Insects: the real deal or just a fly-by?
Many predictions have been made that insects will be the food of the future. A ‘new’ sustainable food source, they’re healthier, cleaner and greener than meat with more protein and less calories and fat per kg, incomparably less green house gas emissions, and relatively cheap and easy to raise.
80% of the world already eats them regularly. So will the little buggers find their wings in the West?
How likely is this trend to materialise in the UK?
Although already common in 113 countries, from Central America to Asia to Africa, insects are currently restricted to the novelty, gimmick category in the West, sold at vast prices for their ‘super food’ properties. To move into the mainstream, the first challenge to the bug market is overcoming its perception problem. With no history or culture of eating bugs in the UK, Europe or the US, this is a significant obstacle to many, especially of the elder generations. Over the summer at Taste of London I tried squid ink risotto with toasted grubs, sweetbreads coated in popcorn and crushed meal worms, chocolate ice cream with cricket swirls. They were nice. The sweet breads were delicious. I scratched out something stuck between my front teeth. It was a cricket’s leg. Changing consumers’ current reaction from ‘Ewwww, bugs!’’ to ‘Oooooh, bugs!’ must be overcome, else there will be no financial motive to produce and supply them in any meaningful sense in the West. But it’s not just getting people to try eating insects once (which, for those of you not so down with the whole creepy crawly thing, is quite a hump to get over in the first place). The bigger challenge lies in getting consumers to actively and regularly choose to eat bugs over meat or instead of simply eating a vegetarian option.
If the perception of bugs can be changed, they still face a pragmatic foodie set back: they cannot replace meat as the centre of a meal. As sprinkles or crumbs or snacks they work fine, but trying to have a sandwich, or a roast, or a curry with insects as the centre piece is not an obvious fit. They are more sustainably reared than meat but if they can only play supporting role rather than replacing meat then their advantages seem only a rather nice add on, not the ‘game changer’ many predict.
However, they could have a long, profitable future as protein rich supplements. Crushed up, they can be mixed in to protein bars and snacks, but this still would be limited to a growing but fairly niche nutritional foodie audience. Hipsters buying Jimini’s cricket bars will not disrupt the meat industry to any great extent. Insects can be ground up to make a surprisingly utile and flavoursome ‘flour’ or powder to make things like pasta, bread or cakes. This offers bugs a much more accessible route into becoming mainstream. Imagine if Dominoes or McDonalds used insect fortified flour in their veggie ranges? It’s a start.
But still in the UK and the West insects as supplements face fundamental challenges. In wealthy nations, our protein intake is not under threat. The ‘protein loading’ phase might fuel demand for insects in all formats among gym goers for a while, but the long term substantial need for an extra protein source is simply not there in the UK. True, we need to find more sustainable approaches to producing and consuming meat, but this does not mean we are, or likely ever will be in the foreseeable future, protein depleted. We have many other sources of protein to meat that fit more naturally into our current diets, such as pulses, green vegetables, and nuts.
So, for insects to enter the mainstream market in the UK they have to overcome the ‘no go’ perception they currently have, find a way to become more than just a supplement or add on to a meal, and prove their worth over other, more accessible sources of protein that we can currently buy. These are three significant obstacles and barriers bug farmers will have to address before we see their insects hit supermarket shelves or disrupt the meat industry.
One potential spin off use for insects where they have considerable potential is as a new feed source to livestock. While this would not solve the many meaty problems animals are causing, feeding them on insects would be a step towards the sustainable. Insects take up much less land than crops by virtue of being able to be grown vertically, and can be grown on organic waste. Yep, although there will still be farting until the cows come in, the insects could potentially grow on cow pat, which is a cheap and environmentally friendly use for the waste. Furthermore, food waste from homes, restaurants and supermarkets could be put to good use as food for the bugs that will then feed the meat that goes back to the homes, restaurants and supermarkets. Pretty neat, huh?
Pics from https://theidleman.com/manual/life/5-reasons-to-start-eating-insects/