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Paul Groenewegen: Transforming nutrition through the food chain with algae

July 2, 2017

To listen to our entire conversation with Paul, click on the player.

From fish to humans: Algae's impact throughout the food chain 

Luther:                        Paul Groenewegen is the director of innovation and nutrition at Masterfeeds, an Alltech company. He’s here to talk with us about how algae might transform the way people and animals obtain essential nutrients. What are the benefits of algae?

Paul:                            Well, it’s a great question, Luther. The main benefits of algae are to provide a very sustainable, renewable source of the essential omega-3 fatty acids we hear a lot about in the industry, in consumer press. The main essential fatty acid that we’re going after with algae is DHA. So, we hear about the omega-3 fatty acids that we need to increase our omega-3 fatty acid intake, but the true fatty acid we need to consume is DHA, traditionally consumed through fatty fish, marine fish.

                                      So, how marine fish get this DHA-enriched meat is by eating as they go further up the food chain, starting with algae, the DHA. The algae go into the tissues of one species of fish that’s consumed by another, all the way up to, for instance, having pieces of marine salmon that are high in DHA.

                                      We always say that, you know, our mothers always told us that it was good to have fish once a week. And I believe on our food guides — I know the Canadian food guide indicates — that we have to have a meal of fatty fish at least once a week, and that’s to get the DHA. That’s where we’re coming from, from an algae perspective. So now, we have a sustainable source of nutritionally enhanced food that provides DHA from algae.

Luther:                        What are some important ways algae production can disrupt the status quo?

Paul:                            The main way we’ve traditionally received or utilized DHA in the food chain is through fish oil and fish meal that were harvested from the ocean. Utilizing algae that are produced in a very controlled, sustainable fashion, we now have a renewable source of DHA to enhance food products through meat, milk and eggs that is not depleting world stocks of fish.

                                      That’s the true disruptor: How do we maintain world stocks of fish while producing these larger quantities of a very sustainable, very digestible, very good source of food that once fed to animals enhances the DHA content of meat, milk and eggs?

Luther:                        So, what you’re saying is, instead of going from further down the food chain, we’re going up to a source, and we can either consume that or —through feeding to other animals — consume it when we consume those animals.

Paul:                            Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, fatty fish, marine fish that we consume to get DHA in our diets, they have to consume the algae. So, we’re just circumventing that, and now we can put DHA into terrestrial animals — layers, pigs, chickens, etc. — that we can then consume and have a DHA-enriched source of terrestrial food (i.e., meat, milk and eggs) that we traditionally haven’t had before.

 Beyond nutrition: Algae in energy and baby formula

Luther:                        Algae has been a buzzword in the biofuel industry. Can you give me some ways in which it is disrupting that industry?

Paul:                            Yeah. The key component is algae. There are thousands of species of algae that you can grow under specific conditions to harvest carbon dioxide, which the algae then convert into fats, which then can be harvested and used in biofuel. By utilizing algae, it does give us a renewable source of energy. Whether it’s economical or not at this stage of the game is a whole other discussion, but it does allow for sequestering carbon into a fuel source.

Luther:                        Fascinating. What are some other product applications for algae?

Paul:                            Oh, the product applications for algae are widespread, from food sources (that) different parts of the algae can be used and extracted for, from cosmetics to all different kinds of food sources.

                                      If we think about human infant formulas, algae have been grown for years to produce DHA that then goes into human infant formulas. And for those listeners out there who have young infants, if you do have some infant formula in your house, take a look at the label. You’re going to see DHA on the label. In most cases, that will come from algae.

Luther:                        What items out there can algae replace?

Paul:                            The main items that they can replace from a food perspective are fish oil, fish meal and some different types of oils.

                                    Obviously, algae can produce different types of oils at different levels depending on how they’re grown. And you can replace oils for cosmetic reasons. You can replace oils for biofuel reasons. You can replace protein sources if you grow algae to produce protein.

                                      Obviously, from a nutritional perspective, we can utilize algae to produce a number of different products that can then displace typical products that we use to extend the overall lifespan of our more traditional products: from an oil perspective, for instance, or from a cosmetic perspective. And we can continue to grow algae very quickly, very economically. And it’s very sustainable. And it’s a renewable resource. 

Growing algae 

Luther:                        Can you bring us up to date on the status of Alltech’s algae research?

Paul:                            Our algae research has allowed us to register the technology across the globe in a number of countries, allowing us to make very specific claims on the enhancement of meat, milk and eggs with DHA. Regulatory bodies around the world stipulate that we have to have efficacy trials. And all the research that we have done globally has pointed directly to the fact that when you feed All-G Rich® to chickens, pigs, dairy cows and a number of other species that we’re doing research on now that we do enhance the DHA content of the meat, milk and eggs that they produce.    

                                      We are also looking at positive attributes to animal health from a welfare perspective and just an overall health perspective in the animals.

Luther:                        What of the future challenges of growing algae commercially?

Paul:                            How we grow it is extremely important.

