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So, What’s Algae Flour? And Why Is It Making People Sick?

Photo: lucentius / Getty

Recent food recalls, with reports of vomiting and diarrhea, have thrust algae flour into the spotlight. Which causes us to ask, just what is this new food additive?

You might have heard L.A.-based Rosa Labs has released several Soylent products in the last year. Soylent's goal is to create powders, bars, and drinks that provide nutrition without hassle or frills. The foods are engineered to make eating simple and effortless—no thinking, just eating. The flavors are best described as "neutral," and even the packaging is basic: black and white and almost elemental, just like the ingredients. Products like Soylent are marketed to people who look at food logically and view eating as a task, not something to be enjoyed and experienced.

In October, consumers began reporting cases of gastrointestinal distress, including symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, after eating Soylent Bars and a specific version of the company's powder. Soylent recalled the bars, stopped selling the latest powder mix, and investigated.

After looking into the formula issues, the company believes that all those who experienced GI distress ate a product containing algal flour, Rob Rhinehart, the co-founder of Soylent, told Bloomberg Technology. Soylent uses AlgaVia, a whole algae powder manufactured by a company called TerraVia. You can find the ingredient on Soylent's nutrition facts label as "whole algal flour." TerraVia describes the Protein-Rich Whole Algae powder's composition as 63% protein, 19% carbohydrates, 11% lipid, 4% ash, and 3% moisture. It is currently unclear why the flour made customers sick, while people who ate products with algal oil did not become ill.

The algal flour product received an initial "no questions" letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after requesting approval, though that doesn't mean that the FDA won't continue to evaluate the safety of the product. Whole algal flour has been used prior to Soylent, in products like vegan butter and egg substitutes because of algae's high fat content. Algae cultures are grown under controlled fermentation conditions from one original source strain, and then dried to make flour. The flour has been seen as a safe alternative for people with allergies or diet preferences.

For their part, TerraVia stated that the flour is safe and that Soylent products contain other irritants that might have contributed to customer's sickness. Overall, the root cause has not been revealed, therefore it is unclear exactly which product is unsafe to eat. Soylent is reformulating products without the use of algal flour. 

When it comes to new food products, especially those that contain innovative components, it is important to realize that there is a risk for adverse effects. It is difficult to predict how everyone will react to a new formulation.

The Bottom Line: It may be best to refrain from eating anything with algal flour if you do not eat it already, particularly Soylent, until a cause analysis is successfully completed.