Flavor without fat is the holy grail of health food science. To compensate for trimming fat out of junk foods, chemists have tried amping up the salts and sugars. They’ve created proteins to try to mimic the smooth flavor release of fat. They’ve engineered fake fat particles so big they pass through the intestinal tract undigested. But your mouth knows what it knows: That reduced-fat Oreo tastes in no way like the full-fat version.
Now, a renewable energy company may have found a fix where food scientists hadn’t looked—in the peculiar molecular structure of single-celled algae.
"The whole thing was an accident," says Leslie Norris, the lead food scientist for Solazyme. In 2003, the San Francisco-based company didn’t have any food scientists—it had set out to grow algae that could convert sugars into ethanol for fuel. But researchers soon found that some algae were pretty adept at converting sugars into fat, too.
So Solazyme recruited a small team of food chemists, constructed a kitchen-lab stocked with Kitchen-Aid mixers and graduated cylinders, and set about cultivating its culinary arm, Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals. The company started growing its algae in large vats of nutrient broth. When stressed slightly, the algae naturally reacted to produce more fats than proteins. One strain in particular made a pretty healthy fat similar to olive oil but with a consistency fit for use in cookies and ice creams.
The result is Almagine, a bright yellow powder made from dried algae ground up into tiny one-micron pieces. It tastes a little like pie dough right after the butter and shortening has been cut into the flour. Substitute Almagine for some of the butter, eggs and flour in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, and you get the buttery, chewy feel of the original with 40 percent less fat and cholesterol.
We have no taste buds that detect fat. But anyone who’s experienced the disappointment of low-fat ice cream or Baked Lays knows just how important it is to the eating experience. That’s because fat plays a significant role in a decadent food’s mouthfeel: the cool unctuousness of ice cream, or the crisp shatter of a deep-fried potato chip. The size and organization of Almagine particles—globules of fiber and protein coated in fat—give them the unique ability to mimic the consistency of fat when it hits the tongue. In the field of food chemistry, mimicking that experience is a massive achievement. In her two decades working as a food scientist, Norris’s efforts to make low-fat foods delicious never quite hit the spot. “If you asked me in my career if I could make 6-percent-fat ice cream taste like 17-percent-fat ice cream, I would have said no,” she says.
Norris and the three other staff scientists at Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals still have a lot to figure out: When they baked bread with Almagine recently, the bread mysteriously puffed up more voluminously and more quickly than expected. But they’ve come long way since 2008, when Solazyme reps first showed up at Norris’s house with samples of its first powdered algae prototype. Back then, Norris says, the product was unpalatable. But just as corn- and grass-fed cows taste differently when they’re made into beef, algae’s flavor profile changes when it’s fed different minerals. After tinkering with the algae’s mineral diet, Solazyme’s food chemists landed upon its current shortbread taste.
The idea of algae cookies may be difficult for mainstream consumers to stomach. As Norris puts it, some people think algae and they think "pond scum." But most diners actually regularly eat algae, whether in the form of sushi's seaweed or the Irish moss extract carrageenan, which can be found in ice cream and soy milk and beer. Carrageenan has been considered as a fat substitute, too—its long carbohydrate chains make a gel that mimics the texture of fat—but tasters still found it lacking. Almagine succeeds on the taste front because it isn’t meant to be a complete, one-to-one replacement for butter; making algae cookies, for example, requires tinkering with the eggs and flour portions, too.
Solazyme's food scientists are betting that algae's unsavory connotations will fade once they get Algamine on consumer tongues. With hundreds of taste tests under their belts, they've worked out novel Almagine recipes for cookies, crackers, ice cream, and a dairy-free milkshake-like drink—prototype products that they hope will convince the food industry of algae’s potential. And in foodie circles, the product is uniquely poised to take advantage of several food trends. “All-natural, non-GMO, sustainable” is a mantra repeated by Solazyme’s employees and throughout its press materials. Cutting two-thirds of the fat from ice cream still doesn’t make it a health food, of course—especially with all that sugar—but a little bit of algae could go a long way in making our junk foods a little less scummy.
Photo courtesy of Solazyme.