Are we ready to shop for edible insects?
Walk into your average supermarket or convenience store and you’re never more than a few paces away from the food-to-go section. An area of refrigerator cabinets, drinks and snacks from which we are entrusted with the responsibility of constructing something that might pass for a lunch. Here we are presented with familiar options like sandwiches, pasta salads, fruit or vegetable snack portions, crisps, popcorn, confectionary bars as well as the odd healthier or low calorie option.
Sushi, once a rank outsider, has now become a rather common food to-go option. Older generations, used to cooking food to ashes for fear of food poisoning may still view this curious assembly of raw fish and rice with great suspicion, but to younger generations sushi has become the norm. But what is the norm? For instance the concept of the sandwich, where meats and other fillings are neatly packaged in bread (which in fact long predates the 4th Earl of Sandwich), is just that – a concept. At one point this idea of using bread to pick up food would have seem novel. Similarly, pasta salad as an on the go lunch option, whilst completely normal now, only really gained popularity in the 90s when it became viewed as a healthier option.
Our perception of normal continues to change as new concepts seek to resolve the conflict between our need for nutrition and our ever more complex lifestyles. But what are the modern challenges that our food must overcome and are current strategies proving successful? Depending on your perspective, yes and no.
Solving todays food challenges
From a narrow, short-term perspective the priorities for many are taste, price and convenience. In solving this problem the global food industry has been very successful indeed, working like a well oiled machine to deliver decent tasting, low-cost food to a local store or even your front door. However if look at our current global food strategy from a wider, long-term perspective then not only is it failing but it is in fact creating problems of its own. Our dependance on meat and animal protein is the second biggest cause of greenhouse gases at 18%, just behind energy production at 21% but bigger than transportation which trails behind at 14%. Cattle grazing is also the main cause of deforestation in the amazon, accounting for 80% of the 3 million hectares of annual deforestation. On top of the problems caused by meat production is the depletion of fish stocks, droughts brought about by the production of crops like corn, used as feed for fish and cattle as well as to make food and a vast list of ingredients and additives.
As our population continues to grow the problems caused by our current food strategy are only going to get worse. The global population currently stands at 7 billion and may grow to 9 billion by 2050. Already 1 billion people around the world go hungry on a regular basis, meaning that once again a new strategy or concept is required to solve our latest and greatest food challenge.
Edible insects in 2015
Currently 1,900 species of insects are eaten by 2 billion people around the world. They provide a source of protein that requires just a fraction of the feed, water and land resources of livestock. In fact whilst 10kg of feed will produce 1kg of beef, the same amount of feed could produce 9kg of locust meat.
Understandably this has resulted in a wave of entrepreneurs keen to jump at the opportunity, launching their own distinct edible insect brands across a whole range of categories. There are bars (Chapul, Exo, CroBar, Get Sharp), Insecta burgers, Green Bugs sauce, The Green Cow Co. spread, Chirps chips, Bitty cookies, Crickers crackers and Eat Grub ingredients to name few.
What’s more is that whilst many of these businesses may have launched independently they have gone on to secure significant investments. Six Foods raised $70,599 on Kickstarter, Exo were able to raise $1.2m in seed funding and Chapul secured $50,000 of equity after founder Pat Crowley appeared on television show the Shark Tank. Insect farm Next Millennium have also confirmed that they are in talks with some of the worlds biggest food producers.
Investors clearly have faith in the long term potential of the market and indeed the signs are positive. Market research company Mintel looked at consumers who would be willing to try insects and found that 21% of Germans, 26% of Americans, 27% of Brits and 52% of Chinese would be willing to give it a go. Other reports have forecast that by 2025 the edible insect market in Europe and North America alone will be worth $33 billion.
However before this market can truly be established there are some considerable hurdles that need hopping. Insects have until now been something to keep out of food, so to able to produce insects on any kind of scale will require for whole new infrastructures to be developed. Because of this there isn’t currently the same economies of scale that we find in traditional farming, which explains why insect products are still priced the same as or more than comparative non-insect products, as Crobar Founder Christine Spliid explains:
"Because production is so extremely tiny compared to that of cows, chicken etc. We need to get the cricket farms up to a much, much bigger size, before the output produced exceeds fixed costs.
The cricket flour it literally the most expensive ingredient in my bars, and I believe also in other people's cricket products, so the price of the product reflects the price of the ingredients.
The more people buy into the insect eating trend, the quicker prices can come down."
Because insects are eaten whole, current methods of insect farming for animal feed would be unsuitable for human consumption. The same strict protocols as all other areas food production would be required and EFSA are currently planning to revisions to Novel Foods Regulation to resolve legal disputes between member states.
Getting over the yuck factor
Once infrastructure and regulations are in place will it really open the floodgates as insect products take over our supermarket shelves? Sure the environmental, economic and nutritional benefits are a no-brainer, but since when did consumers eat with their brains? Insects in or around food is something that in the West we recognise as a contaminant. Is this really something consumers are going to be able to get over? Those within edible insects think so and are confident that once people stop exploiting the “yuck factor” of eating insects as a gross challenge, it will not be difficult to convince tomorrow’s consumers to accept insects as food, as Eat Grub Co-Founder Neil Whippey explains:
"It's very important to keep away from the novelty side of things. Products that are "challenge" based say that there's something wrong to the consumer and aren't something to integrate into their diet, and are often of poor quality.
Products that use insects as the nutritional element rather than the main event (i.e whole insects) will be the key to a larger market and gaining the public's trust. We are currently in R&D for a ready to eat product using cricket powder which we strongly believe will propel us more into the mainstream."
Edible insect brands will often compare this strategy of using insects as an unseen ingredient to how the California roll was used to introduce (sashimi) sushi into the mainstream, by hiding the raw fish in rice and enabling for the people to get over any initial disgust. In fact consumers have been accepting insects on the ingredients list for many years. The red food colouring carmine, made from cochineal beetles, is used in many mainstream products including Nesquick, Mentos, Yoplait, Werther’s Original and Betty Crocker Cake mix.
Whilst this strategy may be comparable, the are crucial differences between sushi and edible insects which highlight the need for product development in order for the category to advance. Much of the appeal of sashimi can be attributed to how “clean” the concept is, whereby prime cuts of fish and meat are presented in a very simple and transparent manner. This aligns well with the current trends of clean label and clean eating. Whereas currently edible insect offering come either in the form of processed ingredients in foods such as bars or eaten whole as part of an asian style dish, often involving ingredients that have been deep fried, aligning less well and even conflicting with what consumers may know or recognise as clean and healthy.
Potential to hit it big
For edible insects to make it in the mainstream not only does it need to ditch its gimmick only appeal but it also needs innovative adopters and proponents who will rave fanatically about these products from day one. Health is the key. According to Packaged Facts, sales of gluten-free products will be worth $2.34 billion by 2019 in the U.S. alone. This represents a huge opportunity for insect ingredients to replace potential allergens from commonly used ingredients such as dairy and soy. In addition is sports nutrition, a category that gave birth to the current mainstream protein boom, where there is ever more demand for low-fat proteins offering a complete amino-acid profile.
The opportunities of edible insect are as clear as the challenges the category faces in developing the market, but eventually bugs could prove to be one the best possibilities to tackle our global nutrition and environmental challenges that we’ve ever had.