A Different Future for Insect Protein

Nov. 17, 2014
Bugs are generating fun discussion now, but feed, not food, appears to be the likely medium.

Insect proteins have been the buzz in media, due in part to high-profile events like the Shark Tank appearance by Pat Crowley, founder of Chapul, a cricket flour-containing bar manufacturer.

The growing number of products with processed insects includes Exo Inc.’s protein bars, Six Foods LLC’s chips and Bitty Foods’ baked goods, all with cricket flour. The trend is not limited to the U.S. Jumbo, a supermarket chain in the Netherlands says it will carry burgers made from meal worms and crackers made from moth larvae.

Insects have long been crucial to human diets. A 2013 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Forestry Paper 171 Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security estimates insects are part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people. Over 1,900 species are used.

Even kosher law, which prohibits the eating of insects, notes the Torah allows for the consumption of kosher locust (types of grasshopper), although their exact identification is debated. 

Increased attention to insects as food is driven by interest in sustainability, a growing world population and insects’ nutritional benefits. In particular, insects are significant contributors of protein in some diets. A multitude of studies have investigated their protein content.

One challenge is the great number of variables to be considered. They include the large variety of species consumed (insects are the antithesis of a monoculture), the metamorphic stage of development (e.g., larvae, adult), growth conditions (e.g., food consumed), preparation (e.g., digestive tracks and wings often are removed) and processing methods (e.g. drying, frying or “as is”).

The 2013 FAO paper compares the percent of protein (on a fresh weight basis) of cattle (19-26 percent) and shrimp (13-27 percent) with insects such as adult crickets (8-25 percent), certain species of adult locusts and grasshoppers (13-28 percent) and adult chapulines (Mexico) (35-48 percent).

A 2010 “Review of the nutritive value of edible insects,” by Xiaoming, C. et al., reports the crude protein content of dry matter of Hymenoptera (a 150,000-plus species order that includes sawflies and ants) at 13-77 percent and Orthoptera (an order containing crickets and grasshoppers) at 23-65 percent.

Despite the many benefits of insects for human food, even the 2013 FAO paper says consumer products will remain a “niche market” for at least another generation and that interest in the West will be confined to immigrants and novelty seekers. When Innova Market Insights asked, “Which alternative protein sources are you actively looking at in your new product development?” in a November 2014 webinar, insect proteins easily placed last following wheat, pea and microalgae proteins.

The brightest future for insect protein is likely to be as a replacement for fishmeal and soy, major components in feed formula for aquaculture and livestock. Paul Vantomme, who coordinates FAO’s insect program, has been quoted as saying that within two decades insects could represent up to 10 percent of the 150 million tons of protein sold per year.

Indeed, an Economist article reports that agricultural use of insects may lead the human food industry in efforts to develop food safety and other standards in farming and production. It quotes a draft FAO report saying “studying global insects-as-food legislation found little real government oversight.” As with other foods, microbial safety and toxicity including the presence of inorganic compounds can be an issue. And, while rare, allergic reactions from insect consumption do exist.

The Laos Technical Cooperation Project, which pushed for insect-farming guidelines based on international food standards such as the Codex Alimentarius, is seen as positive example. Such efforts will help lead to safe, large-scale farming of insects and a more reliable food source of protein.
Still, this is a “fun to watch” category. On Shark Tank, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban proclaimed “Let’s eat some crickets” as he agreed to invest $50,000 for a 15 percent share of Chapul.

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