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The hot new commodity out of Tokyo is the opposite of hot or new. It’s a neon green microorganism that, it turns out, makes for a super-nutritious food.
The creature, called euglena, is something of an anomaly of nature. It has the health benefit of both a plant and animal in that it can produce energy through photosynthesis, and also contains a wealth of amino acids, whole proteins, and fats.
People in Japan are eating it up. The Wall Street Journal recently checked in on the company manufacturing the green bugs, also called Euglena, and reported that it's scored millions in seed funding, from some of the biggest brands and VCs in the country, including the former president of Microsoft Japan, is soaring on the Japanese stock exchange, where it’s valued at about $15.35 million, and is turning a profit; revenues have tripled over the last three years.
The company hopes to eventually develop a biofuel from the organism. In the meantime, it’s raking in the yen from its line of green-colored nutritional products: protein powders, cookies, green curry, and supplements.
You’re thinking, nutritionists have been hyping this superfood stuff for years. And that's true. However, this little plant-animal hybrid appears to be really, really good for you. It’s been shown to boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, and moderate insulin. Euglena President Mitsuru Izumo spelled it out in a company report last year. A single gram of the algae contains:
Beta carotene equivalent to 7 pickled plums (50 g)
Vitamin B12 equivalent to 50 g of cow liver
Folic acid equivalent to 1 sardine
Zinc equivalent to 50 g of clams
DHA equivalent to 50 g of broiled eel
Each cookie contains about 200 million euglena, which means about one billion green bugs are packed into each box. According to Izumo's report, 50 grams (about a 1/4 cup) of a Euglena bar or cookie could supply a child with all the vitamins, minerals, and protein he or she needs in a day, for just 10 cents. To the best of my knowledge, a sweet potato can't pull that off.
To hear Izumo talk about it, the food products border on super-heroic. In an interview with the Post, he compared Euglena to the fictional Senzu Bean, the famous super-bean of Manga comics. A single bean can sustain a person for 10 days and heal fatal injuries. A half-mile pool of euglena bugs, by comparison, would theoretically feed 200,000 people in a day.
The company's CEO truly sees it as the key to solving the pressing problems of poverty, malnutrition, and hunger. Oh, and global warming. And why not launch a cosmetics line while we’re at it. Plus, scientists have shown an interest in Euglena products as a food source for future space colonization.
Here on Earth, the company is gearing up to expand overseas, which will probably mean tweaking the taste for Western consumers, most of whom aren’t as used to eating seaweed products. Or bugs, for that matter, though there’s been a whole lot of discussion on that topic lately.
In May, the United Nations released a large and totally serious report urging people to eat more bugs, or else we’ll probably going to run out of food. With an anticipated 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, we'll have to produce twice as much food as we currently do in order to feed everyone, not to mention there are already a billion people in the world going hungry.
The answer, according to the report, is eating insects, which are full of protein and nutrients and are better for the environment to farm. The report imagined breeding insects near factory farms and feeding them to the animals. As if anticipating the resounding eew from Westerners, the UN also pointed it out that already more than 1,900 species of insects have been identified as human food, and insects are part of the traditional diets of some 2 billion people.
The Guardian elaborated:
Eighty grasshopper species are regularly eaten; in Ghana during the spring rains, winged termites are collected and fried or made into bread. In South Africa they are eaten with a maize porridge. Chocolate-coated bees are popular in Nigeria, certain caterpillars are favoured in Zimbabwe, and rice cooked with crunchy wasps was a favourite meal of the late Emperor Hirohito in Japan.
"In truth, our concept of saving the world through Euglena is not original," Izumo wrote. University of Tokyo researchers have been exploring the nutritional power of the little green bug for 50 years, but no one was able to mass produce it. Izumo figured out how to cultivate it on a large scale, by recreating the microorganism's natural environment.
Getting people to eat it on mass scale could be much harder.