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Estonia’s unique red algae finds its way into sweets and pharmaceuticals

Unique furcellarans produced in Estonia can be found in the zefir (a type of soft confectionery), produced by Laima, the best-known sweets and chocolates brand in Latvia, the marmalade under Estonia's sweets brand Eesti Kalev - and more and more in the products of the cosmetics industry.

The furcellaran that goes into the marmalade is produced from a red algae called Furcellaria lumbricalis. Although it is found in Estonia, Denmark, Poland, Latvia and Canada, today only the Estonian company Est-Agar produces red algae furcellaran.

In other locations, algal stocks have declined or disappeared entirely as a result of overfishing or local pollution. “Estonian marine scientists have been monitoring and protecting our algae resources for decades, and this has made it possible to use it industrially as well,” says one of the company’s shareholders Mart Mere.

Furcellaran production began on Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa, already in 1966, when the Est-Aagar workshop of the “Kalev” confectionery factory was established. The private company, Est Agar AS was established in 1997. The basic production has remained essentially the same as it was in the 1970s. The main customers are also more or less the same. Estonia’s most successful brand Kalev was simply bought by the Norwegian company Orkla. Now, eating Eesti Kalev marmalade or Laima zephyr, you can let your sense of taste be carried away by the waves of the Baltic Sea.

From sweets to beer to bioplastics

The main clientele for Estonia’s furcellaran is the food industry – dairy, meat, confectionery industry. However, furcellaran is also used in clarifying beer.

Est-Agar raw material is used not only in the production of sweets but also in cosmetics. Already now, the raw material made from Estonian red algae is used in the cosmetic industries of Estonia, France and South Korea. Furcellaran is also used in the production of capsules in the pharmaceuticals industry, customers being companies from various countries across the world. Almost 80% of the production is exported to Germany, Poland, Italy, France, South Korea and the USA.

There is also a plan to start making new materials from algae – bioplastics. Furcellaran can be made into a film-like material that can be used in the packaging industry. This packaging does not harm the nature, as it can decompose completely.

Trawled from the sea

The raw material used in the production of furcellaran is the red alga Furcellaria lumbricalis, trawled from Väinameri (the sea area surrounded by the mainland on one side and the islands of Muhu, Vormsi, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa on the other sides) or simply washed ashore by an autumn storm. The red algae occurs in nature in two separate forms – loose, floating on the seabed, and attached to the bottom. Although this gives the islanders an additional income opportunity, it must be taken into account that the weather is always unpredictable and storms bring a different amount of algae to the beach every year. In a year, Est-Agar processes approximately 1,000-4,000 tons of wet weight algae mass.

Furcellaria lumbricalis was quite common in the Baltic Sea until the 1970s and it was one of the first European algal species to be used industrially.

The first factory was launched in Denmark in the 1940s. Therefore, another common name for furcellaran is Danish agar. Est-Agar produces the gelling substance Furcellaran from the red alga Furcellaria lumbricalis growing in Väinameri.

The only producer of Furcellaran in the world

The production of Est-Agar is partly based on historical technology, but this year a new production line will be launched, as a result of which the company will start producing Furcellaran in powdered form. This will open up new opportunities to reach the cosmetics industry.

Although Est-Agar is the only producer of Furcellaran in the world, there is competition with various substances, such as gelatin, pectin and agar-agar. Each has its own special properties and works differently in different products.

Furcellaran production has historically involved a lot of manual work, but now new solutions are being implemented. With the new production line, it is planned to significantly reduce energy consumption and to automate production.

Algae is a living material, which means that in order to obtain a high-quality final product, the algae must be monitored to respond correctly and in a timely manner. “It will take some time to reach 100% smart production, but we are already on the way,” says Mere.

Growth in the pharmaceuticals industry foreseen

The company plans to further expand the area of use of the algae. In cooperation with universities, The red color from furcellaran has been found to be used as a marker in medicine, as the red algal dye has luminescent properties. The production of algae is not harmful to the nature, production residues can be used as fertilisers. In addition, algae production residues can be successfully used to produce plant pots.

Invest Estonia’s Head of Business Develompent in Western Estonia Mihkel Kärg says that Est-Agar is unique not only in Estonia but in the whole world. It is also special that a small company operating in a small municipality can export its production to virtually anywhere in the world.

According to Kärg, Est-Agar is the only furcellaran producer today, but there is other opportunities for other companies focusing on marine products, including with the help of Estonia’s universities’ research. “This is exactly where we want to move in Estonia,” Kärg staes. “Science and entrepreneurship are interconnected, and this way it is possible to export production.”

Saaremaa is a hub for bioeconomy, electronics and small craft building

Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa, is known not only for its unique seaweed industry, but also for its electronics industry and small craft building. For example, the Finnish electronics company Incap Electronics operates in Saaremaa, producing cables and other spare parts for the robotics industry, exported across the whole world.
Saaremaa’s Baltic Workboats is a strong player in building sea vessels.

Most importantly for businesses, the island has an excellent connections with the mainland, making exports easy. Saaremaa is also known for its unique cultural heritage and its nature, including junipers and beautiful beach meadows, offering a treat for the eye.

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