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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
The mainstream food industry is starting to consider entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs.
Insects are creeping up in food conversations these days. If that gives you the heebie-jeebies, steel yourself: It’s going to happen. If experts are correct, insects will become an increasingly important alternate mainstream feed source for humans worldwide in the years to come.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is pushing for entomophagy, the human practice of consuming insects. If you listen to the FAO’s argument about why we need to open our minds and our palates to eating bugs, suddenly-maybe-that cricket may not seem so unappetizing.
By 2030, the planet will need to feed more than nine billion people, as opposed to a mere seven billion today. As the population grows and the middle class expands, consumption of animal-based protein concurrently rises. Unfortunately, the earth can sustain limited animal consumption. Approximately 80% of all agricultural land today is already devoted to livestock, according to Arnold van Huis, a professor of entomology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. (Van Huis co-authored the recent FAO publication Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.) Already, livestock-related land and water use and over-grazing (leading to forest degradation) are contributing to climate change, the FAO says. For fish eaters, overfishing is a growing concern. “Solutions need to be researched and explored,” the FAO writes.
With more than 1900 known edible species in the world, insects are a viable and sustainable alternative to animal protein. Their production is eco-friendly. Insects can be raised on waste streams, such as food waste, and they produce less greenhouse gases than livestock. They require less feed and water and land use. Also, their nutrient profile is comparable to that of meat and fish, and insects are especially high in protein, with good amino acid profiles. They also offer healthy fats, fiber, and minerals like copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.
Still, a few things need to happen before insects can become a meaningful component of the consumer packaged goods (CPG) food chain, according to the FAO.
Global food policies need to accommodate insects as a food source. In the European Union, for instance, companies are not allowed to market processed foods containing insects. (They can be sold whole, but not processed.) Why do global policies exclude insects? Mostly because when those policies were written, insects weren’t considered a food option.
We need to figure out how to raise insects as food ingredients and process them in automated fashion that permits commercial production. This will also make insects cost-competitive with other protein sources. Depending on the bug-whether it flies or not, for instance-production methods vary. For instance, says van Huis, “Termites are very delicious, but it’s very difficult to rear them because they are social animals and require a queen. That’s just too complicated” for mass production. (For more on this topic, read the FAO’s book Six-Legged Mini Livestock: Edible Insect Farming, Collecting, and Marketing in Thailand.)
Some CPG firms have found ways to bring insect foods to the store shelf. One Belgian company, Green Kow, markets mealworm-based sandwich spreads. Another company, Chapul, is making waves in the United States with a cricket-based protein bar. (Van Huis says that “transforming” insects by grinding them up, such as in flours and powders, and including them in food formats so that they don’t look like insects anymore is one way to get more people to try them.)
But don’t expect those firms selling insect products to give their secrets away. According to van Huis, “The problem is that these companies are very secretive in what they are doing. I’m not allowed to enter those facilities because they think they have figured out the perfect way to produce them, and because they can’t patent those procedures, they’re very secretive about them. So it’s difficult to know exactly what they are doing.”
In the many parts of the world that consume insects (Asia, Africa, and Latin America), insects are not always considered food for the poor; rather, insects are sometimes a delicacy and can fetch quite a high price. Approximately two million people on the planet today consume insects. So when will Americans accept insects as food?
It will take some time. Van Huis, who has lectured on and advocated entomophagy since the late 1990s, says that more of the Dutch population already accepts the idea of eating insects and that this is most likely because they were introduced to the concept earlier on. “I would say that, especially in the last five years, there has been an exponential increase in interest. We held a conference in May in The Netherlands during which 450 people participated, from 45 different countries. I was amazed by the new interest, the innovation, and the interest in starting new businesses. Even in the Netherlands, businesses are starting everywhere. It’s really growing tremendously.”
As more people begin eyeing bugs as tasty treats, the mainstream food industry is starting to consider entomophagy, too. Van Huis was invited to speak on entomophagy and sustainable protein at this year’s European Sustainable Foods Summit in June. Entomophagy was also a hot topic at June’s Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Conference and Food Expo.
Julian Mellentin, founder of New Nutrition Business, forecasts that “Insects as an ingredient in everyday foods could be a $350 million business in the United States and Europe within 10 to 15 years.” In a newly published (free-of-charge) white paper, “Commercializing Edible Insects: How to Market the Impossible," Mellentin points out that commercialization is already happening.
“Most industry executives will dismiss the idea of using insects as an ingredient as ‘too weird,’ as something that consumers will never accept, or accept too slowly for it to be commercially interesting,” said Mellentin in a press release. “They are wrong, of course. Such a conservative outlook means that the field will be left open to entrepreneurs and they will create new brands and a new market.”
We asked van Huis which insects he believes are the best candidates for the worldwide food market. See his choices.
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