Algae superfood research reaches milestone

20 September 2022 – Work has started on analysing a native seaweed and other microalgae with potential superfood status, in a global research project involving New Zealand and Singapore.

The milestone in the project to extract novel proteins has been reached after a workshop was hosted by the Riddet Institute at Massey University in Palmerston North.

The research project to determine the physio-chemical properties, health benefits and digestibility of the seaweed extracts began in late 2020, with the native seaweed karengo and international microalga Chlorella thought to have value as alternative protein sources.

Karengo is related to nori, which is widely produced and eaten as the seaweed wrap in sushi, while Chlorella is produced and marketed internationally as a health supplement.

The research is funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s Catalyst Fund.

The $3M global study is led by New Zealand’s Cawthron Institute, in collaboration with the Riddet Institute, the University of Auckland, Plant & Food Research, Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and the Bioprocessing Technology Institute.

The Riddet Institute is a Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), hosted by Massey University, which focuses on fundamental and advanced food research.

Riddet Institute Director Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh says the nation-wide project and collaboration with Singapore could lead to innovative new products.

“This collaborative effort has the potential to create new opportunities for the New Zealand food industry to export algae-based super foods,” says Dist. Prof Singh.

Workshop co-organiser and Riddet Institute project leader Arup Nag says the project intended to have a face-to-face workshop to bring together international personnel every year of the three-year project, which commenced in September 2020. But Covid-19 pandemic disruptions have meant this year’s workshop was the first.

The next workshop is planned to occur in Singapore in July 2023, when it is expected the nutritional potential for the seaweeds will be known.

Dr Nag says the research collaboration is hoping to extract the protein or carbohydrate components from the seaweeds and then use them as novel food ingredients.

The production and marketing of high-value functional foods with unique attributes would be next steps.

Dr Nag says along with the proteins, the polysaccharides (carbohydrate) component in the seaweed may also have functional benefits that can be tapped. This is also being investigated by the research team.  He says Singapore has expertise in the extraction of protein from micro algae such as Chlorella and New Zealand scientists have developed the extraction process for macro algae like karengo.

Other goals of the research project are to foster international research relationships and to improve future food security by diversifying food production.

Karengo is a traditional food of Māori. It is rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibre and a range of micronutrients, says Dr Nag.

“This seaweed is native to New Zealand but not yet harvested commercially,” says Dr Nag.

He says karengo is commonly found on rocky reefs on the intertidal foreshore, mostly on the east and south coasts of both the North and South Islands. The Porphyra and Pyropia groups of seaweed, to which karengo and nori belong, are thought to have a range of potential therapeutic and nutritional benefits.

Human clinical trials with the protein-rich extracts will now begin in Singapore and lab/animal trials in New Zealand.

Above: Cawthron Institute Technical Manager Analytical Science Dr Tom Wheeler with the protein extracted from seaweed.

Riddet Institute Director Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh welcomes a group of researchers from New Zealand and Singapore to the Proteins and Algae project workshop in Palmerston North at the Riddet Institute, Massey University.

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