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Alberta Yield: Algi Foods harnesses the power of one of the earth’s oldest organisms

One of the biggest barriers is the ‘ew’ factor.

After all, it is blue-green algae. In your snacks.

But Algi Foods co-founder Alessandra Amato said after a bit of consumer education and the right products, they’re scratching an itch for those looking for healthy and environmentally-friendly food options.

Amato and Devon Hawkins co-founded the Canmore-based alternative food company when they met during a Queen’s University innovation program in the summer of 2019.  It was a two-week boot camp on entrepreneurship. They were given seed money and told to go start something.

Both Amato and Hawkins were passionate about food and sustainability, so they naturally focused in on that.

According to the federal government, 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from crop and livestock production – NOT including fossil fuel emissions or from fertilizer production.

Amato also said today’s agriculture uses a large amount of the world’s natural resources.

“I was looking at how I could be more sustainable in my everyday life and it kept coming back to the way that I was eating,” she said.

Finding alternatives wasn’t easy. She’s both anemic and allergic to soy products. She tried cutting out meat products, but then her iron levels were too low.

“I kept kind of going in this vicious cycle,” Amato said.

“And ultimately that when we stumbled upon spirulina algae, and algae in general, and it’s being dubbed ‘the future’ by all of these big sources.”

It’s also being looked at as food for long journeys, she said. You know, like to Mars.

But… algae

Spirulina is a blue-green algae that’s been on the planet since the dawn of time.

It’s been used for thousands of years both for its nutrition and healing properties. Modern studies do show that it chock full of nutrients and some research show anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

It contains a plant-based protein called phycocyanin. It has been cited in medical papers as a potential drug for cancer treatment.

Spirulina has a bit of a bitter taste – Amato described it, “to put it nicely, an umami-earthy flavour.” So, when Amato and Dawkins went into the kitchen to find a way to create a consumer product, they tested a lot of foods.

Amato said they tried ramen noodles, hummus, cookies, nacho chips and snack bars.  They peddled the goods at farmer’s markets and asked others to try their goodies.

“We would actually bring a big of spirulina and were like, ‘OK, this is what it normally smells like or tastes like, now we put it in this product,’” she said.

“We got such positive feedback.”

Of course, there was education on spirulina that went along with that. Amato said they’ve had to plan that as part of their marketing. They’re getting a boost by increasing awareness on the health benefits of spirulina.

In the end, they settled on a snack bar as their first product.

“We know there are 20 million bars out there, but it was the first and best product to get to the initial customer,” Amato said.

They launched their first bar last year and they’re hoping to have three more flavours this spring.

Introductory product and go from there

Amato said they need consumer to get used to eating algae first. They’re doing it in a consumer-friendly product. They hope to add different things – like ramen noodles – down the road.

“We figured that students eat a lot of ramen noodles and there’s not a lot of nutrients, but there’s a ton in spirulina – this is perfect,” she said.

The long-term vision is a diverse product line built around sustainability.

Their time in the Alberta Yield program is helping set them up for funding. For example, they purchase their spirulina now, but to build a system that produces the algae in-house, Amato said, would cost more than $1 million.

Amato and Dawkins want to strengthen their business plan – particularly around forecasting and the financial side. It’s all focused on scaling up, she said.

“We know a bar is not going to replace a piece of steak, for example, but moving forward hopefully reshape the way we think about food,” she said.

“And just helping (people) very easily get those nutrients from plant-based sources as well.”