Could Marine Phytoplankton Be The Future Of Human Nutrition?
Plankton risotto from Aponiente.
© Tavallai, Flickr CC
As human beings struggle with rapidly increasing population growth, combined with topsoil loss and contamination of the oceans, the 21 st century is likely to be a century of increased interest into alternative food sources. Amongst those substances piquing the interest of scientists is marine phytoplankton, considered the oldest food on the planet, and possibly the precursor to all human life on the planet. Scientists believe these tiny organisms have their origins several billion years ago in cells with mutations that released oxygen into the earth’s atmosphere.
Nature’s Original Source Of Long Chain Omega 3 Oil
Amongst the craze of so-called superfoods on the shelves, phytoplankton is now a growing industry. One of the main reasons for its popularity is its abundance of essential fatty acids and particularly the long chain version of omega 3 oils which account for the health giving properties of things like salmon and mackerel. While health advice over the last few decades has more than doubled the fish consumption of the average Western diet, this has meant increased reliance on farmed fish, which are notably lower in these oils than their wild counterparts.
Amongst the most worrying of the practices adopted by aquaculturists to keep their farmed fish high in omega 3’s is the now standard practice of feeding them other fish. Contributing to pressures on the already depleted global fish stocks, it takes 1.5 - 8 kilograms of wild fish to make 1kg of farmed salmon. Not only does this make the farmed fish liable for greater contamination of pollutants like PCB, but recent evidence suggests that the end result is lower in the long chain omega 3’s anyway.
A Near Perfect Nutritional Source?
With oceanic omega 3 under increasing strain, scientists have begun looking at phytoplankton as a possible substitute, not just for fish farmers, but for humans themselves. Under the right conditions these single-celled organisms can grow extremely fast, as evidenced by the gigantic plankton blooms which can be seen from space. This speed of reproduction has another benefit; it means strains with particular properties can be selected and refined in a far shorter period than plants with a longer growing cycle. This makes for a plant with ideal possibilities for refining as a near perfect nutritional source for the human food chain. In addition, it is entirely vegan, meaning that even vegetarians can now find a dietary source of beneficial long chain omega 3 fatty acids.
Despite the famous plankton blooms, growing plankton under laboratory conditions is complex. Along with contamination from wild strains, creating the perfect climate requires consummate skill, a factor scientists are surmounting with the help of what are called bioreactors — sealed glass units perfectly designed to mimic optimum conditions for cultivating phototrophic microorganisms. These “mini-oceans” allow for continuous 24/7 production of marine phytoplankton, while guaranteeing that the result contains none of the potential toxins found in our oceans.
Big In Japan
With a diet already rich in seaweeds and raw fish, it’s no surprise the Japanese have been one of the early adopters of plankton in their diets. The University of Tokyo has pioneered with other private businesses to research a photosynthesizing plankton known as euglena. Euglena Company president Mitsuru Izumo explains that its production capacity is “more than ten times higher than tropical rain forests. From a food perspective, it is rich in nutrients, vitamins and amino acids and is a promising food source for modern people.”
Even Top Chefs Are Embracing Plankton
As if all the promising nutritional benefits of phytoplankton weren’t enough, celebrity chefs are now embracing this humble green powder as a unique flavour for their menus. Acclaimed chef Angel Leon of the Michelin-starred Aponiente in El Puerto do Santa Maria, Cadiz, Spain, offers a Taste of the Sea menu, which features a plankton cocktail mixed with gin and lemon thyme, a plankton risotto, and a plankton rice with aioli tartar. “Plankton is so healthy”, raves fellow chef and algae aficionado Nuno Mendes: “It has so many antioxidant properties. It’s the soy sauce of the future. Think how we were talking about sushi 15 years ago; this is where we are now with plankton.”
Piers Moore Ede is the author of 3 books, including Honey and Dust, which won the DH Lawrence Award for travel writing. He has contributed to the London Times, the Guardian, and Earth Island Journal. Visit https://planktonforhealth.co.uk/.