The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Anyone for a pond scum smoothie?
Packed with vitamins, protein and minerals. And the taste? Awful!
FANCY a pond scum smoothie, an algae-flavoured yogurt or soup made with slime? They may sound revolting, but foods made with the gunk that lies on the top of stagnant water – and once found mainly in commercial fish food – could be about to revolutionise what we eat.
That’s because, remarkably, these unlikely food sources have higher protein levels than everyday products including chicken, beef and fish.
They are also packed with essential healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and iron, making them perfect for the rapidly expanding UK vegan food market.
Last year, Innocent Smoothies released an algae-based drink, called Bolt From The Blue, which has the pond scum bacteria in it along with apple, guava and coconut water. It costs from £1.50 for a 75ml bottle.
Meanwhile, discount supermarket Aldi is marketing a sweet potato soup sprinkled with algae to provide a vitamin boost, costing £1.79 for 600g.
And Scandinavian furniture chain Ikea has reportedly commissioned a top chef to develop an algae-based version of its popular meatballs by mixing it with other foods to make a meat-like substance.
Such is the excitement that food giant Nestle announced last November a new partnership with algae-producing firm Corbion – and the pond scum market is set to grow to an astonishing £35billion within three years, according to industry analysts Food Manufacture.
But what makes this unlikely health food so special – and can it really live up to the hype?
NUTRITIOUS... AND GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
FARMED on ponds – mostly in Asia but increasingly in the UK, too – the algae is first turned into a powder, which manufacturers sprinkle into processed goods during production.
The blue-green layer that forms on top of still water is made up mostly of two key materials – a type of plant bacteria called spirulina and an algae called chlorella. Both grow quickly and easily, and have protein levels of up to 65 per cent. That’s more than twice the level found in chicken or beef, and far more than any fruit, vegetable or nut. Cashews, for example, have a protein content of about 35 per cent, soya has 36 per cent, and Quorn, the man-made meat substitute prepared from a fungus called mycoprotein, has about 11 per cent.
Professor Alison Smith, head of plant science at Cambridge University, says algae and bacteria harvested from ponds could be the future of food because they are nutritious, can be grown easily and do not require huge areas of highquality farming land, as livestock does.
She recently told Radio 4’s The Food Programme: ‘Algae can be grown in all sorts of locations in water – even on your own patio.’
BUT THERE’S ONE BIG DOWNSIDE – THE TASTE
SPIRULINA was known as a superfood more than 500 years ago by the Aztecs in South America – they reportedly scooped it out of ponds to supplement their diet. And it’s more than 40 years since the World Health Organisation declared it the ‘food of the future’.
It is already sold in powder and tablet form in UK health-food shops, and since 2008 it has been used in blue Smarties rather than the dreaded artificial colouring blamed for sending children into a hyperactive frenzy. It’s also one of the main ingredients in fish-food wafers.
The claimed health benefits range from lowering blood pressure and easing hay-fever symptoms to aiding weight loss and soothing anxiety.
But there are problems – not least the powerful taste and smell, likened by one online critic to ‘a dirty bathroom or some kind of bodily function’.
Secondly, adding significant quantities can turn initially palatable foods to a dark sludge which puts off some consumers. And according to the US Department of Agriculture, we would have to eat more than seven tablespoonfuls of spirulina powder a day to get our daily protein needs of 50g. Smoothies containing it usually have just one tablespoonful.
THE BODY MAY NOT BE ABLE TO ABSORB THE GOODNESS
ANNA DANIELS, from the British Dietetic Association, warns that, as with other health-food supplements, there are also major concerns over how well the body absorbs protein, vitamins and minerals processed into pills and powder, rather than eaten in the natural form of plant foods.
‘There is no real way of knowing how much of the protein or vitamins in algae gets into the body from eating the powder or pills,’ she says.
‘We cannot just assume that because the algae is high in protein, the body absorbs it properly.
‘It’s always better if you ingest these nutrients when they are encapsulated within a plant-cell wall, as you get the fibre you also need to digest and absorb them into the gut.’
The US National Institutes of Health says that there is no good scientific evidence that blue-green algae has any health benefits.
Worse, it says there are significant safety concerns, especially for anyone with illnesses caused by a malfunctioning immune system, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
The National Institutes of Health website warns: ‘Blue-green algae might cause the immune system to become more active and this could increase the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.
‘If you have one of these conditions, it’s best to avoid it.’