The Phuket News
Local startup’s sustainable food of the future
In the last decade, the term ‘superfood’ has become ubiquitous in food marketing. It is used to denote nutritionally dense foods, and they have slapped the label on acai and Goji berries, hemp and chia seeds, wheatgrass, blueberries, and kale, among others. However, there is no clear definition of what a superfood is. Most nutritionists will tell you that while some foods have more nutrients than others, a healthy diet is balanced that includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and a minimal amount of meat and dairy. This is more important than trying to single out a certain food.
Another recent trend has been switching to a plant-based diet. Many studies show that it is one of the healthiest diets, which can help prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even moderate-to-severe COVID-19. It is also one of the most environmentally friendly diets and can reduce your CO2 footprint, while also reducing land and water usage. The production of meat and dairy create approximately 16% of greenhouse gases and are leading causes of deforestation and ocean dead zones.
Even though eating plant-based is one of the healthiest diets, you may still be on the fence because you are concerned about getting enough protein and other nutrients like B12. By adding these two ‘superfoods’ to your menu, you can ensure that your diet is balanced.
Introducing Wolffia globosa, also known as duckweed, and water lentils. Not only is it one of the world’s fastest-growing plants, but it is also one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. For the same amount of calories it contains twice the protein of soy beans and includes all the essential amino acids. It has more zinc and iron than spinach or kale and is high in antioxidants, including lutein, which is thought to treat and prevent macular degeneration. It has magnesium, which is lacking in most diets and is essential for 600 functions in your body. Wolffia is also a bioavailable source of plant-based B12 that is lacking in a vegan diet and is important for the formation of healthy red blood cells.
Since it has a very mild neutral smell and taste, it is easy to integrate Wolffia into your diet and you can use it for smoothies, sauces, desserts and baked goods. Asians have used it in cooking for centuries, especially in northern Thailand, where they call it khai naam, or “water egg”.
Despite all of its benefits, Wolffia is still not widely available. So Metha Meetam, a plant nutrition specialist from Mahidol University, founded the Advanced Greenfarm in 2019 with the mission of cultivating the healthiest Wolffia in the world. Located just outside of Bangkok, the startup is being funded by Space-F, a food tech incubator whose goal is to build a more nutritious and sustainable global food supply chain.
GFood is a collection of brands started by Daniele Bassi and his partner Giancarlo Menghetti around spirulina, a nutritionally dense blue-green microalgae. Similar to Wolffia in nutritional profile, it has more beta-carotene than a carrot, more calcium than milk, more protein than beef and more antioxidants than blueberries. It is also rich in B-vitamins and minerals and reduces inflammation.
When it is fresh, the flavour is like a lightly salted seaweed, but in pill or powder form, which is how Spiru4 (one of the GFood brands) sells it, it is flavourless. You can add the powder to water and you can use it in smoothies, baked goods, desserts and sauces. SpiruP, is a sister brand that adds spirulina to a variety of pasta including fettuccine, spaghetti and penne, which are sold at stores around Phuket. Then there is the SpiruProject, a charity program that teaches the children of Thailand about good nutrition, culinary skills and sustainable eating practices.
Bassi and Menghetti, both from Switzerland, formerly worked in information technology for the banking industry for 20 years. After a brief stint with a biotech, which was consulting with a spirulina farm in Italy, the two men took a sabbatical and came to Phuket in search of work that was more meaningful. They found the island has a perfect climate for growing spirulina all year long, so in 2017 GFood was born. The farm is in Pa Khlok in a mangrove nature reserve, which is protected by the government and that they are not allowed to disturb. So their farming operation produces very little waste.
As we enter our 19th month of a global pandemic, one thing is clear, we need to change our relationship with nature. While you don’t have to go vegan, eating lower on the food chain is one of the best things you can do to help fight climate change, and prevent the loss of biodiversity.
Adding Wolffia and/or spirulina to your diet can ensure that your body is getting all of its necessary nutrients. This is good for you, but it’s also good for the planet because both grow quickly, require little water or land, require no pesticides or herbicides, are minimal to grow and both sequester CO2 and clean the air. It’s no coincidence that the best food for our bodies are also the healthiest for the planet, because like it or not, we are inextricably connected to the natural world.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.