Can Algae Save the Orangutans?

A California company has developed an alternative to palm oil to avoid the deforestation wiping out rare wildlife.
(Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)
Dec 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

There’s a new oil turning up on grocery and drug store shelves that could prove to be a significant breakthrough in the fight to curb palm oil production. It comes from a surprising source: algae.

It’s a timely arrival, as Indonesia’s peat fires make the country the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter, and rainforest depletion threatens the habitat of orangutans and other endangered wildlife.

The oil—and a bevy of related products—comes from microcytes, one-celled organisms that live in freshwater and saltwater. They’re the latest salvo from Solazyme, a San Francisco Bay area company that originally set out to produce biofuels (and still does).

Along the way, Solazyme discovered that algae oil has enormous potential for use in food, soaps, lotions, and many other products that depend on palm oil as an emulsifier.

Last month, the company introduced a new consumer cooking oil, Thrive, at the annual food industry showcase IFD and is rolling out the product at Southern California’s Gelson’s chain.

But let’s start at the beginning—oil from algae? It’s not as far-fetched as it seems when you consider that oil is pressed from a variety of plants, from corn and soy to olive and coconut.

“Microalgae is the planet’s original oil producer,” said Jill Kauffman Johnson, Solazyme’s global sustainability director, who also calls it “the mother of all plants,” referring to its role as the bottom of the food web.

The microalgae is grown in giant steel fermentation tanks similar to those used for beer, then dried and pressed for oil. As a food oil, it’s impressive: high in omega-9 and omega-3 fatty acids and extremely stable against rancidity, thus reducing the need for preservatives.

RELATED: Is Eating Palm Oil Ruining the Planet?

But using the word oil doesn’t quite cover all that these algae-derived products can do. Solazyme is also moving into the baked-food industry with lipid powders and algae protein marketed under the name AlgaVia, which can be used to replace butter, oil, eggs, and even flour.

“There’s not really anything on the market you can compare them to directly, because they can be used to replace several ingredients at once,” said Johnson, citing Solazyme’s recipe for mayonnaise in which algae take the place of eggs, oil, and preservatives.

In Solazyme’s test kitchen at its headquarters south of San Francisco, cooks experiment with muffins, brownies, ice cream, and a new margarine planned for launch in 2016. Meanwhile, Solazyme has a host of products in commercial test kitchens around the country readying to become cookies, crackers, french fries, and pretty much any other fat-dependent food.

“The food industry is eager for new ingredients that are healthier but also provide solutions for some of the challenges they have with food production,” said Johnson. “They want to see clean labels and nonanimal sources of protein for the health-conscious consumer, and these meet those needs.” A second producer of algae-based flours and powders, French manufacturer Roquette, is also eyeing the American market.

Then there’s the personal care market, a big consumer of palm oil. Solazyme has its own Algenist beauty line but does most of its production via partnerships, including with Unilever (maker of Dove and Brylcreem), Brazilian beauty line Natura, and Japanese conglomerate Mitsui. Production is ramping up, with new plants in Illinois and Brazil and capacity expanding rapidly.

Still, algae oil is the proverbial drop in the barrel when it comes to replacing palm oil, which makes up one-fourth of all vegetable oil consumption and is in half of all packaged goods, from breakfast cereal to detergent. Demand is rising, driven largely by palm oil’s low price; in the United States alone, palm oil imports have risen 485 percent in the last decade. Is it any wonder the acreage devoted to palm oil plantations rose from 15 million acres in 1990 to 40 million acres in 2011, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Not all palm oil is bad, as Johnson points out. New certification processes make it possible to identify where and how palm oil was produced and to buy products labeled as using sustainably harvested oil. (However, a recent investigation cast doubt on the reliability of the certification process.) With many developing economies dependent on palm oil production, no one is recommending replacing the ingredient altogether. “We’re not out to replace all palm oil, just to provide an alternative to the expansion of palm oil production and unsustainable harvesting,” said Johnson.

But let’s be honest—your favorite brands of ice cream, mayonnaise, and sunscreen probably contain noncertified palm oil, and most people aren’t going to read labels anyway. Even when you try, it can be almost impossible to decipher palm oil among the alphabet soup of fuzzy names it hides under, as listed by Rainforest Action Network.

By contrast, Solazyme is going for total transparency, offering detailed descriptions of its production process on the company website. “Consumers really want to know where their products come from, so we’re trying to make the process as transparent as possible,” said Johnson. “We really try to explain how we make what we make.”

The bottom line: Transparency is the key to avoiding nonsustainable palm oil. You can use the 2015 palm oil scorecard to find out which companies and products are the worst offenders and which products are relatively safe to use. Or you can start washing your face, seasoning your salad, and baking your brownies with algae oil instead.