Many people are surprised that the list of foods that contain algae is extensive. Though it sounds questionable, algae is found in many foods. Algae is a type of seaweed commonly added to foods as thickening agents, colorants and sources of nutrients.
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In addition to foods that contain algae, some supplements contain algae or are cross-contaminated with algae. Fish oil and algae-based omega-3 supplements are commonly consumed in the U.S., as they are potent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are popularized by the Mediterranean diet. Since fish get their fatty acids from algae, it is likely found in fish oil supplements. There is also a possibility of cross-contamination since vegetarian sources of omega-3 are likely derived from algae.
Algae can also be eaten on its own. It is a natural source of many nutrients, so it is sold in powdered form and often used to make green juices and smoothies.
Derivatives of Algae
When reading an ingredients list to determine if you are consuming algae food products, you likely will not see the word "algae." Instead, you will have to look for ingredients that are extracted from sources of algae or the name of a type of algae.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, carrageenan and algin are food additives extracted from sea algae. These are commonly used to thicken food products, making yogurt, baby formula and ice cream some of the foods that contain algae.
Although generally regarded as safe for human consumption, there are some concerns about the side effects of carrageenan, and some people choose to avoid it. Carrageenan is commonly found in dairy and nondairy products like various milks, cheeses and creams.
Other words to look out for include spirulina and chlorella. These are types of algae commonly used to make algae powders, capsules and other algae food products. According to the Cleveland Clinic, spirulina is a great source of protein, B vitamins, iron and beta-carotene. They recommend adding it to smoothies and dips for extra nutrients.
Read more: How Much Spirulina Should I Consume?
Foods That Contain Algae
While some foods obviously contain algae, such as dried seaweed snacks, it can be challenging to spot algae on all food labels. Familiarize yourself with the names of algae derivatives and food products that commonly contain them. Some foods that contain algae include:
- Dairy products
- Nondairy milk alternatives
- Supplements containing fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids and blue-green algae
- Spirulina and chlorella products
- Sea vegetables like nori, kelp and dulse
- Sea-flavored spices
Some spices intended for seafood may contain algae. Since sea vegetables are a great source of iodine, many vegans consume algae food products like nori sheets, dulse flakes, agar agar powder and kelp granules. These can add flavor to food or be used for other purposes like thickening.
Read more: What Are Side Effects of Eating Seaweed?
Should You Avoid Algae?
Scientific evidence suggests that algae food products have both their advantages and disadvantages. Algae is a natural source of many nutrients, though more research is needed to determine the safety of various types of algae.
According to an April 2017 study published in the Journal of Applied Phycology, one limitation of foods that contain algae is their bioavailability in the digestive tract. Some people report having digestive discomfort after consuming algae food products, and researchers call for more studies in this area.
If you have digestive discomfort after consuming foods that contain algae, you should consider avoiding them. Columbia University also warns that algae like spirulina may have side effects or contaminants. They also suggest that people with certain medical conditions , such as autoimmune and metabolic disorders, should avoid algae food products.
- U.S. Department of Energy: “6 Commercial Products You Probably Didn’t Know Are Made With Algae: You Probably Ate #3 for Breakfast”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Spirulina: The Superfood You’ve Never Heard Of (Infographic)”
- Journal of Applied Phycology: “Algae as Nutritional and Functional Food Sources: Revisiting Our Understanding”
- Columbia University: "Spirulina: A Miracle Nutritional Supplement?"