Not to be too apocalyptic here, but the world is poised for a global protein shortage. There will be 9.8 billion people on the planet by 2050, and finding a way to feed them all — despite finite land and water resources — will be quite the challenge.
But a group of students in Israel thinks that there’s a natural solution to the impending protein crisis: algae.
Grad students at the Biotechnology and Food Engineering Faculty at Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed a new type of falafel enriched with algae. Called Algalafel (get it?), the fried chickpea balls contain spirulina, a blue-green algae with high protein content.
The students won first prize at the EIT Food Project (European Knowledge and Innovation Community) at Technion. Eventually, the students want to market their new falafel, probably in ready-to-eat frozen form.
According to Time of Isreal, the students decided to make an algae-enriched falafel for environmental reasons. The FAO reports that meat consumption, spurred by increased global demand for protein, is slated to increase steadily over the next few decades, putting increased pressure on the environment and causing more carbon emissions.
But the traditional ingredients in falafel — chickpeas, onions, and flour — are already meat-free. And chickpeas are already a source of protein. In fact, InnovoPro, also based in Israel, recently raised $4.25 million for chickpea-based protein powder. So why go to the trouble of adding algae to the mix?
Firstly, it’s super high in protein. While chickpeas are about 20 percent protein, according to the students behind Algalafel, spirulina is a whopping 60 percent in its dry state. It’s also a complete protein, meaning it contains all eight essential amino acids that your body can’t produce on its own.
Additionally, while chickpeas may be more environmentally friendly than, say, beef or soy, they still require land and water to grow. Spirulina doesn’t require land, it can be harvested year-round, and it grows extremely quickly. It does need water in which to grow, but not much. In fact, it’s so easy to grow that it’s been suggested by NASA as a dietary staple for astronauts.
Up until now algae like spirulina has been relegated to trendy health foods like green juice, but with the rise in demand for plant-based protein it’s poised to enter the mainstream. Recently we’ve seen algae pop up in more and more food applications, from New Wave Foods‘ plant-based shrimp to bread made of seaweed. San Diego-based company Triton makes algae for a wide range of protein-rich food applications, including milk and meat alternatives.
Israel is becoming quite the hotbed of innovation in the meat alternative space. It’s the home of several cell-based meat companies, one of which — Aleph Farms — actually partnered with Technion to help develop its cultured steak.
Down the road, I expect we’ll see algae popping up in more and more food applications, specifically in the meat alternative space. And if we want to have a prayer of feeding the world over the next few decades, we’ll have to get started soon.