The Good Food Institute (GFI) India recently published a strategic analysis report on the potential of algal protein as an alternative protein food source in India, dubbed the ‘Technological Review of Algae-based Proteins’, where it was highlighted that there are massive opportunities for the South Asian country, which has one of the highest malnourishment rates globally, to tap on this sector.
“India's agricultural biodiversity, industrial base, and talent pool presents major opportunities for the alternative protein sector to develop in the country, [from plant-based to cultivated meat],” GFI India Managing Director Varun Deshpande told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“Within this landscape, algal protein could emerge as an exciting opportunity due to our 8100km long coastline and base of smallholder farmers capable of producing seaweed and microalgae through aquaculture.
“Seaweed in particular has been identified by the United Nations and the Indian government as hugely promising for its impact on farming communities and potential for carbon sequestration.”
That said, Despande also said that there are still multiple challenges that the sector will need to overcome before it is able to reach full potential, not least large overarching ones like getting past regulatory hurdles and attracting investments.
“Through our research, we've identified dozens of challenges and interventions across science, business, and policy to drive growth in new areas such as algal protein. For instance, regulators across the world may view ingredients derived from the algal protein value chain as novel foods, which could place burdens on producers that are not currently faced by other crops,” he said.
“Selection of microalgae for food applications [will be unlike selecting microalgae for biofuel applications, as more nutritional, functional, organoleptic and other properties need to be considered, plus the sector] might be constrained to a few strains due to legal and regulatory challenges to approve a new strain without a history of safe use.
“Additionally, capital investment may prove a challenge in the early stages of building this value chain [but] as with other areas of the alternative protein sector, research and investment across the value chain will drive down the prove of algal protein over the next decade. Governments and multilateral institutions have indicated that they would be willing to provide incentives due to the potential benefits for farmers and the economy.”
Despande stressed that research in this area is still ongoing and that ‘we're only scratching the surface of what's possible with algae’, but that the potential payoffs for this are extremely considerable and worth the effort.
“Seaweed and microalgae are highly dense in nutrients such as carotenoids and essential fatty acids that are not found in other crops, which could be helpful in tackling our public health challenges,” he said.
“They are also particularly promising in terms of their applications in alternative seafood, due to their flavour and other properties - an area which is neglected within the global landscape and has major potential for growth in the coming years.
“[We have already seen firms start to realise the potential of this sector too] - Globally, startups like Singapore's Sophie's Bionutrients and major corporations like Unilever (through a partnership with Algenuity) are showing the potential of algal proteins within food innovation.”
When asked whether there was any potential for algal protein to surpass the prominence of other plant-based proteins in the industry in the future, Deshpande opined that the sector is likely to achieve ‘widespread prominence’ and add as an important complement to what is currently available.
“We believe that algal protein and other ingredients from both seaweed and microalgae will achieve widespread prominence within the alternative protein world over the coming years for their nutritive and functional qualities,” he told us.
“The sector will require a broad base of raw materials and ingredients to fulfill needs and tastes across the spectrum of meat, egg, and dairy alternatives, and algal proteins in particular can power major growth in the seafood aisle of the future.”
Smart protein in India
Further to this, India is showing high potential to emerge as a frontrunner in terms of sustainable alternative ‘smart proteins’ based on consumer interest and acceptance, which makes it all the more important for alternative protein sources such as algal protein to make it to market as soon as possible.
“All research indicates that India will emerge as a major market for the smart protein sector over the next decade, and that we can also compete for a huge global market for these foods - The demand for animal-sourced foods such as conventional meat, seafood, egg, and dairy is expected to skyrocket with rising incomes in low and middle income countries like India,” said Deshpande.
“Our large middle class, increased awareness of global trends and the need for protein transitions [and] deep-seated cultural views on meat consumption within India's diverse population make smart protein products ideally placed to cut across socio-cultural divides to address these challenges.
“For instance, our cross country survey of consumer acceptance of plant-based and cultivated meat indicated that 56% of [urban] Indian consumers are already very or extremely likely to purchase cultivated meat regularly, and 63% are very or extremely likely to purchase plant-based meat, which compared favourably with the U.S. and China.”