In a strong context of vegetalization of food, algae and more specifically microalgae are of particular interest in the nutraceutical market. They have a wide range of health benefits and very varied fields of application. Algae can be harvested in the wild or cultivated and have a green, brown, or red color.
Algae and microalgae : a growing market
Strong trends: an opportunity for the algae and microalgae market
The algae and microalgae market is driven by strong consumer insights. The trend of the vegetalization of the human diet is one of the main drivers of the market. Algae and microalgae are good alternatives to animal proteins as they are often rich in proteins and micronutrients.
Consumers are also looking for more sustainable production methods. Algae are a perfect answer to this need as they could absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and reduce water acidification. The production of algae is also less resource intensive. For these reasons, algae and microalgae have a small environmental footprint which makes them attractive.
The health crisis has strongly impacted the vision of consumers who are now more concerned about their health and more demanding towards manufacturers: since the covid, more than 25% of consumers attach more importance to the naturalness of products, the French origin of food supplements and their ingredients .
This phenomenon has accelerated the development of nutraceuticals, which are becoming more and more popular throughout the world and particularly in France.
State of the algae and microalgae market
Algae are chlorophyllous aquatic plants. The difference between macro-algae and micro-algae is mainly observed by the size of the plant and by their molecular structure. Algae are fixed to the bottom of the water and are mainly used for human food. On the contrary, microalgae float and compose the phytoplankton. They are often used in the field of nutraceuticals.
The great diversity of species allows algae to be used in multiple applications. In Europe, they are mainly used in human food (36%), in cosmetics (17%), in the formulation of food supplements and in the production of hydrocolloids (15%). They are used slightly less in the field of fertilizers and biostimulant (11%), animal feed (10%) and in other fields (11% for biofuels, biomaterials, and pharmaceuticals).. In the case of microalgae, 24% of the harvest is used for food supplements.
Two leading microalgae stand out on the market: spirulina and chlorella. More than 50% of the algae production companies cultivate at least one of these algae. It is a market that continues to grow, with an annual growth rate of 8.7% between 2019 and 2025 for spirulina and 6.4% for chlorella in the European market. In Europe, for human consumption, seaweed imports are in the majority.
This is particularly the case for spirulina, where 70% of production comes from China, India, and Taiwan. On the European scale, France is the leading producer of macro-algae, which are mainly cultivated in Brittany. Despite this high production, France is the 2nd largest importer of food algae and microalgae in Europe in 2019. On the contrary, the largest producers of microalgae are Germany, Spain, and Italy.
Focus on blue-green microalgae
Known for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties, blue-green algae have become popular with European consumers. The best known are spirulina and chlorella which are cultivated and not harvested in the wild.
Spirulina, the star microalgae of the market
In 1974, Spirulina was classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “the best food of the 21st century for humanity”. Spirulina has become the best-known microalgae on the market and this cyanobacteria is also qualified as a “superfood”.
Its nutritional composition beats records since it is composed of 65% of proteins with an average digestibility of 85 to 90% . Moreover, it is a type of protein similar to animal proteins except for the fact that it is rich in polyunsaturated fats. Spirulina is rich in vitamin B12 which is a recommended supplement for vegetarians and vegans. It is also a good source of iron and zinc.
Regarding its applications, 75% of the spirulina production is dedicated to human food and food supplements. Spirulina-based products can benefit from various health allegations such as the strengthening of the immune system, the help in reducing tiredness or antioxidant properties. These allegations make it the star of the food market for immunity and vitality .
As the first species to be cultivated on an industrial scale in the 1960s in Japan, chlorella is the second leading microalgae after spirulina. Limited resources are sufficient to cultivate it. It is used in various fields of application: biofuels, cosmetics, food supplements, pigments (carotenoids and chlorophyll) or in wastewater treatment.
Chlorella also has a good nutritional composition with 50% of complete proteins (70% of net digestibility). It is rich in vitamin B and E, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium, and also contains omega-3. Many allegations are also possible for products containing chlorella: “maintains a good heart activity“, “antioxidant properties“, ” reinforces vitality“, “supports the immune defenses“….
Other examples of microalgae
Other algae are also very interesting from a nutritional point of view. This is particularly the case of Klamath, an alga similar to spirulina in its composition. It contains about 65% of proteins, it is rich in vitamin B12, minerals and trace elements, it contains chlorophyll and omega-3 and -6. It also contains phenylethylamine (supports positive mood) and phycocyanin (supports the immune system). However, it is a unique plant that is only harvested wild in Klamath Lake in the United States, which makes it more expensive.
Novel food ingredients from microalgae have recently been approved at the European level. We can mention astaxanthin extracted from Haematococcus pluvialis. These microalgae can accumulate large quantities of this substance under stressful conditions. Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant carotenoid of which this alga is the first commercial source. The omega-3 DHA extracted from Schizochytrium is also a high value-added ingredient. It is a plant-based alternative to fish oils that can be attributed with the claims “maintains normal vision” and “contributes to normal brain function”.
The great diversity of algae and microalgae offers multiple interesting properties in different fields. Their low environmental footprint and the plant-based nature of this ingredient has convinced many manufacturers and food supplement laboratories around the world.
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