Beyond the blue: Interest in spirulina shifts to new applications

Israeli startup Gavan wants to explore the plant kingdom to find new, sustainable and healthy ingredients, and a use for every part of a nutritionally dense substance. The first ingredient it worked with was the microalgae spirulina, and for a very distinct reason.

“We could see the separation and the extraction with our eyes because the proteins are blue,” Gavan co-founder and CEO Itai Cohen said.

The microalgae’s standout blue pigment not only helped Gavan figure out how to fully separate the proteins in spirulina, but it also drove the company’s first actual product launch: a stable natural blue coloring for both hot and cold drinks. Gavan is in touch with several manufacturers who are testing the coloring for potential use in products. Cohen said he hopes the company can begin commercial-scale production in the first quarter of 2023.

As consumers are becoming more interested in sustainability, superfoods and natural food and drink, spirulina is getting more popular as an ingredient. Several companies that are new and old are devoting significant research and R&D to the microalgae, hoping to boost its profile as a sought-after ingredient.

Leonard Lerer, founder and chief scientific officer of Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, calls the company an industrial food tech operation. Founded in 2018, Back of the Yards is focused on researching ways to use spirulina as an ingredient in food and beverages. Lerer has previously said the whole reason he started Back of the Yards Algae Sciences was to make spirulina-based natural blue food coloring. But that isn’t its sole goal, he noted. After all, there’s much more to spirulina than its color — and those who work with the microalgae say that its nutritional and sustainability aspects are just as desirable.

Ful’s spirulina growing facility.

Permission granted by Ful


And with artificial colors so inexpensive and entrenched, Lerer said there is a distinct challenge to make a natural blue color from spirulina that beats them on cost.

“The only way we can do that is if we actually turn the whole story around, and the natural colorants become a byproduct of alt-protein production,” Lerer said. “And you can’t do that until you have an alt protein which you can get into foods.”

Back of the Yards, Gavan and other companies are all working to turn the story around and demonstrate spirulina is more than just the source of a natural blue color. The microalgae, they say, is the wellness-targeted ingredient that consumers are looking for now.

What is spirulina?

The blue-green microalgae known as spirulina is almost ubiquitous throughout the world. It grows in a variety of places naturally, thriving on sunlight and carbon dioxide, and is used as a food source around the globe.

While most algae species have nutritional benefits, spirulina has one of the best health profiles. It’s packed with protein — Gavan’s Cohen said that about 75% of the algae’s mass is made up of the nutrient. It also contains several vitamins and minerals, and has been linked to immunity boosts, allergy relief and heart health. Its profile makes it an in-demand ingredient among both manufacturers and consumers.

“It’s a very well known antioxidant, very well known for being a very healthy algae,” Cohen said. “They’re always looking for that, and when you put spirulina on your ingredient list, it always comes as a positive to the end customer.”

Regardless of its health profile and the relative ease of producing it, Lerer said no one is switching to a spirulina diet.

“Algae especially tastes bad, right?” Lerer said. “So it’s not that someone can say, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a burger with algae,’ because you can’t. It just tastes terrible. It’s extremely healthy. It has all the micronutrients you need. It’s better than meat.”

That’s where many of the spirulina-focused startups fit in. Jonas Güenther, co-founder of We Are The New Farmers, noticed that the primary form of spirulina in the United States — a dried powder, which hadn’t seen innovation for decades — had an off-putting bitter taste and fishy smell. However, he noticed that people in other countries didn’t dry the algae out before consuming it. In Indonesia and Africa, Güenther said, spirulina is usually consumed fresh. And with further study, he realized that spray drying the ingredient, as is commonly done in the U.S., not only breaks down some of its nutrients, but also leaves it with an undesirable taste and smell.

We Are The New Farmers co-founders Jonas Güenther and Michael Udovich in their growing facility.

Courtesy of We Are The New Farmers


We Are The New Farmers grows fresh spirulina in Brooklyn, New York, selling it to consumers as frozen cubes to use in their own recipes. Güenther said in this form, it is completely different than the powdery supplement many consumers are used to.

“It looks like hummus, dark green hummus,” Güenther said. “It has a mild flavor. I like to compare it to mineral water. It has a high mineral content. You have some sort of a salty, mineral-y flavor, but it’s pretty neutral. And because it’s a paste, it really is more of an ingredient that you can use in the kitchen.”

Ful of nutrition

Using fresh spirulina isn’t the only way to minimize its bitterness. Companies including Netherlands-based Ful Foods have found ways to process the algae to minimize the taste while preserving the nutrients.

Ful makes bright blue, healthy sodas with spirulina as their hero ingredient. The company processes the spirulina so that its naturally high nutritional levels are available to the human body, which is not always the case in its natural form, co-founder Cristina Prat said. The antioxidants in spirulina also are not always stable, so the company’s processes preserve the nutrients to be available at any temperature or pH level. And the unappetizing salty and bitter taste is also processed away, leaving behind something that is much more pleasant.

After a trial launch in the Netherlands, the brand is embarking on a larger European rollout this month. It plans a U.S. debut later this year.

Ful Foods was started by Prat, Julia Streuli and Sara Guaglio. They met at INSEAD business school, where they worked together on a project researching ways businesses could reach net zero emissions. Streuli said they were interested in innovations in the food sector and alternative proteins, and were amazed at all of the benefits — both for human health and sustainability — in microalgae.

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Permission granted by Ful


They looked into why people didn’t consume spirulina very much. The algae’s bitter taste profile was the biggest stumbling block to acceptance, Streuli said, but the lack of stability for the blue color and issues with the algae’s solubility also were big reasons it hadn’t been used more often. There also had been next to no marketing for the ingredient, which Streuli said was rather important. After all, many consumers today are looking for a sustainable, natural and nutritious ingredient like spirulina.