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Will sustainable insect protein ever achieve mainstream popularity?

Article-Will sustainable insect protein ever achieve mainstream popularity?

As protein varieties continue to rise in popularity in 2023, are insect-based products heading for mainstream adoption by food manufacturers?

Protein continues to grow in popularity as a vital ingredient in the global food industry. With the world accelerating toward new and sustainable food, shoppers are seeking alternative protein sources. As novel eating experiences resonate with global consumers, insects are featuring as a new source of protein and garnering a reputation as an effective ingredient in high-protein foods.

However, overcoming consumer resistance and developing at a commercial scale are two leading issues facing insect protein manufacturers today, Alan Marson, managing director at New Food Innovation, said.

Regulatory approval

In January 2023, the European Union (EU) approved a fourth insect for use as protein in food products. The EU announced Alphitobius diaperionus, an insect species in the family of Tenebrionidae (darkling beetles), is now permissible as a food ingredient. The novel food comprises frozen, paste, dried and powder forms and is intended for mainstream consumption.

In the same month, the EU Commission revealed that partially defatted powder obtained from whole Acheta domesticus (house cricket) has also been approved as a novel food.

Currently, in addition to these two recent approvals, five species of insects are going through the approval process in the UK. These insects are Tenebrio molitor (yellow mealworm), Gryllodes sigillatus (banded cricket), Schistocerca gregaria (desert locust), Locusta migratoria (migratory locust) and Hermetia illucens (black soldier fly).

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supports insects as a food ingredient. The increasing interest in insects as a food ingredient has been linked to increasing animal protein prices, food insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth and rising calls for protein among the middle classes.

By the 31st December 2023, all food manufacturers that plan to use insects in their products will almost certainly need to apply for novel food approval, which is a huge step in the direction of bringing more of these products to market and eventually seeing them sold to consumers,” said Katrina Anderson, associate director at Osborne Clarke, in a recent blog.

Global movement

Food manufacturers specialising in using insect protein to produce novel ingredients and finished products are cropping up worldwide. Organisations such as EIT Food (European Institute of Innovation and Technology) in Europe and the Insect Protein Association of Australia have grown in their support and advocacy for the use of insect proteins in food.

Insect-based proteins are considered a key area of research for Horizon Europe under its SUSINCHAIN (Sustainable Insect Chain), a funding programme for research and development (R&D). The particular project contributes to novel protein provision for feed and food in Europe. It aims to overcome barriers to growing the insect value chain's economic viability.

Insect startups around the world

Insect-centric protein brands are cropping up worldwide. Inseact is a Singaporean brand replacing fish with insect protein to provide a protein alternative for the future food system.

Italian biotechnology startup Nutrinsect specialises in alternative protein and nutrient production by breeding and industrial insect transformation. US BiteBack Insect is a bio-refinery producing a healthier and more sustainable source of fats and oils. The Netherlands-based food manufacturing company, Fair Insects, creates edible insects for human consumption.

Food packaging and processing company, Tetra Pak, has undertaken multiple product trials with startups and manufacturers to create high-value protein-enriched foods and deliver them into the mainstream food industry. The multinational brand highlighted crickets, mealworms and black soldier flies as essential insect proteins growing in potential and popularity.

Problematic protein and production pitfalls

“A fundamental flaw in insect-based protein is that like other farmed animals, insects need to eat too,” says Mirte Gosker, managing director of the Good Food Institute (GFI) APAC, Asia's leading alternative protein think tank.

By weight, insects convert the food they eat to edible protein at a food conversion ratio of between 4:1 and 9:1, and insects intended for human consumption often have a conversion ratio comparable to that of poultry. “That's not a scalable solution that will help us efficiently feed 10 billion people by 2050,” Gosker adds.

Farmed insects can escape their facilities during natural disasters or other unforeseen events and swarm local ecosystems, consume produce from local farms, or breed in environments where they are not native. A concern of industrial insect farming is the effect escaped insects might have on the surrounding environment. “Because it would be impossible to capture escaped insects, a farm-level breach could pose devastating risks to a region's environment.”

“Given the sharp disruptions the global food supply chain is already experiencing, the world needs reliable, safe, and secure options like producing protein from plants or cultivating it from cells, which pose no such risks to local populations,” Gosker adds.

In June 2022, EIT Food reported that 1,900 edible insect species are currently consumed globally. Insects as protein are recognised for containing high-quality protein, vitamins and amino acids; high feed conversion efficiency; less greenhouse gas emissions and water use than conventional, more traditional feedstocks; feed on biowaste like food waste and compost; and can be farmed in small, modular areas.

However, the EIT Food Trust Report 2021 found only 37% of European consumers would be open to adopting new foods, varying across countries. For example, a Food Standards Agency survey in the UK found that only half of the consumers thought insects were safe to eat and only 26% said they would be willing to try insects. It appears manufacturers have more work to do to make their insect-based protein products appealing and desirable for purchase. 

What's next?

A December 2022 research study identified insects as potential bio-converters that offer efficient mechanisms to convert different grades of waste to food or feed proteins. The researchers identified insects as containing rich protein, vitamins, and minerals such as iron, calcium, manganese and zinc compared with other animal-sourced proteins.

Researchers highlight the potential of insects as part of a forward-thinking sustainable waste-to-protein system to maximise waste resource utilisation that develops food- and feed-grade protein solutions. Looking ahead, we may continue to see insects feature in protein-based products and as effective bio-converters.


Image credit: Adobe / nicemyphoto