Double the global food production
Christos Latsos is a senior researcher at the Zeeland University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool Zeeland, HZ). In parallel, Latsos conducted a PhD project at Royal NIOZ, the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, and at the University of Groningen.

“According to the World Health Organisation, we have to double the global food production by 2050”, says Latsos. “In order to do that, we need to find alternative protein sources. Microalgae are a protein rich food source. Moreover, they are able to capture greenhouse gases as they already capture 10-50 times more CO2 than terrestrial plans, and they produce around 70% of the available oxygen.”

However, right now algae are still poorly used in the food industry. Latsos: “Although in nature there are on estimate between 200,000 and 800,000 microalgae species, only a few are used in food applications. Of course, it is vital that they are sufficiently tested and potentially safe to consume.” So intensive research is needed on the promising species.

In the NIOZ lab in Yerseke, red algae Rhodomonas salina are grown in a closed and thus highly controllable system of tubes. Vertical farming saves a lot of space.

Grow on a large scale
One of those promising species is Rhodomonas salina, a marine red microalga that has no cell walls and is therefore easy to digest, and its red pigment already serves as a healthy anti-oxidant. According to Latsos, the species could be a superior food source in aquaculture. “It is used as food for oysters and their larvae, and for copepods, which are in turn food for fish.”

The problem: no commercially stable cultivation plan has been applied in aquaculture yet. In his research, Latsos tried to find a solution for that. “I optimized the production in different systems first on a small scale, and, when that was successful, combined the various systems to a larger scale.”

Best umami taste
However, Latsos is even more interested in using the microalga as a food source for humans. “We need to grow microalgae as an end product. For that, not only marketing is essential, but also a good taste.”

The molecules associated with the characteristic taste of marine food are primarily so-called free amino acids: protein building blocks that are present in the living cells.  According to their side chains they each in their own degree contribute to the five primary tastes of food (sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami).

In the case of R. salina, this ‘good taste’ is umami. Latsos: “It is the flavour that we know from soy sauce and, in my home country Greece, feta cheese. The umami taste is related to the concentration of the two amino acids aspartate and glutamate and of three more bio-organic substances called free nucleotides.” As different growing factors such as pH, nutrient availability and salinity influence the composition and taste of microalgae, Latsos optimized R. salina’s food profile for the best taste of umami, according to a professional test panel. The high umami taste of R. salina makes it potentially a useful umami source in the development of plant-based products.

Latsos certainly got the taste of it himself: “I wish to continue working with microalgae in the food industry. My research on R. salina certainly made me understand that microalgae, one of the smallest organisms on Earth, could be used to combat the global food crisis. They give us the opportunity to produce proteins with a much smaller environmental footprint.”