Profits soar for algae farmers amid chlorophyll boom, but experts cast doubt on health benefits

2021-04-30

The only farm in Australia that grows chlorella is scrambling to meet demand amid a TikTok and Instagram frenzy, but doctors and dieticians say you should probably just eat your veggies.

Key points:

• A North Queensland algae farm is looking to ramp up production as demand soars

• Experts say there is little evidence that chlorophyll delivers the benefits it’s celebrated for

• The farm aims to partner with the fossil fuel industry so it can use carbon dioxide to grow algae

BioGenesis farm manager Frank Mason said production had blossomed in the three years since the company set up outside Bowen in North Queensland.

Now the farm is looking to expand its operation as demand for the nutrient-rich algae – which contains chlorophyll – soars in popularity online.

“At the moment we’re producing about 300 square metres – about 30 kilos per day – but the reality is that we have enough capacity to produce 800 kilos per week,” Mr Mason said.

“We’ve certainly got demand.

“What it is is we need more processing machinery.”

Hyped or healthy?

Algal supplements have been around for many years but social media marketing for chlorophyll dietary supplements seems to be driving a spike in demand.

Chlorella is marketed as having the highest source of natural chlorophyll on the planet and there is no shortage of recommendations coming from prominent influencers.

The hashtag “chlorophyll” has trended on TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites, with searches bringing up hundreds of thousands of posts.

But the health benefits of chlorophyll – the pigment that makes the leaves of plants green – are questionable, according to Nutrition Australia dietitian Leanne Elliston.

“It’s important chlorophyll does get researched thoroughly — it’s still fairly early days for me to recommend using this on a regular basis,” she said.

“There needs to be vigorous studies — we need to look into more studies to find whether chlorophyll is in fact an important component in our health.

“I think what’s most important is the other nutrients in green leafy vegetables — your folate, vitamins, iron and antioxidants.”

‘Extremely limited studies’

Dermatologist Leona Yip said chlorophyll has taken off as a treatment for skin problems, but more research was needed into its potential benefits.

“We know theoretically chlorophyll has some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but there are extremely limited human studies,” she said.

“We don’t know whether this translates to benefits to treat problems like acne, rosacea, or whether it even gets to your skin at all.”

Ms Elliston said in most cases the extraction of nutrients for supplements came in second to simply eating the raw products that contain the vitamins and minerals.

“When we consume those nutrients in isolation they never work quite as well as nature has intended,” she said.

“It’s always a good idea to get nutrition from foods.”

Dr Yip and Ms Elliston said people who took health advice from online sources were unlikely to seek medical advice from specialists.

“When I see patients I talk about scientific, evidence-based skincare like retinoids, antioxidants — things we know have more credible evidence,” Dr Yip said.

“Maybe people on social media buying into that hype are not into seeing medical doctors, maybe they prefer to go with what’s being marketed.”

‘Win-win outcome’

The Bowen farm is described as a “pilot scale”, but the business is attempting to find a commercial partner to expand further in order to increase production.

“Ultimately we need to be attached to a large consumer of, basically, fossil fuels, such as a coal or gas-fired power station or a sugar mill where we can coexist and turn their carbon dioxide into algae,” Mr Mason said.

“Basically we’ll then use that as a nutraceutical and animal food — it’ll provide a win-win outcome.

“We’ve certainly got demand.

“The issue’s not demand, the issue is our capacity to supply it.”

abc.net.au, 30 April 2021
; https://www.abc.net.au