Edible insects: Getting over the ‘yuck’ factor
The importance of daily protein intake has long been recognized. With the coronavirus pandemic, alongside global food security issues and climate change, the need to identify sustainable sources of protein is more pressing than ever. Traditional animal sources of proteins, such as meat, have become increasingly controversial as consumers become aware of the damaging environmental consequences of meat production and its complex supply chains. As such, sustainable alternatives are on the rise, and now researchers and producers hope to add a new alternative: insects.
The New Alternative
Eating insects, or entomophagy, is a practice which can be traced back to the first century, in which beetle larvae were regarded as a snack for Roman aristocrats. Nowadays, insects are still a delicacy in many parts of the world; for over 2.5 billion people worldwide in 113 countries. In Thailand, for example, ant eggs are boiled in coconut milk as a dessert known as tom kati kai mod daeng, while in Uganda grasshoppers are eaten fried with onions. In Sardinia, casu marzu (“putrid cheese”) contains maggots. Only in Europe and North America is there a ‘yuck factor’ shown towards edible insects. However, whilst some may perceive them as ‘creepy crawlies’, others argue that there doesn’t hold much difference from eating an insect to something more of the ‘Western norms’, such as a pig or a chicken.
The U.N has been on the side of the believer, trying to convince more people to eat insects since 2013, when it published a report entitled ‘Edible Insects’. This report focussed on the key matter of establishing food security for our growing population; as relevant in 2013 as it is in 2020 and crucially, by 2050. It is predicted that food production will need to increase by 70% to meet demand in 2050. With this in mind, the E.U.’s European Food Safety Authority is soon expected to approve the sale of insects for human consumption. This means that there will be a huge raft of edible insects on sale across European countries for the first time and new opportunities in the food industry, for consumers and farmers alike. Mealworms, locusts, crickets and grasshoppers would be deemed safe for human consumption.
For starters, they are complete proteins, comprising of all nine essential amino acids humans need, as well as important micronutrients. Mealworms, for example, provide proteins, vitamins and minerals equal to that of fish and meat. Grasshoppers have much less fat per gram than lean ground beef but still provide the same protein content.
Importantly, raising and harvesting insects provides a more environmentally friendly protein alternative than traditional meat production, requiring less space, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions and having a higher feed conversion rate. With food production accounting for nearly 30% of the total greenhouse gas produced in Europe, entomophagy has all the potential to bring about a substantial change in the production of food.
According to Eat Grub, an edible insect producer, farming and raising 1kg of bug protein produces just 1/300th of the greenhouse gases compared to 1kg of chicken protein. For one kilo of beef, the multiple is 2,850 times. Insects also consume significantly less water. If we look at intensively farmed beef, to produce 1kg will take almost 22,000 litres of water. In contrast, 1kg of edible insect protein will only use 1–10 litres. Besides being more resource-efficient, insects have almost 60% protein (chicken has 43% and beef has 54%), high levels of iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, and vitamin B12. These statistics alone are compelling environmental reasons to hope insect eating becomes more widespread.
Food for the Future?
Given that insects can be a great source of protein in the food industry for both animals and humans, eating insects could well become the new normal for Europe and North America. Companies across Europe have been trying to get EU-wide approval of insect farming for several years now, and in anticipation of the expected approval, the 500 tonnes of insect-based food produced for human consumption annually is anticipated to snowball.
With the impending injection of insects into our supermarkets, could we see an impact on our own eating habits? Insects cannot replace meat entirely; that, we must be realistic about, but they could supplement the eating habits of the next generation, with insects becoming a permanent fixture. As with a rise in plant-based foods over the last decade — the plant-based food market in the UK is now worth £1.8 billion — could we see a similar rise in insect alternatives? Data from the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) suggests that over nine million Europeans tried eating insect products in 2019, and it forecasts that number will rise sharply by 2030. With a great deal of education, as well as widely available and affordable insect alternatives, the next decade could be a turning point that changes our feeding habits, and those of future generations.
