How do we bridge the gap between microalgae’s potential and consumer adoption?
A study from Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland has attempted to answer this question by studying consumer attitudes toward microalgae-based foods.
Microalgae consumption is not a new phenomenon: humans have been consuming it for thousands of years, predominantly in coastal regions. From the Dead Sea to Antarctica, more than 50,000 different types of microalgal species grow in abundance, tolerating varying temperatures, conditions, and environments.
From mitigating CO2 to serving as potential health foods and sustainable meat alternatives, microalgae hold promise for both environmental and dietary sustainability. Vincent Doumeizel, senior adviser to the United Nations on oceans and food, and author of The Seaweed Revolution, shared his perspective on aquaculture production at the 2023 Future of Nutrition Summit in Frankfurt. He said: "We have only focused on land. It is now time to get civilised with the ocean."
Despite annual protein production potential ranging from four to 15 tonnes of protein per hectare, microalgae-based foods' limited availability in the market prompts questions about consumer willingness to adopt them into their diets.
Education and awareness may be key to consumer uptake of microalgae
The Bern University study surveyed 584 participants, employing cluster analyses to categorise consumers based on their perceptions and attitudes toward microalgae. From this analysis, six distinct consumer segments emerged. The results indicated that behavioural patterns had a more significant influence on segment differentiation than sociodemographic variables.
Among these segments, the “microalgae supporters and health eaters”, constituting 18% of participants, stood out as the primary target group. Researchers identified them based on their positive attitudes, prior knowledge, and willingness to pay more for microalgae-based foods.
While their consumption rate of microalgae-based foods was less than one day per week – which the researchers linked to the current scarcity of such products in the market – this group displayed a low phobia toward novel food technology and a high interest in the natural content of food. The study suggests clear opportunities for targeting this group with processed microalgal-based foods like ready-to-eat snacks or meat analogues that are free from additives or artificial ingredients.
The largest segment, comprising 23% of participants, was labelled “aware and open-minded”. This group had a positive attitude toward microalgae and agreed on its health benefits after receiving information, highlighting the influential role of education in reshaping perceptions.
The “uninformed but susceptible” group (22%) did not eat microalgae regularly and showed limited knowledge. Yet, the average attitude towards algae was positive, indicating opportunities for interventions to boost awareness.
The “innovative and adventurous” group (17%) felt positively about algae despite their limited knowledge, especially among the younger demographic, suggesting potential success through strategies that emphasise curiosity and health benefits.
Two groups were more sceptical towards microalgae. The “conservatives” (12%) exhibited neutral to slightly positive attitudes but had concerns about new food technologies, making them potentially difficult to target. They were unwilling to pay more for microalgae compared with conventional protein sources and did not believe microalgae would have a great future in the food industry.
The “microalgae avoiders and traditional” made up the smallest segment at 8%, and displayed scepticism and a lower willingness to adopt microalgae-based foods. This group was less interested in environmental protection and creativity while cooking, and overall, less involved with food in general.
Microalgae’s path to consumer acceptance
Food neophobia – the reluctance to eat, or the avoidance of new foods – was identified as a potential hurdle for consumer acceptance. The study suggested that overcoming this obstacle requires concerted efforts, specifically targeting groups with high food neophobia.
Some companies are already working to overcome this challenge by adding microalgae into everyday staples.
Goodles, a US-based noodle manufacturer, uses chlorella, a freshwater microalga, in its range of pasta and ready-to-eat mac and cheese.
Additionally, Cerebelly, an organic baby food line founded by Dr Teresa Purzner, claims its products – rich in 16 key nutrients, including chlorella and kelp – support infants’ growing brains.
As we approach 2030, the significance of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals becomes increasingly apparent. Microalgae stand as a potentially underused resource with the capacity to contribute to achieving these goals.
Doumeizel, emphasising the need to use oceans strategically and to cultivate seaweed, underscored the paradox that the ocean, spanning 70% of our world, contributes to less than 2% of our food. He said: "We have to stop being hunter-gatherers in the ocean."