Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects by humans, is common among many ethnic groups all over the world. However, there has been a growing association of insect eating with sustainability following a recent FAO report claiming that eating insects leads to increasing food security and economic sustainability. The amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide produced by insects is far less when compared to conventional livestock. The total energy consumption needed to cultivate insects is far less than the amount of energy needed to rear poultry or cattle.
There are thousands of known species of edible insects that are considered as sustainable and alternative sources of proteins. The nutritional content in insects is supposed to be on par with other meat sources, for example, the African palm weevil larvae has a very high calcium and potassium content while Bombyx mori (silkworm larvae) is known to have a high protein content per unit dry mass. Insects are known to have higher level of iron, calcium and potassium content when compared to other sources of meat or plant-based food products. Insects are also rich in micro-nutrients such as zinc, selenium, phosphorous, copper, etc. Their nutritional value may vary depending on the stage of life, habitat and diet of the insect. As they are therapeutic in nature, they can be an affordable alternative to combat malnutrition. Some species of edible insects popular in the market are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, termites and crickets. For consumption, they can be fried, boiled or roasted. Insect based ingredients have been incorporated in foods such as, flours, snacks, energy bars, pastas, etc., as insect eating becomes popular among the general population, entrepreneurs and businesses are finding newer and interesting ways of introducing insect based food products in the market. The Grubbs restaurant which is an all insect food restaurant in the UK, aims to make insect eating a norm by introducing new insects, innovative menus, and spreading information about the nutritional values and environmental benefits of insect eating possesses.
Campaigns via media such as dedicated podcasts, and magazines such as Ento Nation have been instrumental in advocating the benefits of eating insects. The Gateway Bug, an award-winning documentary shot by the NY-based film maker Johanna B. Kelly, discusses at length about the viability of insect based foods as an alternate source of nutrition.
While insect foods are generally considered as safe, nutritious and healthy, there may be potential risks of allergies, digestive disorders and gastrointestinal diseases. Some prevalent allergens known to trigger human allergic reactions are tropomyosin, arginine kinase, haemocyanin, etc.. For example, chitin which is found in the exoskeleton of insects is said to reduce the digestibility of proteins.
The risk of pathogens, parasites, and toxins from bio waste feed must be investigated more thoroughly. A study by the University of California claims that crickets produce a high protein conversion rate only when fed grains and not bio-waste. This creates a conflict over the sustainability of insects as food products. Therefore, there is a need for further research on how feed quality impacts the food quality.
Innovative solutions have been developed to enhance quality and quantity of insects that the farmers breed. One such solution developed by Beekenkamp Verpakkingen is the “insect breeding box”. The box is made of food safe polypropylene and is dimensionally stable, easier to clean, and has reduced edges to prevent the pupae of mealworms from getting stuck to the system. Also, the blue color of the box has been chosen keeping in mind any vision technologies that could be incorporated in the future to make the process of breeding more tech savvy.
The tablet-top insect farm called the Livin farms Hive, a portable insect farm invented by Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisenger, helps grow mealworms in kitchen using food scraps.
Protix, supplies insect ingredients such as high-quality insect proteins, lipids and puree, from the black soldier fly. Protix added mealworm, cricket and locust ingredients through the acquisition of the insect breeder consortium, Fair Insects. The company uses high-control systems, artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetic improvement programs to produce consistent high quality ingredients.
While insect foods are being promoted as a sustainable source of proteins, the path forward is ridden with challenges. The first challenge is choosing an insect and breeding it under right conditions; also the insects need to be harvested at the right time to maintain the required quality of nutrition. The farmers need to be well aware of the life-cycle of the insect that they choose for best results.
There are other issues such as hygienic handling of insects and avoiding direct contact between farmed insects and insects outside the farm. There is a need to control the external factors and harvest quality products with lower costs. There is a huge need for Innovation in production technologies, such as the integration of artificial intelligence, robotics and better logistics for mass production.
