As modern-day consumers become more health conscious, and plant-based eating moves deeper into the mainstream, product makers face new challenges to meet consumers’ evolving needs. One of the greatest challenges facing manufacturers and their culinary teams is developing products that not only meet the health, environmental, and clean-label demands of consumers, but that also deliver the high-quality taste and texture profiles indispensable to success. It falls on ingredient makers and suppliers to support these efforts.

A new “super-ingredient” is helping manufacturers meet these challenges and fulfill consumer expectations: algae. Algae is one of nature’s first foods. It is an ancient source of macro and micronutrients and the foundation of the planetary food chain the basis for all plant life. Rich in healthful lipids, protein, essential amino acids, fiber, and minerals, algae is considered an ultimate plant-based source of nutrition.

Although there are thousands of different types of algae, found in a range of environments, ingredient technologists for TerraVia Inc. determined that one particular strain of algae has a number of properties that make it uniquely suitable as a whole-food ingredient. This algae, originally discovered in a freshwater pond in the Netherlands, is non-GMO, grown using a standard industrial fermentation process, just as used for wine or beer production. After fermentation, it is washed, dried, and milled into a soft, fine powder (Lipid-Rich Whole Algae powder).

The powdered algae is golden in color, rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, and naturally trans fat- and cholesterol-free. It’s also vegan and gluten-free. When working with lipid-rich algae, manufacturers are able to reduce, or entirely replace, dairy fats, oils, butter, as well as egg yolks. For baked goods, dairy products, and such fat- or egg-dependent items as dressings and sauces, lipid-rich algae can provide a “shortcut” to creating low-calorie, eggless, vegan formulations.

For eggless culinary creations, lipid-rich algae can mimic the function of the egg yolks by allowing for emulsification that lends a full body mouthfeel while providing moisture control. This capability for emulsification is due to the phospholipids, and mono- and diglycerides within the ingredient. The interaction of the oil, starches and fibers together provide a full, rich mouthfeel and textural experience. The moisture control capability is due to the presence of fibers, starches, and polysaccharides.

Formulating with lipid-rich algae can be especially beneficial for the baker, especially when seeking solutions for vegan formulations, and vegan and gluten-free formulations. For example, a food manufacturer seeking to develop a vegan challah bread. This meant replacing dairy fats and eggs a key ingredient in challah. Challah relies on egg for its traditional, airy, almost brioche-like structure. The client had struggled to obtain this correct texture, created by interactions between the gluten in the flour and the normally primary emulsifying agent, lecithin in the egg yolks.

Replacing the eggs and butter with just 4% lipid-rich algae w/w, plus an additional 13.1% water than the original formulation, turned out to be the perfect solution. The resultant product had a lovely golden hue and boasted a classic texture. Both were achieved with minimal modifications to the original recipes. This successfully created vegan challah perfectly mirrored the original formulation in appearance and taste. As an added benefit, the removal of butter and eggs, and addition of healthy fats provided a significant improvement in health benefits. Moreover, the now-vegan product could boast a 65% reduction in saturated fat, 20% calorie reduction, and 100% removal of cholesterol.

Another bakery application the culinary team focused on was a gluten-free, vegan devil’s food cupcake. At first, the team struggled using plant-based ingredients made from legumes to create the cake sponge. Pea and garbanzo flours left the cupcakes with a distinct “beany” flavor that overpowered the chocolate. Even the frosting proved to be particularly challenging. None of the vegan frostings tested had the thick and decadent mouthfeel when compared to the original frosting. 

By bringing in the emulsification properties of lipid-rich algae flour, it was possible to replace the eggs and the legume flours in the cake sponge. Water was adjusted to increase the liquid content in the cake sponge by 25%. With this correct amount of additional water, the moisture retention of the algae provided an added benefit, creating a moist and tender crumb.

The emulsifying properties also allowed for a gluten-free, vegan cupcake with great structure. By not having to turn to bean flours, the chocolate flavor could shine through.

For the frosting, lipid-rich algae was used in combination with algae oil. This made it possible to remove all butter and shortening from the frosting. No added liquid was necessary for this new formulation. In fact, the omission of additional liquid resulted in a thick frosting with a rich mouthfeel. With the above adjustments, the vegan, gluten-free, cupcake closely resembled the original version and with equal decadence in flavor. As an added benefit, the new version of the devil’s food cupcake contained 50% less fat, had more monounsaturated fat (essential fatty acids that can help maintain heart health), and came in at a 30% lower calorie count.

Another category where the team has achieved great success with lipid-rich algae is sauces and dressings. The team has helped manufacturers seeking improvements to the nutrition of their products, or to achieve clean labels, or to develop dairy-free versions.

For example, a manufacturer desiring to develop a line of dairy-free, allergen-free, creamy salad dressings faced a hurdle creating dairy-free Ranch and blue cheese dressings that were totally free of allergens. They couldn’t use any of the traditional ingredients manufacturers normally turn to, specifically soy, nuts, starches with gluten, or eggs. In this case, lipid-rich algae proved to be exemplary. Starting with that most common base in salad dressing manufacturing, canola oil, water, and vinegar, adding potato starch and lipid-rich algae powder, it was then feasible to build up to dairy-free salad dressings with the same creamy body consumers expect from Ranch and blue cheese dressing thanks to the healthy fats in the lipid powder. And unlike the original dressings, the dairy-free lipid-rich algae versions had half the amount of saturated fat and no cholesterol.

In addition to replacing dairy in products like the previous example, lipid-rich algae has turned out to be an excellent egg replacer in traditionally egg-reliant products. In developing a new, vegan mayonnaise, the removal of eggs proved especially daunting: Eggs not only give mayonnaise its smooth and creamy mouthfeel, but also make for a thick and spreadable texture. Pea proteins initially tried didn’t create the same mouthfeel as real mayonnaise.

In order to replicate the desired organoleptics, other manufacturers rely on starches and gums. But typically, those ingredients must be highly modified, making the sought-after clean label a impossible. These problems were readily resolved by replacing the pea protein, and many of the starches and stabilizers, with LRWA. The fats and emulsifying capabilities of the ingredient led to a decrease in the amount of soybean oil and complete removal of eggs. The result: A more healthful, clean-label, vegan mayonnaise with the right creamy mouthfeel and light spreadable texture.

As consumers demand more from the foods they eat, manufacturers who want to thrive must also evolve. From baked goods, to sauces, dressings, soups, and even ice creams, Lipid-Rich Whole Algae allows manufacturers to develop new and relevant products in today’s radically changing and highly demanding marketplace.

Marisa Churchill is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and received her certification in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University, New York. She has worked in some of San Francisco’s top restaurants and continues to consult on recipe and product development for multiple food companies. Churchill is the author of two cookbooks and serves as the culinary director for TerraVia. 

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