The buzz on bugs: Will insect-based foods tip to the mainstream?
Maybe you get the shivers when Pumbaa and Simba declare “slimy yet satisfying” as the slurp down grubs in ‘The Lion King’. Perhaps the thought of Roald Dahl’s infamous Mrs. Twit feeding worms to her husband fills you with revulsion. You would not be alone. Bug-based products are a long way from traditional European approaches to food and dominant cultural mores do not view insects as an appealing source of protein.
But eating insects is not as unusual as many westerners might think. Entomophagy is common in many parts of the world, with at least 2bn people worldwide regularly consuming insects. From deep-fried locusts in Thailand, to hachinoko – or stewed bee larvae – in Japan and tarantula in Cambodia, various insects are considered delicacies throughout Asia and Africa.
There are compelling reasons for Europeans to incorporate more insect-based protein into their diets. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has been advocating on topics related to edible insects since 2003. The agency highlights that insect consumption can be associated with health and environmental benefits.
Edible insects contain high-quality protein, vitamins and amino acids. They are rich in fibre, represent a good source of healthy fats such as omega-3s and are high in nutrients such as calcium, iron, B vitamins, selenium and zinc.
Insects are also a more resource-efficient way of producing protein than traditional livestock rearing. The FAO estimates that crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Insect-based products have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional livestock, emitting fewer greenhouse gasses and less ammonia.
Arguments supporting the use of edible insects as a food source are persuasive - but acceptance flies in the face of European convention.
Product innovation key to acceptance
To get European consumers eating insects, they need to be presented with products that are appealing and readily available.
Perhaps one answer is to integrate insect protein into established and familiar product concepts such as processed foods and snacks. A number of European manufacturers and retailers are taking this route.
In 2015, Jumbo – the second-largest supermarket group in the Netherlands - became the first supermarket to offer customers a variety of insect-based products across all of its stores. Items included staples of the Dutch diet such as burgers, nuggets and schnitzels. Last year, the company said it is introducing algae burgers off the success of its insect line.
Ed van de Weerd, Jumbo’s director of commerce, said that the move reflected Jumo’s efforts to offer “maximum choice”. He did, however, note that extensions to the group’s assortment are not always made because “the customer asks for it”. He explained: “We also often take that extra step to surprise and inspire customers with special and innovative products.”
Elsewhere, Insekt KBH is a Danish firm that manufactures FEMTEN Fårekyllinger (or Fifteen Crickets), an apple-ginger shot enriched with cricket protein. In many ways, this quirky brand feeds into conventional European consumption expectations. Yet distribution remains limited to just 15 purveyors.
One of the most acceptable – and therefore widely available – insect-based products available is flour. Companies like Bush Grub Organic or Cornish Edible Insects are making strides in this area and the potential application for the use of insect flours in processed foods is clear.
The snack bar and sports nutrition sector has been a first-mover in this field, with products that utilise insect flour to boost protein content gaining popularity. Brands including Exo Protein, Eat Grub, JIMINI'S and Jungle Bar are gaining traction in health channels and online.
According to Dr Marcel Dicke, a professor at the Laboratory of Entomology, Wageningen University, getting Europeans to consume inset-based products through stealth is one of several approaches that can increase consumption.
“Processing is a good option, but not the only one. There should be different paths. There are also consumers that go for the exquisiteness and they can be excellent ambassadors too. Someone going for lobster will not eat processed lobster in pasta flour. So whole insects as a delicacy are also one route to take in addition to processed insects in flour,” he told FoodNavigator.
For Dr Dicke, the key to getting European consumers to accept insects as a food source is education. “The main issue is to educate the public and get the public used to good, tasty products based on insects. Education is number one, two and three on the list of priorities… and education must be supported by attractive and tasty products.”
Growing distribution and availability
Another hurdle in the path of increased consumption is extremely limited distribution and availability in Europe.
E-commerce has been an important avenue for manufacturers selling insect-based products. Online retailing opens the door to increased distribution with a lower bar for proof of concept. Direct-to-consumer sales allow companies to get products to market that retail multiples might otherwise hesitate to stock.
Insect-based products nevertheless continue to gain distribution in conventional retail channels, albeit at a snail’s pace. Earlier this week Swiss start-up Essento started to sell its range of burgers and meatballs made from flourworms at select Coop supermarkets in Switzerland.
Coop procurement head Silvio Baselgia said that the retailer had worked to become the first Swiss supermarket to sell insect-based products “for a long time”. The product launch is the culmination of three years of collaboration between the Coop and Essento. “We will continue to work together to establish insects as food in Switzerland,” Baselgia said.
Insect-based products are only available in a “select” number of stores located in the cosmopolitan centres of Geneva, Bern and Zurich. They have been rolled out to just seven of the Co-ops 2,000-plus locations.
Progress on regulatory hurdles
European regulations governing the sale of insects entering the human food chain have represented a significant barrier to getting insect-based products on the shelves.
In 2015, high-end Danish retailer Irma became the first supermarket in the country to list insect products, only to pull them a week later. The company started selling frozen grasshoppers, meal worms and moth larvae. However, it was forced to remove the products over concerns that they did not meet EU regulatory requirements.
Currently in the EU, edible insect-derived ingredients and various body parts fall under novel food regulations, meaning that they are not authorised for sale as a foodstuff at an EU-wide level.
However, this is all set to change. The European Commission is in the process of introducing a new novel foods regulation that comes into effect at the beginning of next year, which will require all insect based foods to undergo a pre-market approval process. “This new regulation will pave the way for a simpler, clearer and more efficient authorisation procedure,” European regulators claimed.
The European Food Safety Authority is also giving the green-light to insects entering the human food chain. In a recently published a report, EFFSA concluded that when feed used to produce insects meets the requirements for any input into the food chain, there are no microbiological or chemical contamination issues.
Dr Dicke said these are important milestones for the insect-based food sector. “The European Commission has initiated legislation and companies meeting the requirements can sell their products anywhere in the EU. This is an important step forward.”
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