                                      People think of algae and see pond scum and layers of algae, or we hear about algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance. That’s not the type of algae that we’re talking about.

                                      The big focus that we have now is growing very specific strains of algae under very controlled conditions to give us the very specific product we need.

                                      Algae are incredibly good at cleaning up the environment, and it just concentrates whatever contaminants you’re trying to clean up, and that’s one thing we’re not trying to do. We’re trying to grow algae very specifically to give us a very specific end product to enhance human food and animal feeds.

Luther:                        Are there challenges with the rising billions who are moving into the middle class (China, India, other parts of Asia, Africa) with the demand that’s going to be placed and meeting that demand in terms of production?

Paul:                            Oh, absolutely. And as the middle class continues to grow and as our world population continues to grow, we have to produce more food that’s very nutritious. And traditional global stocks of DHA through fish and fish oil are not only decreasing, but they’re not going to be able to meet the demands that are coming down the pipe.

                                      By utilizing fermentation technologies that allow us to grow algae in large quantities of very specific strains that produce very high-quality human food and animal feed technologies, that’s going to fill that gap as we grow up through the global population of the 6 to 7 billion; people are going to reach the 9 billion mark and are going to have that good sustainable food source as well.

Luther:                        What are the new markets (you’ve addressed some of those) for algae that it’s either disrupting or it’s starting from scratch or are new markets that it might be emerging into?

Paul:                            What we see is, we can utilize these technologies through algae. The biggest one I would say is functional foods and enhanced foods.

                                       At Alltech, we’re about enhancing food to better people’s lifestyles down the road and utilizing algae to produce functional foods for infants and the elderly.

                                      There are also some applications from a DHA perspective looking at different health conditions that, as we improve our human health, it’s going to have a positive impact on the health care system so we can utilize these technologies to have an overall benefit to society.

The health benefits to algae 

Luther:                        You’ve touched a lot upon DHA and its definite health benefits. Are there any specifics that DHA actually addresses in terms of our health, that it promotes health, or it may be a condition that it helps to treat or to improve?

Paul:                            We know that DHA is required in infants for brain development.

                                    If we think about our brain, it’s a very fatty substance, and we require a lot of DHA fat in our brain for membrane integrity. So, as young children are developing, they require DHA in their diet to develop the brain. There are cardiovascular issues in adults, there are eye issues, and DHA has a positive impact.

                                      I think from a sports perspective, concussions are a big concern in football and hockey. Being a Canadian, yes, hockey — we follow it very closely. And knowing that a lot of sports players run into concussion issues, I truly believe that utilizing DHA for sports injury repair is something that’s coming down the road as well.

                                      Just think about it: You get a concussion, your brain is damaged. You need to replace and rejuvenate the membranes of your brain. Some of the research is showing that this is going to have a huge impact.

                                      So, it’s brain development in human infants. I believe there are impacts on brain repair through sports injuries or automobile accidents or whatever injury. People fall, and they hit their head sometimes. So, there’s an application there, as well as cardiovascular disease. That’s all part of the omega-3 concept and increasing our omega-3s and overall improving human health.

Luther:                        What opportunities are there on the horizon? What do you see either today or tomorrow or maybe an interesting fact we haven’t touched upon when it comes to algae?

Paul:                            The biggest impact we’re going to have is: How do we produce large enough quantities at economical rates and then have those technologies registered to be used for animal and human food products?

                                      Our regulatory bodies have to look at these conditions extremely closely so that we can move fast enough so that these technologies can replace depleting stocks of the traditional feed stocks or food stocks that we have to meet the demands of the growing population in the world. So, that’s going to be the biggest roadblock: How do we scale up production fast enough and get acceptance through the industry to utilize new technologies? We have to adopt these technologies not only from a regulatory perspective, but from an application perspective as well.                  


Luther:                        And, finally, bringing this back home, how do algae affect the average consumer’s kitchen table? You’ve talked a lot about DHA. Other than just DHA, are there other ways that it’ll affect the average consumer, their kitchen table, their health, the food they eat?

Paul:                            Yeah. By enhancing the food that consumers eat, we know we have a very safe supply of ingredients, low in contaminants. Global regulatory agencies and governments around the world are watching the food we eat more and more to make sure there are no contaminants in there.

                                Utilizing a technology like algae that’s grown under very specific conditions allows us to produce a much more consistent and much safer human food product.

                                As well, there are potential attributes not only looking at the fatty acid component of algae, but maybe some of the other structural components that are coming down the pipe that we can say, by utilizing the structural components of algae, the carbohydrates in algae, the protein in algae, we can enhance our overall diet, broaden our spectrum of nutrients and ingredients that we consume to give us a healthier population.

Luther:                        Paul Groenewegen, director of innovation and nutrition at Masterfeeds , an Alltech company. Thank you for your time.

Paul:                            Thank you.


Paul Groenewegen spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE17). To hear more talks from the conference, sign up for the Alltech Idea Lab. For access, click on the button below.

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