algae oil bottle laying on a wood table
Nutrition

An Honest Review of Algae Cooking Oil: Your Next Cooking Oil or Try-Hard Fad?

We tested it (and looked at the research) to find out.
By Tanner Bowden
June 26, 2024

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I don’t think about algae much. There are times during the summer when blooms of blue-green algae make it toxic to swim in the lake, and when that happens, I think about algae more. But mostly, not much at all. I didn’t, for instance, realize that all seaweed is algae. Or that it’s possible to create cooking oil from the stuff, a fact I learned when I was introduced to Algae Cooking Club, a company that’s determined to replace the canola oil, sunflower oil, and other seed oils in our kitchens with a new version made from algae. I only learned that one recently, but this morning, I fried an egg in it.

Algae Cooking Club calls its product “The Mother of All Cooking Oils.” According to the company, it elevates the flavors of the ingredients it interacts with, is higher in beneficial fats than other oils, is easier on the environment and has fewer carbon emissions than other oils, and has a super-high smoke point of 535°F, ideal for cooking. On the other hand vegetable oils aka seed oils like canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil have come under scrutiny—some only recently, some long ago—for the negative impact they have on the environment and our health. Some more so than others.

Miracle products come around fairly often in the food space (Soylent was never one of them no matter what the techies said), but how does algae oil actually stack up to its claims? That fried egg I mentioned was one part of an attempt to find out.

Why Trust Us

Hone Health is a team of health-obsessed writers, editors, fact-checkers, and medical experts. For my part, I’ve spent 10 years researching and testing products in the worlds of fitness, nutrition, and the outdoors. For this review, I cooked through a bottle of algae oil and read every scrap of research on the subject of it and seed oils and whether this is all just one big misunderstanding. If you want to know if this stuff is legit, read on.

Algae Cooking Club Algae Oil

Pros
  • Flavor
  • Potentially more health-promoting
  • Excellent to cook with
  • Smaller carbon footprint
Cons
  • Expensive
  • No Omega-3s

What Is Algae Oil?

Algae refers to a vast group of organisms—kelp that can form underwater forests but also single-celled diatoms (which happen to produce a quarter of the world’s oxygen). The algae that Algae Cooking Club is primarily concerned with are microalgae, the kind we can’t see. To make oil, these tiny organisms are fermented in tanks and fed sugar sourced from Brazilian sugarcane to produce more oil until, within a few days, they increase in weight by as much as 80 percent. Then they’re squeezed using the same expeller methods used to get olive oil out of olives.

Algae Cooking Club launched recently, in 2023. The company’s star adherent and advocate is Daniel Humm, a chef who earned a Michelin star at age 24. Humm helms the three-Michelin kitchen at Eleven Madison Park in New York, an establishment that in 2017 was voted the best restaurant in the world. Unafraid of risk and open to change, Humm transitioned the menu there to all plant-based fare in 2021 in response to what he views as unsustainable environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture food systems. Now he’s switching the place over to algae oil, too.

If a chef operating within the most hallowed halls of the culinary realm trusts algae oil enough to bring into that space, what might it do to the food produced within my poorly laid-out home kitchen?

Algae Cooking Club isn’t the only company selling algae cooking oil. Zero Acre also makes a fermented oil though the company doesn’t mention algae as the organism doing the fermenting (its nutrition facts and price are also slightly different). There’s also Thrive Reserve Pure Algae Oil. All make the same claims: this oil is healthier for you and easier on the planet.

You might also come across algae oil as a capsulized supplement. This type of algae oil is often taken for its omega-3 fatty acid content, a healthy oil that humans have to get from food sources, usually fish. Omega-3s aren’t stable under high heat, so you won’t find them in cooking oil.

two images, one of an algae cooking oil on a counter, the other of a bowl with some of the neutral-colored oil in it
The oil itself is a neutral color, not unlike canola oil (Photos: Tanner Bowden).

The Health Problems with Traditional Seed Oils

Before wading deeper into the algae oil, it’s important to understand more about the problems it’s attempting to solve, the problems of seed oils aka vegetable oils. Vegetable oils came to the fore in the second half of the 20th century partially because saturated fat became demonized for heart health risks (famously, McDonalds even ruined their famous fry recipe by swapping beef tallow for vegetable oil). Production has skyrocketed over the past 60 years, and soybean oil is now the most commonly used cooking oil in the US.

As consumption went up, we learned that these healthier oils came with risks of their own. For years, one of the primary concerns was the presence of artificial trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils, which the FDA banned in 2018. Currently, the primary issue is the high instance of omega-6 linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat, in veggie oils. Linoleic acid is found in other foods in small doses, but now that we’re using seed oils so much more, we’re inadvertently consuming much more of it.

One study (1) estimates that we’ve tripled our intake of the stuff, and goes on to say that “excess dietary LA may adversely affect the brain.” Another study (2) found a high linoleic acid diet caused gut issues in mice, and another conducted from 1966-73 found that shifting a diet away from saturated fats toward linoleic acid increased deaths caused by coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

Of course, it’s more complicated than any one study suggests. Much of the anti-LA/omega-6 feeling is derived from the paleo diet idea that this is something humans haven’t been eating at these levels until very recently. But some linoleic acid is good, and natural. The science goes both ways, causing some (3) to concede that the presence of omega-6 fatty acids in our diets is “complex and still not properly understood.” 

