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Algae acceptance requires awareness and better branding

Article-Algae acceptance requires awareness and better branding

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Algae has the potential to become a dietary staple but manufacturers must focus on messaging around taste, convenience, and health, say product development experts.

Algae’s potential continues to resonate within the food industry. While algae is yet to make it as a dietary staple, new research reveals it has the potential to become a health-conscious favourite.

A new Future of Food Institute report explores how manufacturers can create consumer demand for algae products. “New, sustainable proteins are vital for the future of our food system,” Eva Hoogstins, a researcher at Future of Food Institute, told Fi Global. The study by the Future of Food Institute was funded by EIT Food, supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union.

Today, the food system requires “sources of protein that are at least as healthy but more sustainable than animal-based proteins, and satisfy consumer needs and expectations when it comes to taste, convenience, and price”, Hoogstins adds.

Algae appeal as an alternative

The European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy has identified algae, including seaweed as a key alternative protein for transitioning to a sustainable food system. Algae are high in protein, omega-3s, and a range of vitamins and minerals. They are fast-growing organisms that do not take up space on land and do a successful job of absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2).

“Despite all this potential, algae haven’t really made it yet as a dietary staple in Europe,” says Hoogstins. Subsequently, the researchers sought to discover the potential of algae on the European consumer’s plate and how to increase acceptance.

US non-profit Food for Climate League has also developed evidence-based health and wellness messaging and narratives to drive demand for sustainable and nutritious aquatic foods, namely bivalves and sea vegetables.

“Combined with their culinary opportunities in terms of flavour and texture, diverse cultural relevance, and nutritional benefits, aquatic foods present a unique opportunity for higher adoption on menus and shelves,” says Gesina Beckert, director of operations at Food for Climate League.

“We found that people are genuinely interested in these foods but currently lack knowledge about them,” Beckert says. “Current perceptions of these foods prevent greater adoption into many Americans’ diets.”

The Food for Climate League team’s research was focused on the US only, but Beckert believes these findings can apply to other regions like Europe too. “Sea veggies meet consumer interests in adaptable, easy-to-use ingredients that boost wellbeing and add a one-of-a-kind, umami flavour.”

Sea vegetables also align with today’s leading food trends: plant-based eating, immunity-boosting foods and climate-smart eating. “Incorporating sea vegetables into products is a great way to appeal to eaters, especially Millennials and Gen Z.”

Accepting seaweed as a dietary staple

The Future of Food Institute researchers confirm there is potential for algae to become a healthy dietary staple for more people. Their findings suggest consumers will likely be interested in incorporating specific types of seaweed and microalgae into their meals with the right messaging and products.

“The biggest predictor for acceptance is taste,” says Hoogstins. However, the researchers found that most consumers are not convinced by algae’s taste, particularly those who have not tried it before and are not sure they will like it.

Although consumers recognised some health benefits of algae, the positive environmental impact of farmed algae was not. Consumers were unaware of algae’s potential use and relationship to reducing atmospheric CO2. However, upon learning this information, the study’s participants found it appealing and a good reason to try algae as a dietary product.

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Going microscopic on messaging

Creating consumer demand for algae does involve food manufacturers. Manufacturers need to create healthy, tasty, and affordable products. Importantly, they must also tell the right message to position themselves well and appeal to consumers.

Food for Climate League’s research and narrative tests confirmed that while the taste is always king when trying new foods, many people are unfamiliar with sea vegetables and are sceptical of their flavours. “Therefore, we advise manufacturers to lead their communications with messages around health and sustainability, paired with versatility,” Beckert says.

Food for Climate League recommends manufacturers compare aquatic ingredients with terrestrial foods like other leafy greens, as it is an easy way to help people understand these aquatic foods' nutritional value and uses.

Using the term ‘sea vegetables’ helps eaters unfamiliar with seaweeds to think more broadly about how consumers could enjoy seaweeds, Beckert says and provides an immediate, familiar frame of reference to land vegetables.

The non-profit organisation advises manufacturers to visually present sea vegetables as convenient everyday foods. “Showcase the fun and practicality of sea vegetables—be it the colours, textures, or easy-to-eat formats,” says Beckert. Use imagery that emphasises the appealing taste of sea vegetables rather than their underwater habitat.

By changing how consumers talk about these foods, the hope is that eaters can be inspired and empowered to integrate bivalves and sea vegetables into their diets in ways that are accessible and meet their personal preferences.

Manufacturing with seaweed

The study also sets out learnings for manufacturers interested in adding seaweed to their products. Future of Food Institute’s researchers found four ways to turn algae as an ingredient into a benefit for consumers. Healthiness, sustainability, an engaging experience and detailing that algae are a product already present in many foods consumers eat are key.

Manufacturers are uniquely positioned to introduce people to new, delicious food experiences that include sea vegetables. One of the key reasons people consume less of these foods is the need for more awareness, with Food for Climate League findings, uncovering a third (33%) of US eaters not wanting to consume sea vegetables because they are unaware of them.

“Going forward, there is a tremendous opportunity to integrate sea vegetables as an ingredient into a wide array of culturally relevant, widely accessible, highly nutritious food products,” says Beckert. Sauces, salsas, seasonings, and snacks have been tipped as relevant product categories for seaweed, along with other fun concepts with mass-market appeal, like kelp burgers and smoothie cubes.