20 September 2019

New food professor: Algae could revolutionise our eating habits

New Professor

Microalgae have become a hot topic of research around the world and according to Poul Erik Jensen, a new professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD), there are several good reasons for this. Algae have both the potential to be part of a number of new, healthy foods, as well as to provide food for a growing population using sustainable production methods that make use of light and fermentation. But first, two challenges in particular must be overcome: The algae taste bad and the researchers are uncertain about the underlying cause. Then we need to get better at getting the interesting ingredients out of the algae.

Poul Erik Jensen has been appointed as a new professor of plant-based food biochemistry in the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD), where he researches how to use algae for food. Photo Claus Boesen.

Poul Erik Jensen has done a lot of research on algae and in his previous job at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen he also researched photosynthesis and plant metabolism. He helped discover reverse photosynthesis – a groundbreaking research result, which was selected as the research result of the year in 2016 by Danish Broadcasting Corporation and Ingeniøren (The Engineer magazine). It caused quite a stir at the time when the researchers discovered that the energy from sunlight, which causes plants to grow through photosynthesis, could be reversed. The energy from the light can thus be used to break down plant parts, such as straw, releasing sugar for biofuels and other bio-products. As a professor at UCPH FOOD, Poul Erik Jensen will look at microalgae as a source of protein for healthy ingredients in food. Algae have potential as a source of food at a time when cultivation areas are disappearing due to climate change.

Could algae become everyday food?

“Just like we in Denmark began to streamline a production of foods from milk during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, algae could similarly be processed into new foods that could end up as everyday food for large populations,” says Poul Erik Jensen.

The algae can also grow through photosynthesis like plants and thus use sunlight, carbon dioxide in the air and inorganic nutrients to grow and produce protein, oils and more.

“Imagine that farmers in the future could have an algae bioreactor on their property. The algae grow as a crop, can be harvested and sold to a factory that processes them into healthy oils, protein ingredients and more. In this way, there will be an entirely new crop that is both healthy and sustainable, because algae have an efficient photosynthesis, that is to say, they convert a lot of sunlight into biomass,” explains Poul Erik Jensen.

A PhD student from Poul Erik Jensen’s research group is investigating how much protein is in the algae, as well as the fat and carbohydrate composition in the algae biomass. In addition to protein, algae contain the healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids that are sought after for their health effects.

“When we know more about the composition of the algae, we can start to think about what algae can replace in food,” says Poul Erik Jensen.

Therefore, the researchers want to deconstruct the algae.

“The good fatty acids are inside the algae, surrounded by a cell wall. If we can open the cell wall, we can remove the fatty acids and fractionate them and separate them from protein and the many other ingredients. We can then use the cell wall for dietary fibre. It is a research area that is attracting a great deal of interest around the world and many of my colleagues in Europe, Asia and the United States are working with it. We are not the first in this area, but we can be the first to put some of these algae into products that are of interest to consumers through Denmark’s expertise in enzyme technology, fermentation and the food industry,” explains Poul Erik Jensen.

“If you look at the dairy industry, which started in Denmark in the second half of the 19th century, they took the milk and processed it into butter and skimmed milk. And if you look in supermarket refrigerators today, you will find a sea of high-value dairy products that were developed by the dairy industry based on food research. And we are now in a situation where we must do the same with plant and algae biomass, which can be similarly refined into plant-based foods. That is the vision,” says Poul Erik Jensen.

Good position for the development of brand new foods

Poul Erik Jensen believes that there are many reasons why we in Denmark are well positioned to establish an algae based food production.

“We have a long tradition of efficient horticulture and agriculture and it may be that we have to convert some of these productions into algae factories. It is not a smart fix and we are not there yet, but it may be the vision we are working towards,” says the experienced researcher who believes that there is a need of a greater supplement of plant-based foods.

“We have some possibilities that we can now begin to exploit because consumers and thus the industry are showing an interest in it. UCPH FOOD has a long tradition of developing new foods and here at the department there are a number of facilities and competencies that support this development: A large food analysis platform, a large group of researchers working with food microbiology and fermentation, a large group of researchers working with proteins as well as the Future Consumer Lab, which examines consumer acceptance of new foods,” explains Poul Erik Jensen, who also brings a large network of plant scientists from around the world.

In addition, Denmark has a unique starting point for research into algae for food use because companies like Novozymes and Chr. Hansen also have very strong competencies in fermentation and enzyme technology in the industry.

“It will probably mean that we can get algae and plants into a food stream more easily than other countries,” says Poul Erik Jensen.

Bad taste is a big challenge

Unprocessed microalgae are an unexplored food for the ordinary consumer.

“We do not know why algae tastes bad, but see it as a very big challenge. Some believe it has to do with the green pigment, chlorophyll, but it is probably more complex than that. The chlorophyll molecule absorbs light, which ultimately causes the chlorophyll to react with the oxygen in the air. The oxygen is a threat to products that can go rancid, which will be a challenge for taste and health. They also experienced this type of problem with milk and they solved it through cooling and pasteurisation. In other types of food, antioxidants are added. This is clearly something we need to work on with regards to algae as a food source,” says Poul Erik Jensen.

Genetics show the way to natural solutions 

Much of Poul Erik Jensen’s previous research is based on genetic engineering in plants or bacteria.

“It is my basic scientific starting point and through genetics, we can learn something about the processes in plants and algae. At the moment, we cannot process foods based on GMO technology in Europe, but with the knowledge we have from the scientific work with bacteria and plants, we can say something about what genes we need to find natural variants of to achieve a desired trait in a plant or algae,” explains Poul Erik Jensen, who, with the help of a PhD student, is working on creating “algae factories” that can produce amino acids.

“With the help of genetic engineering, we have made the algae channel approx. 50% of the fixed carbon dioxide into amino acids. This says something about the potential for using algae. That means we can also cultivate an algae to produce large amounts of amino acids for us and now we know what processes we need to look at,” says Poul Erik Jensen.

Poul Erik Jensen will give his inaugural lecture as Professor of plant-based food biochemistry in the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD) on 27 September 2019. (See invitation in the box)

Poul Erik Jensen’s CV