It will, however, take a while for consumers to get the images of contestants on shows like ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ out of their heads before consuming any cockroaches. Fortunately, the process of insect farming raised and breeds bugs for a plethora of commodities. Whilst there is hope for edible bugs, these insects have even greater potential as animal feed.
Currently, the E.U. is not able to produce enough plant protein for domestic animal rearing and imports around 14 million tonnes of soybeans each year. The European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy aims to help tackle this, being at the heart of the European Green Deal aiming to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly. In this report, they state that the aim is to “identify new, innovative feed products” in an attempt to strategize how plant proteins in the EU could be increased. If insects could be used as animal feed on a large scale, soy imports could be reduced, helping to put our food systems on a sustainable path and bringing new opportunities for operators in the food value chain.
Start-up companies across Europe, including in France, the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland, have already begun to explore these opportunities. Better Origin’s X1 “mini-farm” unit is one such example. AI is used to clean and convert waste into insect feed, as well as to monitor the health of insects through their lifecycle, before using the insects as food for chickens. It hopes to be a “cost effective, on-farm solution both to reduce food waste and to improve animal welfare and productivity.”
Given that in the UK alone 10 million tonnes of food are wasted each year, the technologies employed by these start-ups have the potential to re-use food waste in a long term and sustainable way. Start-ups such as Better Origin X1 are providing fascinating and innovative ideas in insect farming, with their technologies becoming more and more sophisticated. The evidence suggests that start-ups are right to begin exploring the alternatives — the worldwide market for edible insects is projected to reach more than £1 billion by 2026, according to Global Market Insights.
A Promising Start
It is important to not overexaggerate the role which insects can play, however. Insects would only be able to cover part of the demand for soy, due in part to animal proteins having slightly different properties than plant proteins. But crucially, proteins from insects can replace some of the plant proteins and help reduce Europe’s dependence on protein imports. Interest in insects has already been shown in a number of large consumer companies. Nando’s, a Western chicken restaurant chain, recently announced it was funding research into reducing its reliance on soy, by investigating the use of algae and insects as chicken feed. Soy is the second biggest contributor to global deforestation and such attempts to reduce soy use are welcome, hopefully encouraging other companies to follow suit.
Nevertheless, the coming decades are predicted to bring rapidly rising populations and warming climates that will inevitably change the agricultural landscape, and the commercialization of insect consumption has been offered as a means to continue to sustain the global food supply despite these challenges.
While it may not be the norm right now, the climate emergency means getting over the “yuck factor” and embracing new and alternative food sources. With the help of start-ups, it looks like insect farming may finally break into the mainstream and find a new place in our production systems — and maybe even onto our plates. And if they could reduce, even in just a small way, the dominance of rainforest-destroying soy as the feed of choice for UK farm animals, the benefits could be enormous.
Related FSTA example records:
- Nutrition and health of edible insects.
Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care
Volume: 23 Issue: 3 Pages: 228–231 Published: 2020 FSTA: 2021–02-Sp0582
- Edible insects of the world.
Published: 2017 FSTA: 2018–03-Sp1375
- Safety of wild harvested and reared edible insects: a review.
Volume: 101 Pages: 209–224 Published: 2019 FSTA: 2019–07-Sp3191
- Sensory attributes of edible insects and insect-based foods — future outlooks for enhancing consumer appeal.
Trends in Food Science & Technology
Volume: 95 Pages: 141–148 Published: 2020 FSTA: 2020–04-Sp1942
- Exploring consumer acceptance of entomophagy: a survey and experiment in Australia and the Netherlands.
Ecology of Food and Nutrition
Volume: 53 Issue: 5 Pages: 543–561 Published: 2014 FSTA:2014–11-Sp7346
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Images: Christoph Meinersmann and Andreas Göllner, from Pixabay.