S'pore researchers working on creating sustainable, nutritious food from microalgae

Project leader Dr Iris Haberkorn and team are looking at growing microalgae using the by-products of tofu production. ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

SINGAPORE - Fancy having a nutritious meal that is created sustainably from microalgae and printed by a 3D printer?

Scientists in Singapore from research institute Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC) are working on a project to produce microalgae-based proteins as an alternative, sustainable food source.

Dr Iris Haberkorn, the project's leader, said her team is looking at growing microalgae using the by-products of tofu production - liquid soya whey and soya pulp - and making food products out of the proteins from the microalgae.

Up to 200 tonnes of soya whey are produced by a single tofu factory each day, and Dr Haberkorn said that the project, titled Urban Microalgae-Based Protein Production, aims to tap these by-products, which would otherwise go to waste.

Professor Alexander Mathys, who is one of the SEC project's lead principal investigators, said: "Microalgae-based food products are good sources of protein, with high protein content of up to 70 per cent, vitamins, well-balanced amino acid profiles and good ratios of polyunsaturated fatty acids."

The SEC is a collaboration between Swiss public university ETH Zurich and the National Research Foundation in Singapore.

Work is currently ongoing to incorporate the microalgae into a mung bean protein paste which is then extruded using a 3D printer that can control the shape and texture of the final food product.

With a limited amount of land for agricultural production in cities, innovative food systems are required to ensure food security, said Dr Haberkorn.

It is projected that up to 68 per cent of the total human population will live in urban areas by 2050, she said.

Singapore's highly urbanised environment and its status as a gateway to Asia make it an ideal location as a research hub for sustainable food technologies, she added.

Partnering with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the National University of Singapore (NUS), the SEC research project aims to enhance Singapore's food security by establishing resilient, sustainable and cost-effective agri-food systems for microalgae-based foods as well as to introduce more sustainable circular economy concepts by using byproducts from existing food production.

Prof Mathys said: "What is currently needed to make (the microalgae food products) more commercially viable are innovative processes that improve the eco-efficiency and productivity of microalgae supply chains."Dr Haberkorn added that, while developing attractive plant-based food solutions for the Asian market could have significant impacts on future food security and planetary health, efforts are constrained by high costs and the palate of consumers.

Work is ongoing to incorporate the microalgae into a mung bean protein paste which is then extruded using a 3D print. ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

She said: "Most consumers are sceptical about eating new foods. To overcome this, we need to find a way to integrate the products into traditional cuisine, or find a framing that makes consumers curious enough to try them."

Professor Michael Siegrist, who studies consumer behaviour in ETH Zurich, said that for these new sustainable forms of protein to be accepted, more awareness is needed.

He added that sustainable foods are still not widely consumed in Asia, compared with Europe.

He said: "In Europe, there are many people who have adopted vegetarian diets because of the ethics involved and environmental concerns. In those cases, it will be easier to market such microalgae products to them."

Echoing his sentiments was Professor Zhou Weibiao, head of the department of Food Science & Technology in NUS, who said: "In Asia however, consumers still desire traditional sources of protein that are animal-based, and so convincing them to buy and eat sustainable food products will mean having to talk about the nutritional benefits and to educate consumers."

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