During a recent visit to Solazyme, a renewable algae oil company, I had a mid-day snack of crackers, vanilla-tinged milk, pretzels with a honey mustard sauce, ice cream, and a chocolate chip cookie. All of it contained algae, and all of it had significantly fewer calories, fat, and cholesterol than more traditional counterparts. For the record: all of the food items were just as good, and in some cases better, than the same foods containing regular ingredients.
You may have heard of Solazyme before. The company, founded in 2003, at first had the singular goal of producing biofuel from algae, much like a handful of other biofuel companies, including Synthetic Genomics and Sapphire Energy. It has achieved some big milestones on the biofuel front just in the past few years—the first passenger carrier plane to fly with an algae-based biofuel blend used Solazyme’s fuel and the company became the largest advanced supplier of biofuels to the U.S. Navy.
But while news organizations proclaim that Solazyme is "the most promising advanced biofuel play on the market," CEO Jonathan Wolfson stresses that the South San Francisco-based company is not a biofuel company. It’s a renewable oil company that’s branching out into chemicals, cosmetics, and nutrition. Solazyme has development partnerships with companies ranging from Unilever to Dow Chemical. Why place all your bets on one industry?
Solazyme first realized that it was destined for more than just biofuel production while perfecting its algae oil-making process. "We’re making triglyceride oils. On the planet, there are three sources of oil: petroleum, plant oil, and animal fat. The first two are all triglycerides, which is what algae make," explains Wolfson. "Literally what we’ve done is produced a new source of oil. We can convert all of this plant-based sugar on the planet into different kinds of oils."
The basic premise is simple. Feed sugars (sugar cane, switchgrass, etc.) to algae, and the algae make oil. Solazyme tailors the oil profiles for different applications. "We can go out and find all kinds of oil profiles in nature and then using biotechnology we can get algae to either mimic them or create new oil profiles that haven’t existed before," says Wolfson.
The CEO brandishes a handful of small bottles containing Solazyme’s algae-based oils: a pork lard mimetic, palm oil, oil for jet fuel, dielectric fluid (used in transformers). "We put the same plant-based sugars in. All we did was switch the strain."
Solazyme has already found success in the cosmetics industry with its Algenist line of beauty products (tagline: "biotechnology from San Francisco), which rely on "alguronic acid," a compound produced by microalgae that can protect algae—and incidentally, human skin—from the environment. Since launching less than a year ago, Algenist products have become best-sellers at Sephora stores across the country.
My mid-day snack came courtesy of Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals, a joint venture between Solazyme and Roquette, a company that converts vegetables into raw materials for the food industry. "You have the ability with this line of products to let people eat what they like to eat but have a significantly healthier diet," says Jodie Morgan, president of Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals. Solazyme’s algae-derived flour, which has a similar lipid profile to olive oil, can be used to create strikingly tasty foods.
The Almagin flour, a yellowish powder containing algae oil, can go anywhere butter, eggs, and oil are used. "It’s like having an oil on steroids," explains Morgan. "It acts like more oil than it is. You can take out three pounds of oil and put in one pound of our product."
That’s why an ice cream containing the algae flour, for example, has less fat and fewer calories than a traditional ice cream. It also contains more protein and dietary fiber. So while half a cup of regular ice cream contains 17% butter fat and 260 calories, that same ice cream made with algae flour has 6% total fat and 160 calories. Take it from someone (me) who has compared the algae ice cream with an ice cream from a big-name manufacturer: The algae stuff tastes almost exactly the same.
I wouldn’t eat spoonfuls of the algae flour itself—one small taste was enough for me—but everything else I tried in Solazyme’s test kitchen was more than satisfactory. It doesn’t taste like diet food. In fact, the honey mustard I tried was actually creamy. The chocolate chip cookie was better than the control cookie I was given.
Solazyme is currently testing whether the algae flour helps to extend the shelf life of certain foods. Proof of this ability was sitting in the kitchen: a half loaf of algae flour bread that had been on the counter for 12 days was still in decent shape. Not good enough to eat without toasting it first, but not moldy, either.
Morgan expects to have products containing the algae flour on store shelves by the end of this year (they will be sold by food manufacturers, not Solazyme). Products containing algae protein are already available.
Ultimately, Solazyme’s bet outside the biofuel business may be the thing that allows it to survive—and maybe even outlast other algae fuel-producing companies.