It is a truth universally acknowledged that consumers of today don’t ask for much.
All they want from their packaged food and drink is sustenance, health benefits, interesting ingredients, environmental sustainability, and great taste. And it really, REALLY helps if the product is easy on the camera lens. Lemon squeezy!
Sippin’ the blue
One startup that is looking to check all these boxes is Netherlands-based Ful Foods. The company has launched a range of sparkling drinks whose hero ingredient is spirulina, microalgae that is nutrient-dense and gives the range a rather brilliant Instagram-friendly blue-green hue. The range has three flavor variants (white peach, lime & mint, lemon & ginger) and each can is said to contain only 30 kilocalories. According to Ful Foods, the drinks are high in antioxidants, various vitamins and minerals, and even contain some plant-based protein (0.5g per 250ml can) and fiber (0.75g), all thanks to the use of spirulina extract. The company also calls out the range’s “climate positive” features, which we will talk about in a bit more detail later on.
Ful Foods’ product range
Ful Foods is perhaps one of the first companies to use spirulina in a carbonated soft drink (CSD) format. While not unheard of, spirulina is a niche ingredient (just 0.16% penetration in products) with dietary supplements making up the bulk of products (36% of all products containing spirulina), followed by juices/smoothies (12%). For more information on the distribution of spirulina based on claims and health benefits, log on to Spoonshot.
Distribution of products containing spirulina, by sub-category
Our analysis of recipe data also showed that only 0.01% of recipes used spirulina, with smoothies being the top category of use – 37% of recipes that used spirulina were smoothies.
Home recipes containing spirulina, by category
I had the opportunity to speak with Julia Streuli, co-founder of Ful Foods, who told me that one of the main reasons why the use of spirulina is so limited is because of its rather overwhelming fishy or sulfuric taste. It can also sometimes lose its bright blue-green color and turn brown when it’s cooked or heat-treated, which reduces its organoleptic appeal. Another challenge with spirulina is that it’s not water-soluble, making it rather tricky to incorporate into beverages.
Julia and her colleagues spent over a year and a half working at a lab in the Netherlands to develop a proprietary process that not just retains the color and nutrition of the spirulina, but also makes it soluble in water and removes the fishy taste. What they ended up with what an ingredient that could potentially be incorporated into multiple food and drink categories without noticeably changing the taste of the final product.
This improved taste could go a long way in increasing the acceptability of spirulina among consumers. Spoonshot’s analysis showed that interest in the ingredient has been rather inconsistent, though business interest is expected to increase in the coming 12 months (since Feb 2022). This could be linked to the growing demand for more functional ingredients as well as a growing body of research that points to spirulina’s potential as a source of plant-based protein as well as its nutritional and climate-friendly credentials.
Business interest in spirulina is projected to grow by 28% in the coming 12 months, while consumer interest is expected to decline by 6%
Climate positive food
Ful Foods’ use of spirulina isn’t just for its superfood status, but also because of its “climate-positive” position. Julia and her co-founders Cristina Prat and Sara Guaglio were looking at long-term solutions to feed the world in 2050, especially as conversations on sustainability started to shift to net zero instead of just carbon neutral. Julia said that spirulina kept popping up as a high-impact ingredient even compared to other plant-based nutrition sources during their research: “You don’t need arable land to grow it, it has an incredibly high yield, and it needs almost no fresh water. You can grow it anywhere, even in deserts, so it really felt like a future-proof form of nutrition to feed our growing population. And what I would say caught our imagination more than anything else was the bio-fixation efficiencies, that is, its ability to convert carbon dioxide into nutrients.”
She added that there are a lot of academic articles on how efficient algae are in bio-fixation and how they can actually be carbon negative. In theory, spirulina can capture two times its weight in CO2 and can in fact be up to 200 times more efficient than trees at capturing CO2. But the problem is that most microalgae are not grown in a truly sustainable way. Like plants, algae need CO2, but most industrial setups use bicarbonate to generate CO2 instead of recycling it from emissions. This ends up generating a pretty high carbon footprint.
“So what we had to do in our process was actually design the growing of the spirulina in a way where we were feeding it CO2 that was coming from other waste streams,” said Julia. To this end, Ful Foods has also conducted early-stage feasibility studies to capture CO2 from the beer brewing process.
Repurposing carbon from waste streams is very much feasible since many large brewers have set up the infrastructure to do this and use the carbon captured either for carbonation or to sell to others. Ful Foods is looking at ways to work with mid-sized breweries, which may not have the resources or financial incentive to capture carbon and repurpose it. Such partnerships would involve designing a fully circular algae cultivation on-site at the breweries themselves. And it doesn’t have to be limited to brewers. Julia said, “If you think of CO2 as industrial waste or by-product of any fermentation process, then that CO2 can be used as one of the primary inputs for us to grow our microalgae.”
The company recently was awarded a grant from the Dutch government to look at whether algae could be grown using sugars instead of CO2. So waste streams from various discarded forms of food could also be used to scale up production. This is very much in keeping with the growing interest in upcycling, and the fact that food production byproducts span more than just food is a powerful reminder that very little really needs to be completely discarded.
Business and consumer interest in upcycling is on the rise
Consumer interest in upcycling is still much lower than business interest, but that’s not too surprising considering the applicability of the process. Large-scale production generates large-scale waste and it makes sense for businesses to see how much they can save or repurpose rather than consumers. The downward prediction for businesses is likely due to the fact that many companies still may not have the infrastructure to upcycle or the cost of upcycled ingredients may be too high at the moment.
However, this might be an interesting callout for companies looking to set themselves apart from others, particularly as sustainability becomes more important for consumers as well. Our data indicates that consumers are starting to pay more attention to carbon-related terminology within food and drink.
Consumer interest in various carbon-related terms is low but on the rise
Putting the fun in functional beverages
Ful Foods’ range is very much in line with the growing interest in functional soda. Over the last decade, traditional CSDs have earned a bad rep for their high sugar content and negligible nutrition, so much so consumers started moving away from the category and forcing companies to take a long, hard look at their product portfolios.
It also opened up opportunities for a number of startups to fill the gap with sodas that tout various functional beverage benefits.
In fact, Spoonshot’s data shows that in the 24 months to Feb 2022, business interest (references in articles and blogs written by industry professionals in business media channels) in functional soda grew by 426%, while consumer interest (references in articles and blogs written by consumers and influencers in consumer media channels) grew by 166%. We predict for the coming 12 months, that business interest might slow down a bit since product innovation takes time. But this also allows for consumer interest – projected to grow by 35% – to catch up.
Interest in functional soda
Julia told me that the Ful range captured consumer interest initially because of the unusual color, but has now a strong following and set of power consumers for its nutritional benefits. “I think a lot of people are looking for drinks that don’t have a lot of added sugar or artificial flavors or caffeine or alcohol. I think there’s just a big consumer demand for drinks that make us feel good without all the bad stuff, but on top of that, our product tastes good and has all these functional benefits as well.”
Health benefits consumers associate with spirulina in online conversations
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Ranjana works as the Lead Research Analyst for Spoonshot. Her past experience includes working with a major global market research company, specializing in food and drink trends. She has also worked with major publications as a writer and editor.