“Great - you’ve incorporated ingredient X into product Y. So how soon can ingredient X be in more of our product lines?” - any product marketing leader in food or consumer products.
Trendy ingredients can be challenging to incorporate in a single product type, but multifunctional use creates more opportunities for consumers to find and use the ingredient of the moment. Scent (or odor), texture, flavor, solubility, and stability play a large role in how an ingredient can be used in various food and consumer products. Today’s trends in foods include plant-based protein substitutes (burgers, hot dogs, dairy products, and more), natural coloring agents, and functional ingredients. For food products, we see two schools of thought emerging on textures and experience – one that embraces the difference and focuses on the specific mouthfeel and texture of the meat replacement - and another that works to replicate the meat experience in the meat replacement. In the realm of cosmetics and personal care, functional ingredients with skin-boosting powers are all the rage. Ingredients known to be safe as food are used as excipients in pharmaceuticals. Learning about an innovative ingredient and potential co-formulants in advance can support a reduced time to market. CAS Formulus data helps generate ideas from other formulators’ experience across industries that can be applied to new products. In this blog, we’ll explore spirulina – its history, emergence as a modern trend, and meeting its challenges to bring this sustainable ingredient into many products.
To Learn About a Current Trend, Revisit the Past
Many current trendy ingredients aren’t exactly new. Spirulina, for example, was identified by the Aztecs as a nutrient-dense protein food source and used to fuel travels. It wasn’t used in its current processed-powder form, but in a more natural form – a creamy spread. Spirulina all but disappeared from Mexico when Lake Texcoco was drained. Fast forward to the present day, and we see spirulina used in products ranging from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals to agriculture – and of course, food. Within those market verticals, Figure 1 shows the variety of applications that are observed for spirulina in CAS Formulus. Fertilizer is clearly a popular application for spirulina, but we also can see it applied in consumer products such as sunscreens. As synthetic UV absorbers go out of favor with consumers, we may see spirulina, with natural UV absorbing properties including flavonoids, present in more and more sunscreens.
Beyond its uses in sunscreens, spirulina also brings skin care benefits such as anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, brightening, and moisturizing characteristics. Specifically, as a moisturizer, spirulina supports epidermal health by helping to prevent water loss. Face masks, cleansers, and hair sprays are just some of the many personal care products on the market today that include spirulina.
Resurgence as a modern trend
Patent and journal data found in CAS Formulus helps us to observe trends in formulation ingredients and identify the ways formulating challenges are overcome. Looking at spirulina’s use in food, pharmaceutical, personal care, and cosmetics products, we find that pharmaceutical and personal care products have increased dramatically over the last ten years (Figure 2). With increased consumer acceptance of an algae-based ingredient, we can see its adoption across industries. This also indicates that some of the challenges of working with spirulina have likely been overcome. Could you imagine using a spirulina face mask if its natural aroma was very prevalent?! Yet, we can see its growth in personal care applications; therefore, we can learn from the experience of other formulators how to combine it with other ingredients to mitigate that aspect.
Spirulina – a clean (and beautiful) ingredient
Some chefs are using spirulina not for its health or nutritional benefits, but for its naturally occurring, striking color. Spirulina, listed as Generally Recognized as Safe by the US FDA, provides a beautiful and natural blue coloring from the protein phycocyanin. Do note that some uses will require a listing as an FDA-approved color additive. The natural aspect brings some challenges to working with spirulina, making it essential to be mindful of exposure to high temperatures and acids. Confections are not aligned with “junk” ingredients – many people are thoughtful about the sourcing and quality of the ingredients in all foods they enjoy. Spirulina offers a clean confectionary experience while delivering appealing colors. Spirulina is not limited to being used singly – it can be combined with other natural colorants to derive additional colors.
Recently, an extract of the heme compound from spirulina has found a new application as an additive bringing color, smell, texture, and taste to plant-based meats. This application specifically works to simulate the more traditional “meat-eating” experience. This helps to open the market to more sustainable eating practices and the possibility for more entrants into the plant-based meat market.
With an increased focus on natural ingredients and health, spirulina brings both – it has also been included in dietary supplements used by NASA for its astronauts, and an experiment of growing spirulina in space was explored in 2021 by the University of Florida. Spirulina not only brings a strong protein source, but also has shown anti-inflammatory effects.
Beyond its use in food and cosmetic applications, spirulina has been found beneficial in agriculture. Spirulina biomass, a product of aquaculture water treatment, is used as an organic fertilizer. This highlights an important benefit of spirulina: it is also a sustainable ingredient. It tolerates a variety of growing conditions, including saltwater, without requiring growth stimulants or harsh chemical pesticide protection, which helps it maintain a low environmental footprint throughout its growth-to-product lifecycle. We have had to re-learn this – if we look back to the location of Lake Texcoco after it was drained, it did not provide the desired fertile croplands.
Spirulina is useful in organic farming – it has demonstrated the ability to support plant growth, including leafy greens. In a study primarily funded by the European Union, spirulina-containing biofertilizers outperformed synthetic NPK fertilizers by up to 33%. With the predictions of global population increase and the corresponding increased food demand, spirulina may be part of the solution to increase crop production without requiring more agricultural land and providing flexibility to the current NPK strategy. Often, we equate “organic” with “expensive” – how do spirulina fertilizers compare? Its growing conditions combined with its extended shelf-life compared to organic fertilizer materials that contain animal-based components may help to offset the modest cost increases.
Spirulina has been used by humans for centuries, and its value will continue to grow as it shows its potential as a natural, sustainable ingredient that has many applications. However, like other innovative ingredients – we must learn how it can be diversely applied to gain maximum benefits of sustainability and functionality across market verticals. It is critical to leverage formulations data to learn about trending ingredients’ applications, properties, and functions.
Attend the webinar “Foreseeing Product Trends with CAS Formulus” about leveraging formulations data.