Israeli Algae Falafel Wins First Prize in Feed-the-world Contest

When the global population nears 10 billion, which is expected in 2050, the protein gap is expected to become unmanageable. Enter the Technion kids’ spirulina algalafel

The award-winning algalafel
Nitzan Zohar

The world population is projected to reach 10 billion by the year 2050, but where is the protein to feed everyone going to come from? Our oceans and lakes are massively overfished already. Our flatulent cows are poisoning the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and let’s face it, tofu isn’t for everyone (though it does not, repeat not cause gynecomastia). Anyway, tofu is expensive.

Algae on the other hand is not associated with mythical man-boobs, it doesn’t fart and exacerbate global warming, and it is neither elusive nor expensive. Now grad students at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology have invented an award-winning dish made with pond scum that is rich in protein, and which could help feed the future masses at minimal environmental cost.

Meet the algalafel, which won first prize in the EIT Food Project (European Knowledge and Innovation Community), created by students at the Biotechnology and Food Engineering Faculty of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Yes, it’s served with supercharged tahini.

The award-winning algalafel
Nitzan Zohar

They won the innovative microalgae product development competition, they explain, which was held in early December.

It took a year to develop the algalafel, they say, during which they had to develop the product and create a business plan, explains student Hani Shkolnikov, who developed the foodstuff with fellow students Meital Kazir, Yarden Abuhassira-Cohen, Hila Tarazi and Ina Nephomnyshy, mentored by Prof. Maya Davidovich-Pinhas, Prof. Uri Lesmes, Prof. Avi Shpigelman and project leader Prof. Yoav Livney.

The algalafel is a normal deep-fried ball of ground chickpeas but made of batter enriched with spirulina, which is extraordinarily protein-rich.

In a nod to the latest wrinkles in food-related manias, the packaging of the product cites that it's gluten-free.

That said, both falafel and algalafel are served in pita, generally speaking. The algalafel is dished up with the requisite slash of tahini sauce. But in this case, the sesame-seed paste is enriched with astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant that turns flamingoes pink (if the birds eat shrimp that were eating algae that contain astaxanthin. No, you won't turn pink if you eat the algalafel). 

Chickpeas and sesame seeds contain protein, but the algae are the primary source in their invention, Shkolnikov tells Haaretz. “The product contains about 15% spirulina, which itself consists of something like 60% protein,” she says. “It is much richer in protein than other natural sources.”

Asked if all the spirulina protein is a form that we can digest, she says that based on the literature, “a large of amount of it” is digestible. (The rest gets excreted.)

The purpose of the tahini in the sandwich is not only to add taste and texture, but as a vehicle for the astaxanthine, which is a more powerful antioxidant than carotenes, Shkolnikov says.

The students also had to come up with a business plan for the Algalafel
Nitzan Zohar

Astaxanthine does not naturally exist in tahini, but they decided to add it to the tahini as opposed to some other element in the sandwich for a technical reason: The molecule is soluble in oil but not in water and tahini is oily.

Yes, the algalafel is deep-fried in oil just like regular falafel. So, what does it taste like? "It’s good," Hani answers. “A little bit special. We did taste tests among the faculty and got good feedback. The judges also tasted it and seemed enthusiastic.”

Spirulina is what’s called a blue-green micro-algae. It was supplied to the contestants by the Israeli company Algatechnologies.

Key to the concept, protein richness aside, is that cultivating spirulina is – relative to fish, cows, poultry, rabbits, goats or even plants – economical in land and water. “There is no such thing as zero economic cost,” Shkolnikov points out. “But micro-algae in general maintain the environment more compared with meat and other vegetable sources. Research has found that microalgae in general and spirulina are much more sustainable than other protein sources.”

Spirulina, which is also low in fat, isn’t only one answer to malnutrition. It’s even been touted as a possible food and source of oxygen during space flight, as reported not only by the Algae Industry Magazine, but by NASA

The second prize in the competition went to students from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, the proud producers of “Algini,”a lentil-based vegan product enriched with spirulina. Third came Helsinki University inventors of “Spurtti,” a vegan oatmeal dessert enriched with spirulina. One might have thought it’s something else that isn’t necessarily vegan but one would be wrong.

The two-day event, which the Technion hosted on its campus, included lectures on microalgae, a workshop on incorporating microalgae in Mediterranean food, and culminated in the competition. EIT-Food supports creative and economically sustainable initiatives that promote health, access to quality food and the environment. The project also involved three industrial partners, the university said: Algatechnologies, Germany’s Doehler and Finland’s Fazer.

The truth is, the Technion algae balls aren’t exactly a giant step into the future, but a reeling step backwards. Spirulina was regularly eaten in South America and Africa, until the 16th century. Then the lakes were drained and the water repurposed for “newfangled” agricultural practices, that cannot possibly feed all the people the world will have.