Swiss start-up’s insect-derived food intent on overcoming consumer bugbear

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

The  Essento Insect Burgers contain, in addition to flourworms (Tenebrio molitor), rice and vegetables such as carrots, celery and leeks, as well as various spices like oregano and chili. ©essento
The Essento Insect Burgers contain, in addition to flourworms (Tenebrio molitor), rice and vegetables such as carrots, celery and leeks, as well as various spices like oregano and chili. ©essento

Related tags Edible insects Food

Swiss start-up Essento will make its range of insect burgers and meatballs available in supermarkets after a recent shake-up of the country’s food safety laws.

Essento’s insect burgers blend flourworms, or Tenobrio molitor, ​with rice and vegetables such as carrots, celery and leeks. Oregano and chili are used to enhance flavour, the company said.

The start-up's insect meatballs combine flourworms, chickpeas, onions and garlic, together with herbs like coriander and parsley.

The products are due to go on sale from 21 August at seven Coop supermarkets in Geneva, Bern and Zurich.

“For now, we interested to see how people are going to react to the products,”​ said Christian Bärtsch, co-founder of Essento.

“They have a high culinary potential, their production spares resources and their nutritional profile is of high quality. Thus, insects are the perfect complement to a modern... diet."

This is the first time that insect-derived products have been allowed into the human food chain in Switzerland. Bärtsch said this gives Essento a first mover advantage. 

“It allows us to build a brand around edible insects," he suggested. “It [also] allows us to be in touch with customers and use those insights for the development of new products.”

Progress has been swift after Switzerland’s food safety regulations underwent revision on 1 May of this year. Previously insects were restricted for use in pet food.

The updated law now permits the sale of products containing three types of insects: crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms.

However, cultivation of the insects are subject to rigorous standards, with at least four generations bred under supervision before passing as fit for humans.

Imported insects are also subject to inspection, with insects bred to Swiss standards at farms, which will require regular inspections by national food safety authorities.

Interest in insects

As well as Geneva (Coop Eaux-Vives), Berne (Coop Megastore in Wankdorf) and Zurich (Coop Sihlcity), the products will also be available in small quantities at seven Coop supermarkets in Basel (Coop Südpark), Winterthur (Coop City Gate), Lugano (Coop Canobbio Resega), Lausanne (Coop Grancy) as well as the supermarket’s online presence, Coop@home. 

"For a long time we have worked on this goal and now it's time for us to be the first retailer in Switzerland to start selling the insect products from Essento,“​ said Silvio Baselgia, head of category management and procurement freshness at Coop. 

The use of insects for food has made scant progress in Europe especially compared to the long culinary tradition seen in African and Asian cultures.

As far back as 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations proposed the idea of using insects as an alternative source of protein.

FAO researchers highlighted the role of insects as a staple food for approximately 2bn people worldwide and their use of less water and land compared to traditional livestock farming. This makes them a  healthy, sustainable alternative to other animal meats, the FAO suggested. 

Nutritionally, many edible insects are a rich protein source, adequately meeting amino acid requirements for humans, are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Their micronutrient profile is well represented with sufficient amounts of copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc, as well as riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and, in some cases, folic acid.

High-quality insect protein is only available in a few locations within Europe. The UK restaurant Grub Kitchen promotes sustainable local produce as well as the practice of eating insects.

The restaurant uses various types of edible insects to update modern and popular dishes such as the Sunday roast.

Meanwhile, Italian-based company, Italbugs are looking to market a high-protein flour made from silkworms, a by-product of the textile industry that has uses in sports nutrition and bakery products.

Danish firm Insekt KBH's cricket juice uses the insect along with apple, ginger, and lemon to form its product, which uses a sustainable food loop to create an environmentally friendly production process.

“The sustainable and culinary potential of insects was crucial for Coop's decision to support the development of Essento's food innovation. Coop and Essento unite the pursuit of sustainable solutions," ​said Baselgia.

"Our cooperation has been running for three years and we will continue to work together to establish insects as food in Switzerland."

“We believe that edible insects have the potential to offer a high-value animal protein to our population,” ​added Bärtsch.

“We are convinced that offering a delicious product is always better than forcing something onto people. I am convinced however, it will be only a matter of years until insects become normality.”

A bug in current EU policy

Updated Swiss regulation is in contrast to the situation surrounding how EU law interprets foods made from insects.

The 1997 Novel Foods regulation (Regulation EC No 259/97) states that insect-derived food ingredients, (such as protein isolates) and certain body parts (legs, wings, head, etc) are thought of as ‘novel foods,’ and are thus subject to regulatory approval.

This definition is up for debate by EU states, which question whether it applies to whole insects or preparations like worm paste.

Now, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, United Kingdom permit the sale of whole insect-based products.

The situation will be clarified by the introduction of the new Novel Foods regulation (Regulation EU 2015/2283) that comes into force on 1 January 2018.

Created to replace its predecessor, the law will require all insect-derived foods to undergo a pre-market approval process.

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