Eleanore O’Neil, Cornell Class of ’15, studied how chickens respond to a diet with algae.

Eleanore O’Neil, Cornell Class of ’15, studied how chickens respond to a diet with algae.

Eleanore O’Neil, a food science major at Cornell University, researches the diets of commercial chickens in the animal science lab of Prof. Xin Gen Lei, to plan for higher production levels as the world’s population increases. Many chickens that are raised for either meat or egg production live predominantly on diets of corn and soybeans. Algae can be used to supplement these diets. Supplementing algae into chicken diets, according to O’Neil, produces chicken meat that is healthier than that of chickens raised on traditional diets that lack algae.

O’Neil said she found the optimal level of algae in chickens’ diets through a six-week trial using five groups of broiler chickens. One group was fed a traditional diet of corn and soybeans, the other four groups were given two, four, eight, and 16 percent algae supplements in their diets, respectively.

“You can’t completely switch [the chickens] over to algae – there just aren’t enough nutrients or energy there to have a completely algae diet,” she said.

Broiler chickens, which are bred for fast development, were then monitored for growth, feed intake and water consumption throughout the six weeks. A few birds in each group, O’Neil said, were euthanized at three and six weeks old in order to look at blood components, omega-3 fatty acid levels, and organ weights.

O’Neil said her final results found that the optimal level of algae inclusion in chicken diets is about eight to 10 percent, depending on the type of algae. Higher amounts of algae in the diet, although not fatal to the chickens, did cause reduced growth rates, making such a diet not ideal for large-scale chicken production.

Although omega-3 fatty acids are healthy, higher levels of these compounds can cause meat to spoil faster. This is because unsaturated fatty acids are susceptible to oxidation. O’Neil is currently studying the effect of supplementing chicken diets with antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to promote the shelf-life of meat. According to O’Neil, antioxidants also improve meat quality and increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids deposited in the meat.

The Lei lab plans to continue this research by testing the taste of chicken meat when chickens are fed algae. According to O’Neil, they will do this by partnering up with another lab outside Cornell, as there are additional health and safety laws to follow when working with foods for human consumption. Others in the Lei lab are researching algal supplement effects on egg-laying as opposed to meat-producing chickens for similar purposes.