Jenny Splitter: Algae might be about to disrupt the plant-based protein market

[USA] Triton is a company poised for disruption. The San Diego-based start-up, Triton Algae Innovations, is hitting all the right notes—plant-based, sustainable, synthetic biology—serving up what co-founder and scientist Miller Tran calls an “untapped well of proteins” that offers more than what’s currently available on the plant-based market.

Even though algae has long been proposed for things like palm oil replacements and biofuel, there are numerous strains of the green stuff that haven’t really been explored for their potential as food proteins.

Algae is an incredibly diverse life form, explains Tran. “There are hundreds if not thousands of different species of algae out there and, so, in the same way that there are…plants [that] can kill you [and plants that are] very beneficial, it is the same kind of thing with algae.” Don’t worry. Triton is making the beneficial kind.

Triton’s powdered algae proteins.TRITON ALGAE INNOVATIONS

Triton is aiming to be an ingredient producer rather than a food company, so don’t expect veggie burgers made entirely from algae or a medium rare algae steak anytime soon. Xun Wang, the company’s CEO, says “our angle is that we want to be an ingredient provider.” The idea is to boost existing foods with proteins and nutrients that might not be available or as abundant in other sources.

Take veggie burgers, for example. For anyone not paying attention to the plant-based 2.0 market, the Impossible burger is currently the only plant-based burger to replicate the taste of meat with a genetically engineered heme ingredient. Impossible has been incredibly successful, but the company has also earned itself a bit of controversy, mostly by being cagey about its use of genetic engineering.

Triton makes an algae-based heme that could rival the one made by Impossible. One of its natural algae proteins is virtually identical to Impossible’s heme ingredient but, because it doesn’t require any genetic engineering to create, it can be marketed as non-GMO. That could make the algae heme very attractive to Beyond Meat, Impossible’s non-GMO competitor. Right now, the Beyond burger contains a bit of beet juice to make it “bleed,” but it has no equivalent heme ingredient.

Triton’s algae is produced in a lab in sterile stainless steel fermenters, but it’s also all-natural and non-GMO. Because non-GMO remains a selling point in the food industry, Triton’s heme could make the Beyond burger a real non-GMO rival to the Impossible brand.

Preparation of mixture baby feeding close up. Credit: GettyGETTY

And then there’s the breast milk protein, which came out of Triton’s work with a milk protein researcher at U.C. Davis. Explains Tran, “we came into contact with Dr. Bo Lonnerdal…a milk protein expert and he pointed out that osteopontin was one of the [breastmilk proteins] he felt was really powerful, but that there just simply wasn’t at present an economically or commercially scalable source of it.”

Wang adds, “we [made] a custom protein [that isn’t available from] cow’s milk and cannot be synthesized by bacteria and yeast. We’re really in a unique position to…make the formula closer to the mother’s milk.”

Though the development of this protein has been described as a disruption to the formula industry, Triton is mostly looking to forge partnerships rather than turn the formula industry on its head. Babies won’t be dining on bottles of green algae anytime soon. Rather, the protein would be produced as an ingredient for infant formula to make it closer in nutritional makeup to breastmilk.

Consumers tend to be fickle about the novel foods they’ll accept, so Triton has been careful to seek the right regulatory approval for its products to show the public its ingredients are tested and safe.

Dave Schroeder, Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, has led most of the regulatory approval effort. He’s quick to point out that even though this type of algae is new to the food industry, it’s been around for years. “It’s been studied and sequenced up and down and sideways for multiple decades now,” he says. But they still had to satisfy FDA regulators and establish through testing that the ingredient should be considered “GRAS” or “generally recognized as safe.”

The algae has now gone through toxicology and other safety testing, and the results were well within safe limits. Though it’s still waiting on the final approval or “no further questions” letter from the FDA, the company feels confident about its prospects.

The algae can be used as a nutrient boosting ingredient to a number of different foods, which means there’s lots of potential for partnerships. Explains Xun Wang, “people can use it to make pasta, make an energy drink, replace a meal. And you can also use [it] to make veggie burgers.”

Triton has even been working with chefs to gauge the public’s reaction to a plate full of algae-braised short ribs or green algae pasta. Schroeder says, “our algae [is] a real hit with people because…they’re getting an additional nutritional profile boost out of the inclusion of this new ingredient in foods that they are already used to eating.” If plant-based foods like bleeding veggie burgers and oat milk lattes can pique the public’s curiosity, algae-infused pasta should do just fine.


Photo: An event with food made with algae from Triton Algae Innovations.TRITON ALGAE INNOVATIONS

View original article at: Forbes: Algae might be about to disrupt the plant-based protein market

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