Newswise — The world is hungry for new types of tasty, nutritious foods that are inexpensive, can be produced rapidly in a relatively small space and don’t contribute to global warming or rob the Earth of its natural resources. With an expected 9.8 billion people worldwide to feed in 2050, the protein gap sounds like an impossible bill to fill. But plant and algae-based (rather than animal-based) proteins could make the impossible possible, and provide a solution today.

In December, a team of graduate students in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering Faculty won first prize in the EIT Food Project (European Knowledge and Innovation Community) Competition for their contribution to the development of an innovative microalgae product called “Algalafel.”

Over the course of a year, the students conceived, developed and produced the novel falafel enriched with spirulina, an ecologically friendly, nutritious microalgae, with an additional tahini enriched with astaxanthin, a health-promoting compound found naturally in certain algae and seafood. It is known for conferring salmon its reddish color, and flamingo feathers their pink hue.

Mentored by Prof. Maya Davidovich-Pinhas, Prof. Uri Lesmes, Prof. Avi Shpigelman and project leader Prof. Yoav D. Livney, the student team consisted of Meital Kazir, Yarden Abuhassira-Cohen, Hani Shkolnikov, Hila Tarazi and Ina Nephomnyshy.

Second place was awarded to a team of students from the German University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart who developed ‘Algini’, a lentil-based vegan product enriched with spirulina. Third place went to students from Finland’s Helsinki University who created ‘Spurtti’, a vegan oatmeal dessert enriched with spirulina.

The two-day event, hosted by the Technion on its campus, included lectures on microalgae, a workshop on incorporating microalgae in Mediterranean food, and finally, the competition.

By connecting consumers with businesses, start-ups, researchers and students from around Europe, EIT-Food supports creative and economically sustainable initiatives that promote health, access to quality food and the environment. The project included also three industrial partners: Israel’s Algatechnologies, which also supplied the raw microalgae materials used by the teams, Germany’s Doehler and Finland’s Fazer.

Spirulina has been suggested as a solution for food insecurity and malnutrition and even food for consumption during long-term space flights or Mars missions. Its cultivation requires far less land and water to produce protein and energy than that needed by cattle or poultry.

A biomass of blue-green algae, spirulina produce their own food by photosynthesis without a living organic carbon. Dried spirulina contains 5% water, 24% carbohydrates, 8% fat, and about 60% protein.

Ironically, spirulina was utilized hundreds of years ago – it was a daily food source for the Aztecs and others in the Americas and in Africa until the 16th century, but seemed to lose popularity when nearby lakes were drained for agriculture and urban development. In 1974, the World Health Organization described spirulina as “an interesting food for multiple reasons, rich in iron and protein” that can be fed to children without any risk.

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