A centralized data source is needed on the nutritional value of various species of edible insects across countries. There is miniscule amount of data available on the impact of different processing techniques on food safety and nutritional content. Best practices need to be made available for the processing of insects. Some conventional methods used to increase shelf-life of edible insect products are processing, heating, glazing, drying and acidification; however freezing as a means of storage is less acceptable as it changes the texture and flavor.
Countries such as the USA and Europe have basic manufacturing, labelling and storage requirements that the insect food products must follow while some countries such as Canada are still evaluating the safety aspect of insect eating.
In EU, there has been an effort to harmonize the legal status of edible insects, the expanded definition of novel food law explicitly sates that categories should cover whole insects and their parts. This is based on the Briefing paper released in August 2019, on the provisions relevant to the commercialization of insect based products for human consumption in the EU. The accompanying figure outlines EU Member States’ approaches on the novel status of whole insects and their preparations According to the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF), the first authorizations for insects as novel food in the European Union are expected in 2020
Green- agreed to grant the transitional measure to whole insects and/or their derived products;
Orange- ‘novel status’ of those products is uncertain
Yellow– Permitted with restricted scope
Red– Production and commercialization prohibited on account of non-acceptance of transitional measures
Grey – Position unknown
Insect based food being an emerging area, many startup companies are working towards technology commercialization. Some of these start-ups have subsequently been acquired by big players. Interestingly, many of these companies are headquartered in San Fransisco.
Exo protein, an insect based food company founded in the year 2014 and headquartered in New York, was acquired by Aspire Food groups on March 2018. The edible insect products launched by Exo protein include energy bars, protein bars, whole roasted crickets, and cricket powder. Nutritional information related to the products is provided on its product pages.
Bug Eater Labs, headquartered in San Francisco, was founded in the year 2014. The aim of the company is to produce an alternate source of protein through tasty and sustainable insect food. The company makes products such as Bugs-a-roni and Jump made of cricket protein powder. Jump is available in two flavors namely, chocolate and coffee.
Bitty, a traditional Mexican snack based company, also headquartered in San Francisco Bay Area, was founded in 2013. It sells Chiridos air puffed chips in three flavors: Baja Ranchero, Spicy Mole, and Salsa Verde, all of which are made of cricket flour. The company also sells high protein all-purpose baking flour that is grain-free and has cricket flour as the prominent ingredient.
Chirps was founded in 2013 and is headquartered in San Francisco Bay Area. Chirp, currently sells different kinds of food products made of cricket flour. These are chips, protein powder, cricket powder and cookie mix. The company is planning to launch other insect based food products in the market.
Eat Grub, a London-based company headquartered in London, is well known for its products such as crunchy roasted crickets with mixed flavors, eat grub bars, cricket protein powder, etc.
Pet owners too are increasingly considering edible insects as a source of nutrition for their pets. The black soldier fly larvae and the cricket seem to be the best selling and most liked by pets. UK-based start-up company, Yora Pet foods makes dry food products for dogs from black soldier fly larvae. Bug Bakes, Eat small, Entoma and BauChef are a few other start-ups in this area.
A sample list of the most recent insect based food products launched in the global market since April 2018, are presented below:
Product Category: Snacks
Product Description: Mi Bugs Grillen (Crickets) are whole edible insects that can be eaten directly, or used for cooking and baking. This product is heated, freeze-dried and not seasoned, and retails in a 20g pack.
Product Category: Meat Products
Product Description: Bug Foundation Insekten Burger aus Buffalowürmern mit Soja Minis (Mini Insect Burgers with Buffalo Worms & Soy) are crispy and juicy burgers rich in proteins and unsaturated fat. They are sustainably produced from buffalo worms farmed in a species-appropriate manner, using far fewer resources than beef production, and without antibiotics. This product is 100% free of artificial additives, flavors and colors, and has about 45% rehydrated buffalo worm soya protein. It retails in a 174g pack
Company: Money food
Product Category: Snacks
Product Description: Snack Boom BBQ Flavored Crispy Cricket contains insect peel chitin, which is said to help reduce cholesterol and prevent yeast infections in the digestive tract. The product contains around 95 % cricket while the rest is seasoning, salt, and vegetable oil. The product is sold in a 24g pack.
