land that is unsuitable for common crops and livestock.

If the world were to switch to an algae-based diet tomorrow, global greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 30%, water use by 70% and land use by 40%.

Nutritional benefits of algae

Not only are algae very sustainable due to their low environmental impact, they are also densely nutritious. For example, one alga, Spirulina, contains 60-70% complete protein in dry weight with all the essential amino acids represented. Spirulina also contains high quantities of antioxidants (vitamin E, β-carotene, phycocyanin), minerals, such as bioavailable iron, nearly all vitamins, fibres, and polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6.

Despite Spirulina’s superior nutritional qualities, it is mostly consumed as a supplement in Western society. Changing the status quo of algae is one focus of Nonfood, coupled with the aim to bring algae to the consumer’s everyday diet.

When consumers decrease the amount of animal products in their diet, iron deficiency can often result. However, Spirulina, one of the microalgae used in the Nonbar, contains 20 times more iron than spinach. In addition, the iron in Spirulina is bioavailable, which allows the body to fully absorb it.

Nonbar helps to address the protein concern by offering more than a quarter of daily proteins in a single serving.

Development of the Nonbar

Nonbar - the algae-based nutrition bar containing 42% algae and aquatic plant ingredients

Nonfood is an early stage startup aiming to create sustainable algae-based foods that reduce agriculture’s resource and carbon footprint. Nonfood’s first product is the Nonbar, an algae-based nutrition bar that contains 42% algae and aquatic plant ingredients - far higher than any other ready-to-eat food product on the market. Nonfood came out of artist Sean Raspet’s work with flavours and fragrances and writer Lucy Chinen’s research into food and culture.

As a starting point, the Nonbar was defined as needing to be sustainable and to be one of the solutions to the pressing issue of how to feed 10 billion people in 2050. The approach was to a create a totally unique, multisensory experience.

Most food today comes in a very limited palette of flavour options: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are the norm. The human palate can perceive a vast multitude of flavours yet only a small number of familiar flavours are used in common products. As a result, Nonfood designed the flavour of the Nonbar to specifically complement the algae ingredients, not to cover them up. The aim is to foster a culture that embraces new, ecologically-efficient technologies for food production and novel approaches to flavour.

One important nutritional aspect was making sure that the Nonbar did not contain any sugar or sweeteners. The current US food system is already overloaded with cheap carbohydrates and unnecessarily high amounts of sugar. As the flexitarian, reducetarian, vegetarian and vegan movements are gaining national momentum in the US, more and more consumers are starting to be concerned about their daily protein intake. Nonbar helps to address the protein concern by offering more than a quarter of daily proteins in a single serving.

The proteins are plant-based and complete, meaning that all the essential amino acids necessary for a balanced and complete human diet are represented in the bar. The proteins originate from the unique blend of two different algae, Spirulina and Nannochloropsis as well as the aquatic plant Lemna (known as water lentil or duckweed). All three ingredients contain an average of 50% protein naturally.

The first edition of the Nonbar was launched in November 2017; the second iteration will follow in March 2018. Inputs from early adopters have improved the multi-sensory experience. Additionally, the company is moving towards the substitution of all currently non-algae based ingredients in the bar with algae based ingredients as the algae production technologies improve.

The future of food will be algae based[3] and when algae goes from non-food to food we will live on a healthier, cleaner and thriving planet.

Mariliis Holm

Holm is a Food and Sensory Scientist crafting the Future of Food to sustainably feed our world. She co-founded Nonfood together with Sean Raspet, Lucy Chinen and Dennis Oliver Schroer. Mariliis joined Nonfood in 2017 as a food scientist and business developer when the company was accepted to the New York based Food Business Accelerator FOOD-X.







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