Written by: Alina Ng-Parish
What comes to mind when you think of algae? Is it pond scum? Or perhaps the piles of slimy seaweed washed up on the beach? Is it just something green? If any of the latter are your case, don’t worry, you are not alone! To many, algae are viewed as nothing more than aquatic plants that have been gaining popularity across a variety of industries undeservingly. But before I explain why algae have earned their popularity and are way more than just piles of beach litter or something that turns your water green, let’s dive into what the heck algae even are.
Are algae plants?
Scientifically speaking, the answer is no. Algae are not plants! While they share similar traits such as the ability to photosynthesize, that is, they can turn sunlight into their own food, and can sometimes look a lot like what we tend to think of as plants, algae are actually more closely related to bacteria.
Are seaweeds algae?
Absolutely! Within the world of algae there are two major divisions: macroalgae and microalgae. Macroalgae are the algas we commonly refer to as seaweed (you know this one, the piles of stuff on the beach!) They differ from their counterparts, microalgae, because while microalgae are single cellular, or made up of just one cell, macroalgae can be made up of millions of cells. If you picture kelp, the preferred home of sea otters, you can see how it is made up of many more cells than Algi’s microalgae, Spirulina.
P.S. Similar to how macroalgae are differentiated from microalgae, the way algae are referred to when they are singular or plural is differentiated too. Algae is the plural term to the singular alga.
Are all algae the same?
No way Jose! There are over hundreds of different species of algae and tons more still to be discovered. While each species has its own characteristics and capabilities, all algae are typically categorized into one of three types that are based on color: Rhodophyta (red algae), Chlorophyta (green algae), and Phaeophyceae (brown algae).
Rhodophyta can look anything from bright red to dark purple and almost black. While their red color not only makes them stand out, their color also means they contain powerful antioxidants which has made algae of this category popular in health supplements and within the beauty industry. Chlorophyta, easy to spot by its signature green color, represents most microalgae species and can be found in a variety of functional foods because they can contain high amounts of proteins, healthy oils, and fats. Finally, Phaeophyceae, the umbrella term for brown algae, is best represented by the most popular seaweed of the family, kelp. Brown algae, although typically given less of the spotlight than reds and greens, make waves in their own way and are an important source of products that are used in a myriad of processes and goods. In fact, without brown algae, the biotech company AlgiKnit wouldn’t be able to change fashion as we know it and create their own sustainable, carbon neutral, algae-based yarn!
From finding their way into food, to the skincare products you use, and even the clothing you wear, clearly algae are a lot more than just aquatic “plants” that pile up on the beach and clog up your pond--and applications in food, beauty, and fashion barely starts the list of the ways algae are valuable and useful. In fact, many people are surprised that the list of products containing algae is extensive. But if you’re still not sold on algae being more than just a slimy nuisance, here are five interesting ways that will have you seeing algae in a new light.
1. Keeping the cream in your ice-cream
Algae? In ice cream?? I’ve never seen it in the ingredient list. If that’s what you’re thinking, you, like many others, probably didn’t know that algae is hiding in the depths of the ingredients list under one of two sneaky names: carrageenan or agar. I know these names sound scary but I promise you they are not. Both are products that come from red algae; while carrageenan is an incredibly common thickening, binding, and emulsifying agent, agar is more commonly used for thickening and gelling.If you’re like me and not in the kitchen a lot, all you need to remember is that agar and carrageenan are food additives that help glue things together.
In ice cream, either is added to prevent the growth of ice crystals from growing too large (the trick to smooth, creamy, ice cream is having undetectably small ice crystals). Algae helps keep the texture smooth and creamy and prevents too much ice from forming during storage and transit to your mouth. That means you can thank aglae for thick and creamy ice cream instead of creamed ice!
2. Sushi has a good wrap
In addition to being delicious, sushi lovers have to admit sushi has a great wrap. That’s right, that green, flaky, and yet sturdy paper that keeps your sushi rolled up is an alga! More commonly known as nori, (or scientifically as porphyra) this red seaweed is no stranger to many asian cuisines since for centuries this macroalgae has been harvested from the sea and dried and processed into large sheets that could be stored for a variety of uses. From adding flavor and texture to miso soup, acting as a crunchy topping to various rice dishes, or to be eaten in the form of dried sheets as a high iodine snack, the unlikely ingredient has found its way onto even the most unsuspecting person’s plate. In fact, it’s likely that you’ve already shared a meal or two with this red sea vegetable.
3. For the love of foam
If you thought I was going to talk about seafoam, guess again. Believe it or not algae is a critical component of the beer's head, the foam on the top of your beer. If you’re not a connoisseur of the thick white wave on top of your drink, no need to worry, but if you enjoy a foamy toast take a moment to appreciate how algae helps give you a nice white stache.
Poly glycol alginates (PGA’s), another type of algae glue, are a brown alga derivative used to increase foam stability. How? Beer foam naturally contains proteins (prior to algae being added in) that make up the foam's structure. At the same time, the vessel that will hold your beer (your cup) naturally contains surface residues that exist in the form of lipids (oils and fats). When beer is poured into the glass, the oils and fats on its surface interact with the foam’s proteins and cause the proteins to not function properly resulting in a popping of the foam bubbles. In other words, oils on the glass separate beer foam bubbles the way a cat disperses a flock of birds. Fortunately, in come PGAs to save the day. Adding in these PGAs that are extracted from algae helps the beer foam proteins function normally. So no need to worry, thanks to alginate all you need to do is grab a beer and give a frothy cheers to algae!
4. Algae is part of your morning routine
Fitting perfectly with its nautical origins and oceanic logo, Starbucks keeps its brand on theme by using ingredients from the ocean in their drinks. A variety of their coffees including popular flavors such as their pumpkin spice latte, white chocolate mocha, and classic hot chocolate, all use carrageenan, a product of red algae, as a drink additive that helps give your morning joe an extra bold flavor and smooth consistency. So not only does algae keep Starbucks coffee stable, it keeps you stable too. And since drinking algae is already part of your daily routine, for an added boost of energy throughout the day, an IMPACT Bar makes a nice complement!
5. Algae everyday keeps sun damage away
You’ve heard it as a child, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ but did you know that algae everyday keeps the skin doctor away? Specifically talking about skin health, in recent years algae has become a major ingredient in both cosmetics and SPF products for its antioxidant properties and UV (sun ray) protecting powers. Algae, like us, are exposed to harmful UV radiation and in response, have developed a plethora of sun-fighting, powerful compounds to help them withstand all day in the sun. In fact, trusted beauty brands like Supergoop, La Mer, Mario Badesco, The Body Shop, and Biossance, believe in the power of algae so much, they all utilize algae in their products to give your skin a little extra protection.
From keeping your ice cream creamy, to wrapping your sushi, topping your beer with foam, giving your coffee an extra kick, and helping your skin fight off everyday stressors, algae is ingrained in your life in more ways than you will ever know. An important source of useful food additive ingredients, algae helps create the many textures and flavors that you love. At the same time, thanks to their ability to produce valuable products such as proteins, fats, oils, and antioxidants algae have become both a stand alone ingredient in health and supplements as well as a critical component in many notable beauty brand products. But if you’re still need more reasons to love algae, check out these other amazing benefits algae are already producing for you.