Got Pond Scum? Eating Algae Could Help Control Diabetes and Keep You Fit

A California company discovers that algae-infused food could lead to healthier customers.

(Photo: Regis Duvignau/Reuters)
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired , Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Diabetes conjures up images of needles and insulin pumps, but future treatment may also include a healthy diet of algae.

Solazyme, a San Francisco Bay Area green tech company, and the University of Manitoba have secured a patent for using a strain of microalgae called Chlorella protothecoides to treat people with impaired glucose tolerance and diabetes.

Research suggests that consuming algae can lower blood sugar levels: A 2008 study found that animals’ consumption of Chlorella protothecoides resulted in lower blood sugar levels.

In another study 17 healthy people and 17 subjects at risk for lifestyle-related diseases were fed algae for four months. The researchers noticed significant reductions in body fat, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels in the algae eaters—all good things. The scientists also noticed that in the high-risk group, genes involved in fat metabolism and insulin signaling fluctuated, suggesting that eating algae was altering people's metabolism.

Solazyme spokesperson Katie Ringer said the company has found in animal testing that algae decreased blood sugar levels without relying on insulin. The patent claims that traditional treatments for diabetes and other illnesses could be reduced or eliminated after a subject starts consuming algae.

The company is also using the algae strain to boost the relative abundance of beneficial stomach bacteria that keep people healthy.

Solazyme was founded to make low-carbon algal biofuels. But as the company’s scientists developed new strains of algae, they discovered that with some tweaking the algae could be used as healthy substitutes for fat-and-cholesterol-laden butter, eggs, and other foods.

Take algal flour. It is rich in nutrients and could be used in place of eggs, “in a multitude of applications such as bakery, beverages, sauces, dressings, and frozen desserts,” said Ringer.

Because algal flour is dairy-free, it would avoid triggering common allergies, and it contains fewer calories. Ringer said the flour also has the same mouthfeel—food industry jargon for the sensation an ingredient creates when it’s eaten—as high-fat foods.

Solazyme has experimented with using the algal flour in challah bread—the bread contained 160 calories per serving, three grams of fat, and no cholesterol. In contrast, regular challah bread contains 200 calories per serving, eight grams of fat, and 25 milligrams of cholesterol.

Another food ingredient covered in Solazyme's patents is an algae-based protein. Like other algae-based products, the protein is rich in fiber, healthy lipids, and micronutrients. “The protein’s whole cell properties allow for easy formulation into a broad range of applications,” said Ringer. “It enables us to fortify products, increasing the protein content of foods that normally wouldn’t contain any protein.”

The American Diabetes Association estimated in 2012 that 29.1 million Americans—nearly 10 percent of the population—were living with diabetes. For people hungry for better lives, algae-fortified food may just be their meal ticket.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the type of testing referred to by a Solazyme spokesperson. It was animal testing. 

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