Algae Oil Is Taking Over Kitchens

Algae oil is the newest and most innovative oil to hit the market

True story: I fried french fries in algae oil and lived to tell about it. I even dipped them in homemade algae mayo. Delicious. Salad dressing, sautés, snickerdoodles—it all worked. I may be a bit of an early adopter, but algae oil will soon be a part of your life, too.

The oil is already being rolled out at Gelson's markets in Southern California under the brand name Thrive and can also be ordered online from the Thrive website. The company behind Thrive is Solazyme, a Silicon Valley darling that was riding high on its algae-derived biofuels until the energy market crashed, along with Solazyme's stock price. But out of the wreckage arose a phoenix. It turns out, Solazyme's special algae can produce a more valuable culinary oil than fuel oil, and if I'm reading my tea leaves correctly, the future will be fried a light golden brown in the fats of TerraVia, as Solazyme has rebranded itself. (This is the same company behind the new VeganEgg, also made from algae. An algae butter is rumored to be in the works as well.)

Algae are single-celled organisms that get their energy from the sun, like microscopic plants. They are also, of course, the slimy green mats that form in stagnant water. But Solazyme has tweaked the DNA of its algae (yes, genetic engineering) to make it more like yeast: The algae eat sugars, so they can be brewed in closed fermentation tanks, just like beer. Solazyme uses a brewery in Peoria, Illinois, as well as a new facility in Brazil near the sugarcane fields that serve as the algae's feedstock. Sugar is fed into the tanks, and the algae convert it into oil—lots and lots of oil. In just a few days' time, every yeast cell is bursting at the seams with 80 percent oil content. At that point, the liquid is run through the same expeller press used to extract other vegetable oils, which presses out the pure oil. (The genetically modified part of the algae gets left behind, so the oil isn't technically GM.)

The most remarkable thing about Thrive is its unremarkableness. It has no color and no flavor. It may as well be canola oil. But when it comes to health, sustainability and performance, it leaves the other options far behind. Algae oil has the least saturated fat (4 percent) of any oil on the market, and the most monounsaturated fat (90 percent), even more than olive oil.

It's also the most stable oil, an often-overlooked characteristic. All oils begin to break down when exposed to light, air or heat, producing free radicals and other toxins that contribute to heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. Prolonged aging or heating can turn an otherwise-healthy oil decidedly unhealthy.

Once an oil starts to smoke, it's highly toxic. Algae oil has a stratospheric smoking point of 485 degrees. Canola and grapeseed are around 400 degrees, while corn, peanut and soybean are closer to 450. (Extra-virgin olive oil is around 350 degrees and should be used as a finishing oil, not a frying oil—its flavor disappears when cooked anyway.) I've been anointed via wok with Thrive for a week now, and I'm sold.

For me, the big draw is the sustainability. Growing oilseed is very wasteful. Each canola, soybean, sunflower or peanut plant produces only a tiny amount of seed, which is then pressed to release its oil. The rest is waste. Those plants yield less than half a ton of oil per hectare, whereas algae are so efficient at converting sugarcane into oil that they can yield three and a half tons per hectare. That means the same amount of oil from a fraction of the land and a smaller carbon footprint.

Still, sugarcane is no environmental saint, so I look forward to the day—very soon, according to the TerraVia folks—when the feedstock for the algae will be cellulose—the leftover fibers of plant stalks and leaves. When high-grade culinary oil can be made inexpensively from the waste materials of corn or any other grain, the future will have arrived.

For now, it hasn't just yet. Until it can scale up its facilities (new mega contracts announced this month with Unilever and other big companies make this a sure thing), TerraVia's oils will remain pricy playthings for us early adopters. Well worth it, if you ask me. A 500-milliliter bottle of Thrive? $12. The joy of serving algae-oil brownies to your friends? Priceless.