Cawthron Institute to lead $3M global study into alternative protein sources

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By Milthon Lujan

New Zealand – A new Cawthron Institute-led study could see two ‘superfood’ algae species become nutritious sources of protein used in everyday food items.

The study has been awarded $3 million through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Catalyst: Strategic fund to investigate the potential of the red seaweed, Karengo, and the microalga Chlorella as everyday alternative protein sources. Both types of algae have high protein content but require an innovative approach to fully realise their nutritious potential.

Cawthron Institute will work alongside researchers from the Riddet Institute, hosted by Massey University, the University of Auckland and Plant & Food Research, as well as international partners at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI).

Research lead Dr Tom Wheeler of Cawthron Institute said the research team’s varied expertise will help to fill vital knowledge gaps that currently prevent the full commercial and health-promoting potential of these algae from being realised.

“We are seeing increasing demand for alternatives to meat and dairy for nutrition. Algae are a promising source of ingredients for future foods which can be produced more sustainably, with lower environmental impact and greater health benefits,” Dr Wheeler said.

“Our research has several key goals: firstly, to develop a protein extraction method from these algae that retains their valuable attributes, secondly to investigate the extract’s performance when used as an ingredient in food products, thirdly to understand their detailed composition using cutting-edge analytical approaches, and finally we’ll look at the health-promoting effects and nutritional benefits to humans.”

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“Cawthron Institute are experts in the biology of algae and compositional analysis of foods and aquaculture systems, so our key contribution is the knowledge about how to isolate valuable components from these algae and eventually how to grow them,” Dr Wheeler said.

“Riddet Institute, the University of Auckland and Plant & Food Research are our other New Zealand-based research partners, and they hold expertise in food science and technology, as well as plant extraction.”

Dr Choi Won Jae of Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) A*STAR said their research team will develop methods for the extraction and enrichment of proteins from Chlorella and investigate physico-chemical properties in collaboration with Riddet Institute.

“For both Karengo and Chlorella, we will characterise extracted proteins via proteomics and glycomics and SIFBI will evaluate their health benefits through clinical trials. Through these projects, we are excited to provide solutions in downstream processing for the alternative proteins market,” Dr Choi Won Jae said.

Cawthron Institute has been investigating Karengo’s superfood potential alongside industry partners Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and Wakatu Incorporation since 2019. This research programme is funded by the High-Value Nutrition (HVN) National Science Challenge and Dr Wheeler said it provides an excellent knowledge-base to support further research.

“Through our work with Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and Wakatu Incorporation so far we have been able to understand the prevalence of several species of Karengo and identify the key biochemical differences among them – this is a really important first step and one that this new research programme will build on, with the ongoing support and input of our two industry partners,” Dr Wheeler said.

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“Seaweed is set to become the third pillar of New Zealand’s aquaculture industry alongside finfish and shellfish and this kind of research and development will inform investment and policy making that supports the sustainable long-term growth of the industry.”

Source: Cawthron Institute

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