The problem might simply be that most seed oils are consumed as ingredients within ultra-processed foods, and these often come with other questionable ingredients. Either way, the best way to cut them out? Cook your own food. (With algae oil, perhaps.)

MORE NUTRITION

What We Like About Algae Cooking Oil

It has a nice flavor

It seems to me that one of the biggest hurdles Algae Cooking Club has to jump over is the notion of flavor. “Algal” isn’t a flavor note most of us are keen to add to a pesto or stir fry. Those algae oil supplements I mentioned earlier might lead to some confusion on this (the tagline on a flavored one reads “Taste the fruit, not the algae.”

Luckily, Algae Cooking Club’s oil tastes as neutral as the company promises. They describe it as “just a little buttery” and I think that’s accurate. It sort of reminds me of popcorn butter in the ever-so-slightest way. That wasn’t noticeable in the food I made with it though; like other oils, it takes on and builds on the flavors present around it.

May be more health-promoting than alternatives

Let’s assume that despite the inconclusive debate on whether omega-6 linoleic acids are bad for us or not, the best prescription is probably a diet that has them in moderation. Algae oil meets that with only 3% of the fats coming from omega-6s. It mostly has omega-9s (93%), which the body can make, but there is evidence that these can have positive effects on inflammation and insulin sensitivity. Unlike a lot of vegetable oils, Algae Cooking Club’s oil is processed without the use of chemical solvents and it isn’t deodorized, which can introduce other issues.

Excellent to cook with

Finally, back to my fried egg. I usually make eggs with butter, scrambled or fried. But on special occasions I employ the Spanish method of frying in olive oil, spooning the hot oil over the top of the egg partway through instead of flipping. This is how I cooked an egg in my algae oil and it came out luxurious and fluffy with crispy edges.

When I cook with oil, it’s typically olive oil. By my estimation (and likely that of all those centenarians on the Mediterranean diet), olive oil is the healthiest oil, not having many of the issues related to seed oils. The problem is its somewhat low smoke point. Algae oil’s smoke point is 535°F. This makes it ideal not just for cooking but for things like seasoning cast iron (I typically use grapeseed oil, which has a smoke point around 420°F).

Over the past few weeks I’ve been using the algae oil everywhere I might use canola oil or olive oil, except for things where the flavor of the olive oil is the point. I’ve made chickpea salad, hummus, salad dressing, and also used it to crisp up the skin of a chicken I spatchcocked and put on the grill. Everything has been great.

It’s better for the environment (probably)

The other big problem with seed oils is their impact on the environment. Each type of seed oil comes with its own set of impacts. Land use is a major one—palm oil and soybean oil production is responsible for 18% of recent deforestation, for instance, leading to loss of biodiversity and degradation of the land. Olives can also be intensive on land and water resources. As with everything, the full scope of seed oil production’s environmental impact is complicated and depends on how each operation is managed.

Algae oil, on the other hand, is produced in tanks. According to Algae Cooking Club, its production involves lower carbon emissions too. The sugarcane used to feed the oil-producing microbes grows quickly without the use of pesticides and herbicides, and so does the algae. The bottle is aluminum so it’s recyclable, too.

Minimize Toxins

What We Don’t Like About Algae Cooking Oil

It’s expensive

There’s no way around it, $20 for 16 ounces of cooking oils is a lot. Sure, there are nice olive oils that cost as much or more, but these, I wager, are used more frequently for finishing than cooking with. Flavor is the point. The canola oil and grapeseed oil I get from Trader Joe’s cost a few bucks. I think most people are all for healthier, environmentally friendly ingredients but price is a reality that we all contend with on our own levels (especially recently). It’s a continually frustrating fact that eating well, for people and the planet, is so often a luxury most can’t afford.

It doesn’t contain Omega-3s

This isn’t a knock against Algae Cooking Club, just a point of clarification. When most people talk about getting more healthy fatty acids into their diet, they’re talking about omega-3s. Algae Cooking Club’s oil is marketed as “higher in beneficial fat,” but they’re talking about omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids. The body can make these, and there is some evidence that having more in your diet has health benefits. Olive oil and avocado oil do contain omega-3s, though they do have more of an environmental impact and you have to buy high-quality bottles.

It Can’t Solve the Seed Oil Problems In Its Current State

This is made for home cooks. If you’re cooking most of your meals at home using raw ingredients, you’re probably on the right track diet-wise already. Unless algae oil production can be scaled and incorporated into restaurants broadly—not just Michelin-starred ones but fast food joints too—it can’t solve the health or environmental issues associated with seed oils. I know this critique is premature since the company was founded last year, but it’s worth thinking about.

The Bottom Line

Algae oil is awesome. It just is. Its high smoke point and versatility make it excellent for cooking, and the way it is produced makes it a true innovation. The health issues around seed oils aren’t cut and dry—the problem seems to be more in our overconsumption of processed foods—so it’s hard to say whether or not algae oil is the healthier alternative that Algae Cooking Club claims it to be. It does appear to be easier on the environment, but what happens when its producers bring it to scale? This is what needs to happen for its beneficial aspects to really be felt.

References