Grand Challenges Canada is a Canadian nonprofit organization that uses a Grand Challenges model to fund solutions to critical health and development challenges in the developing world. Their $100,000 Stars in Global Health awards enable researchers and startups to develop new technologies and programs that impact the health of people around the world. Since 2010, Impact Centre affiliated startups and research projects have won 21 of these awards.

Grand Challenges Canada recently announced its latest round of awardees for the Child and Maternal Health focused competition. Prof. David McMillen, an associate professor in Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto Mississauga, was awarded a grant for his project to improve nutrition in the Philippines.

The following is based on an interview with Prof. McMillen by the BBC Newsday program.

Nearly half of all households in the Philippines fail to reach the desired level of protein consumption while a further 35 percent of children under 5 suffer from anaemia.

To help address this, scientists want to introduce food supplements into the local diet and specifically to target that favourite meal – instant ramen noodles which are often lacking in nutrition. To tell us more, we talk to Dr David McMillen, Associate Professor of Chemistry, at the University of Toronto.

So poor nutrition levels in the Philippines, what exactly are you doing about it?

We’ve been funded by Grand Challenges Canada to set up local production and distribution of algae on an island in the Philippines. We’ll be growing spirulina, which is a remarkable species: it’s 60-70% protein (which is amazingly high!), and has high levels of iron that’s easy for the human body to absorb.  You can grow it without a lot of expensive technology, in shallow ponds or plastic tubs. We’ll be working with our local partners to test which growth and harvesting conditions work best for them, and to help set up a sustainable system that they can continue to run beyond the term of the project itself. Our goal is to create the means for communities to, in effect, grow their own protein and iron supplements.

Then we need a way to get it out there into the diet in a way that makes sense. Our initial plan is packets to be added to ramen noodles, to drop in a bunch of extra protein and iron. But in the end we’re going to need to be guided by our friends and collaborators on the ground in the Philippines: we’ve already had interesting suggestions, like incorporating spirulina right into the noodles, or adding it to a stew that’s popular on the island. In the end, what’s going to work is what fits naturally into the life of the people living there, so their ideas are what we’ll follow.

And the shock to some of us, are instant ramen noodles really lacking in nutrition?

Well, they’re not great: very high in carbs, fat, and salt, and low in protein and other nutrients like iron — and that’s especially true of the cheapest brands, the ones that the poorest people in the Philippines can afford.

This algae you’re suggesting, where will it come from?

Spirulina is cultivated in many places around the world (but not our partner island in the Philippines), so there’s no shortage of sources. We got some from a small company, Spirulina Superfoods, here in Toronto, whose founder is now part of our team. We’ve run a pilot project over this past summer, out on a university rooftop. We ran tests on things like stirring frequency and light exposure levels and simple harvesting approaches, and in the process we produced huge buckets of algae. I’m travelling to the Philippines next week, and we’ll be sending some bottles of cells on ahead to one of our friends there.

In case anyone looks me up, my research group mainly works on using synthetic biology to modify cells in interesting ways, but this project has none of that: spirulina already does everything we want, so we’re not modifying it at all.  The challenge here is all about making growth, harvesting, and distribution work in the particular local context.

Is this the future for many of us, will be looking to the sea and things like algae for our future nutrition needs – especially as the world population goes up?

Well, possibly. There’s a UN report that points out that spirulina cultivation compares very well to other forms of agriculture, in terms of how much nutrition it can produce for a given amount of land — and it also uses relatively little water or energy. Per gram of protein produced, it’s vastly more efficient than meat, so it could be an attractive method of producing enough protein for a growing population.

So we could all be eating some form of algae in our near future?

Maybe, but remember that a key part of our project is trying to work out how to integrate algae into the diet in ways that real people can accept, so I think we should all demand the same treatment. If someone starts trying to make you eat algae, you should insist on getting it in a form that you like!

But the good news is that spirulina is actually pretty tasty, to me at least: I’ve been eating it, and I find that it has a rather pleasant, nutty flavour.  Just don’t add too much of it to your spaghetti sauce, it can turn it from red to a horrible black — I speak from experience!  So that’s *not* one of the ways to get algae out there into people’s diets.