Foods to Feed the World: Duckweed

Duckweed, also known as water lentils, floats a lot on ponds, but has recently also been grown for consumption. The green plant contains a lot of protein and would therefore be a good substitute for meat or soy. The taste, which seemingly resembles watercress, may need some getting used to. This crop is currently consumed in various parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Products based on duckweed have received approval from the US Food and Drug administration, enabling duckweed to be introduced and marketed in the US. The easy cultivation of duckweed, its nutritional profile, and its potential to provide essential nutrients in areas without fertile soil make this crop an interesting new foodstuff.

Nutritional profile

To start with, duckweed has a very high protein content that can reach 40-45%. In addition to proteins, duckweed also contains fibres, minerals, antioxidants and vitamins. However, the plant is still classified under novel foods in the European Union, which means that it needs to be tested before it is deemed fit for human consumption.

Sustainability

What makes duckweed so interesting from a sustainable point of view, is that this crop does not need fertile soil, but can be cultivated in a water basin on non-arable land.

This crop is also the fasted growing flowering plant known till date, meaning that it can provide us with nutrients in a very short time. Duckweed, through a process called bioremediation, can make use of nutrients found in wastewater – this means that no fertilizer in needed. The carbon footprint of duckweed protein is also very low. As duckweed can grow in cities as well as the countryside, the travel distance can be minimised as well as related emissions. Besides that, duckweed is one of the plant species capable of producing the most biomass per hectare. Compared to soy, duckweed can be produced six times more efficiently.

Applicability

Wageningen University and Research will apply for a legal permit for the human consumption of the plant from the European Food Authority, after sufficient research has been done. In the meantime, companies in the US are already developing products based on duckweed, such as water lentil milk. This plant-based milk alternative is similar in colour to cow’s milk and contains a high amount of proteins, and no allergens. The company is also working with makers of protein supplements, pasta, noodles, bakeries and snacks for applying seaweed in other products.

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