New Zealand algae superfood research making steady progress

by | Sep 21, 2022 | News

There’s nothing weedy about seaweed. As the global race speeds up seeking new sources of protein for high-value functional foods to feed the world, the many species of marine plants and algae found growing in oceans, rivers, lakes, and other watery places are coming under ever closer scrutiny for their nutritional potential. 

On the local scene, an international research project involving New Zealand and Singapore is making steady progress on analysing a native seaweed and other microalgae with superfood possibilities. A milestone in the project to extract novel proteins has just been reached after a workshop was hosted by the Riddet Institute at Massey University in Palmerston North.

Karengo is a native New Zealand seaweed commonly found on rocky reefs on the intertidal foreshore, mostly on the east and south coasts of both the North and South Islands. The marine plant is a traditional food of Māori, rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibre and a range of micronutrients. The Porphyra and Pyropia groups of seaweed, to which karengo and nori belong, are also thought to have a range of potential therapeutic and nutritional benefits. As yet, it’s not harvested commercially, says Dr Arup Nag, workshop co-organiser and Riddet Institute project leader.

The research project to determine the physio-chemical properties, health benefits and digestibility of the seaweed extracts began in late 2020, with the native seaweed karengo and international microalga Chlorella thought to have value as alternative protein sources.

Karengo is related to nori, which is widely produced and eaten as the seaweed wrap in sushi, while Chlorella is produced and marketed internationally as a health supplement. The research is funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s Catalyst Fund. The $3M global study is led by New Zealand’s Cawthron Institute, in collaboration with the Riddet Institute, the University of Auckland, Plant & Food Research, Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and the Bioprocessing Technology Institute.

Riddet Institute Director Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh says the nation-wide project and collaboration with Singapore could lead to innovative new products. “This collaborative effort has the potential to create new opportunities for the New Zealand food industry to export algae-based super foods,” says Dist. Prof Singh.

Nag says the project intended to have a face-to-face workshop to bring together international personnel every year of the three-year project, which commenced in September 2020. But Covid-19 pandemic disruptions have meant this year’s workshop was the first.


Riddet Institute Director Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh welcomes a group of researchers from New Zealand and Singapore to the Proteins and Algae project workshop in Palmerston North at the Riddet Institute, Massey University. / Supplied

The next workshop is planned to be in Singapore, July 2023, when it’s expected the nutritional potential for the seaweeds will be known. In the meantime, human clinical trials with the protein-rich extracts will begin in Singapore and laboratory animal trials will be undertaken in New Zealand.

Dr Nag says the research collaboration is hoping to extract the protein or carbohydrate components from the seaweeds and then use them as novel food ingredients. “There is high potential for establishing commercial algae farming by start-up ventures if this is confirmed.”

The production and marketing of high-value functional foods with unique attributes would be next
steps. Dr Nag says along with the proteins, the polysaccharides (carbohydrate) component in the seaweed may also have functional benefits that can be tapped. This is also being investigated by the research team. He says Singapore has expertise in the extraction of protein from micro algae such as Chlorella and New Zealand scientists have developed the extraction process for macro algae like karengo.

The Riddet Institute is a Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), hosted by Massey University, which focuses on fundamental and advanced food research. Other goals of the research project are to foster international research relationships and to improve future food security by diversifying food production.


Hero image: Cawthron Institute Technical Manager Analytical Science Dr Tom Wheeler with the protein extracted
from seaweed. / Supplied


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