Food manufacturers could benefit from cheaper supplies of dried sodium alginate, after scientists developed new technology to process the food gelling agent from seaweed extracts.
Marine Biopolymers received £70,000 funding from Scottish Enterprise to carry out laboratory studies with Strathclyde University to test its new production process.
David Mackie of Marine Biopolymers said: “The collaboration with the University of Strathclyde has allowed us to develop a world-class manufacturing process that is much faster than current methods and involves fewer process stages.
“The technology is also more cost-effective when compared with similar techniques, and improves the purity of the alginate. We hope this will reduce the cost of production for food manufacturers.”
Creating around 40 jobs
Marine Biopolymers was now hoping to move production to a full-scale factory on the Scottish isle of Uist, creating around 40 jobs.
Mackie said: “Scotland boasts hundreds of years of experience in the use of seaweed, and around 60 years in alginates manufacturing – but there are currently no processing plants in the country.
“We wanted to find a sustainable way of using seaweed that would benefit the local community and add value to the natural raw material.”
Mackie added that raising the funds needed to build the new factory was taking longer than expected due to the tough economic climate. But he was confident of securing funding, as the plant will use less energy than other processing facilities.
“Most alginate processing facilities use dried seaweed, which uses a lot of energy to produce. Our plant is designed to process wet seaweed, taken directly from the sea – significantly reducing operating costs.”
The timing of the move depended on funding but Mackie predicted it would be within three years.
A spokesman for Scottish Enterprise, said: “We provide funding to a whole range of Scottish companies and felt the firm had the potential to prove the product could be a success, and could be produced on a commercial scale.
“We have been supporting the group throughout its research and looking at what support we can provide now and in the future.”
The Marine Biopolymers process turns fresh seaweed into alginate, which is used in the food industry for three main reasons: thickening of products, gel formation and to produce a film.
In ice cream applications it is used to reduce the formation of ice crystals during both the hardening process and also during transportation, where ice cream may be exposed to large changes in temperature.
In bakery applications, alginate is used to form gels, thicken fillings and reduce liquid bakery fillings being absorbed into the pastry crust. Other common uses include in sauces, imitation cherries, olive oil spread, apple pies and restricted meat.
Recent research by a number of universities revealed that the use of alginate in food and drink can help tackle obesity and aid weight loss.
Researchers at the University of Nottingham, University Hospital Nottingham and Unilever concluded that the strong gelling alginate increased the feeling of fullness.
Pam Yates, global food science analyst at Mintel, said: “While alginate has historically been used as a food additive, it can also offer potential health benefits to functional food formulations.”
Meanwhile, earlier this year a professor at Glasgow University produced ‘the first nutritionally balanced pizza’ by replacing salt with seaweed.
Global food and drink launches containing alginate 2007–2011
28% ‒ Desserts and ice cream
17% ‒ Bakery
10% ‒ Sauces and seasonings
9% ‒ Dairy
8% ‒ Meals