Company: SWARM Nutrition
Product Category: Snacks
Product Description: Swarm Protein Der Insektenriegel (Insect Bar) has a high content of protein, vitamin B12 and fibers. It has 17% cricket powder and 20% raw cocoa, and is said to be both sustainable and functional. It retails in a pack of 33g.
Company: Smile Bull Marketing
Product Category: Snacks
Product Description: Smile Bull Marketing Hiso Dak Dae Ob Krob Kreub Ngha (Crispy Sesame Coated Silkworms) are delicious with porridge, rice soup, salad, or just as a snack. This edible insect snack is GMP and HACCP certified, and retails in a 15g pack.
The Global Food Company of South Korea makes Sausages from the larvae of darkling beetle. Sanaedeul Co. uses powdered crickets in their noodles thereby enhancing their flavor as well as nutritional value. Some governments are also trying to promote insect based food products by providing various subsidies. This has encouraged farms that raise edible insects to step up their production.
The number of patent applications being filed on edible insects has been increasing steadily. The inventions hover around unique solutions for breeding of edible insects and processing the same.Some interesting patent applications have been discussed below:
KR20190008497A, titled Edible Insect Breeding System and a Breeding Method, filed by Park Tae Woong, discloses an insect breeding system comprising a housing with a door and a partition dividing the space into farming and processing rooms. Each farming cage has temperature, humidity, lighting, and air control functions to be isolated from an environment of the farming room such that the growth of insects is smoothly maintained, and the farming room, is maintained at a pleasant temperature which improves the working environment, thereby protecting the worker and improving work efficiency
CN101116472A titled Edible insect whole powder and production method and application thereof, filed by Xi'an Light Industry Institute, discloses a method of producing edible insect powder from insects such as flour weevil, the cicada, the cryptympana atrata, the locust, and the silkworm pupa. The invention aims to achieve production of edible insect powder at an industrial scale through a series of steps such as elimination of foreign bodies and toxins, cleaning up, dehydration, roasting, drying and refrigeration in vacuum, followed by crushing and filtration to obtain the final product. This helps in retaining all nutritious elements such as protein, lipids, vitamins, and trace elements
US2018310591A1 titled Edible insect derived products and processes for the manufacture and use thereof, filed by C Fu Foods Inc., discloses the process of producing edible textured insect whey protein concentrates. The insect milk is heated and coagulated to form whey and curd. The whey concentrates could be in powder form.
KR20180121144A titled Salad dressing composition containing mealworm and manufacturing method thereof, filed by Lee Chang Kyuong, discloses a method of manufacturing a salad dressing composition from edible insects such as mealworm (Tenebrio molitor larvae) thereby providing the dressing with improved taste, flavor, color, and palatability as well as nutrition.
KR20190018898A titled Method of preparation of functional rice cakes comprising Insect Powder, from Her Nu Rim, discloses preparation of insect powder from Protaetia brevitarsis seulensis larva powder, Gryllus bimaculatus powder and mealworm powder, mixing and kneading the rice cake and insect powder in right proportions and making a dough out of it thereby providing nutrition through high quality protein food.
Although insect based food products have huge potential as an alternative to traditional meat-based products, the challenge is in addressing the feeling of disgust in consumers. This can be addressed by developing innovative taste and texture solutions. The increasing awareness among the generation-Z consumers towards sustainable alternative sources of protein could assist the acceptance of insect based food products. Companies such as PepsiCo are exploring insect based flours in their snacks. IKEA’s “Bug Burger” and “Neatball” made out of mealworms are still being tested at IKEA’s lab, and so not available on the menu just yet. The association of large firms such as IKEA and PepsiCo with insect based food products will most certainly bring a positive change in the attitude of consumers towards edible insects.