However you slice it or fry it, farmed salmon is less palatable than the more expensive wild salmon. And though both types of fish are high in healthful omega-3 oils, many people are concerned about negative effects from the artificial colorants the farmed salmon are fed to look pink. Without added colorants their flesh would look white and pale.
But there’s a natural solution to flip your fins over: An algae researcher in Israel was one of the first in the world to develop a natural version of salmon colorant, based on algae. In their normal life cycle, salmon swim freely and catch small crabs, which dine on algae. That’s how wild salmon get their pink color.
Prof. Sammi Boussiba from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is an expert in algae. His passion to explore the use of algae in various applications, from vitamins to biofuel, led him to develop a new strain of red algae very high in anti-oxidants. When salmon ingest these algae, it turns them pink.
He and other Israelis at BGU believe this approach is a better and safer alternative than artificial dyes. The natural colorant, astaxanthin, is believed to have powerful disease-fighting properties. It’s used as a dietary supplement to protect the skin against harmful UV radiation, and it’s used in cosmetics to slow the aging process.
While the cost of adding astaxanthin to commercial fish pools is prohibitively expensive for most salmon farmers – they pay $2,000 per kilogram for the synthetic stuff versus $10,000 for the real deal -- the Israeli invention still has lucrative sales channels, and Boussiba is optimistic that the niche market for all-natural colorants will pick up with the growing demand for natural food products.
The next omega-3?
Israel is now the world’s leading supplier of natural astaxanthin, made at the Kibbutz Ketura-based company Algatech, which licensed the Ben-Gurion University approach and patents.
“This interests maybe five percent of the market who are willing to pay 30 percent more [for salmon],” Boussiba says.
“There is a synthetic version, but people like to move today into products that are natural and not synthesized from petro-based compounds,” says Boussiba.
“Why mix a synthetic pigment into the food when you can give the fish algae similar to what they eat in nature?” Boussiba asks.
“We developed the technology to grow the algae, which is actually green in nature. When you stress it with too much light it makes -- with the sun -- a pigment like a type of sunshade. Add more light, get more pigment.” This is the process they’ve patented.
Boussiba’s breakthrough was aided by Israel’s abundant sunshine all year long. In the first stage, the green algae are grown in the shade to accelerate their growth and then, when they are bigger, they are put outside in special chambers under the sun to stress the algae.
Denied of nourishment, they go brown quickly and the astaxanthin naturally emerges. The algae are then harvested and machine-dried into natural flakes. Algatech currently produces about 20 tons of this material per year, with orders coming from Japan, the United States and other countries.
“So there is a natural pigment, but it’s in short supply, and there is a demand for it from companies all over the world,” Boussiba says.