In 2014, when I started Bug Burger, it had been a year since FAO had released the report that changed the way many westerners look at insects. Suddenly a lot of people saw the enormous potential to shift from less sustainable protein alternatives (conventional meat) to more sustainable edible insects. The insects need less land, less water, less feed and emit less greenhouse gases. Especially when you compare insects with beef.
The report (that in 2015 had been downloaded more than 7 million times) triggered a lot of people, soon dubbed “entopreneurs”, to start companies raising edible insects, creating and marketing edible insect products. Many of them soon discovered that marketing edible insects wasn’t that easy. There were a couple of obstacles:
1. Regulations: Even though edible insects had been part of tradition in 80 percent of the world’s countries, insects were considered novel food in western countries. In the EU, the Novel food act from 1997 became an obstacle in countries that claimed insects were novel food (not all countries made the same interpretation). The legal uncertainty made it hard (and sometimes illegal) to market edible insects, and even harder to persuade investors to invest.
2. Price: Why buy insects when they are more expensive than beef? The high price tag on insect flour/powder is a problem. Large scale insect farming is at its infancy and there is still a lot to learn and a lot of innovation to be done to make the farms more effective with less manual labour.
- Yuck factor: Yes, a lot of people feel disgusted by insects, and have a hard time comprehending that edible insects really are food. This is a hurdle that can be overcome, but the yuck factor makes it harder to market insects compared with for instance new fake-meat vegetarian alternatives.
Regardless of these initial obstacles I believe the edible insect movement gained momentum a couple of years after the FAO report, with a growing interest and lots of enthusiastic newborn entopreneurs. Awareness about the accelerating climate change and a broken food system spread between 2010-2020. Many edible insect companies started in 2014. That was also the year the Netflix documentary “Cowspiracy” aired and put a focus on the problems with increasing beef production. Edible insects became a solution, but in competition with others.
Lab meat and plant based meat
In August 2013, three months after the release of the FAO-report, professor Mark Post of Maastricht University presented the first lab-grown burger. In 2016 he started the company Mosa Meat, and around that year many lab-meat (also called “cellular meat”, “cultivated meat” and “clean meat”) companies started their businesses. In practice these companies aren’t yet competitors to edible insect manufacturers since it will take several years to bring a large amount of products to the market. When writing this (June 2021) only one company, Eat Just, has launched a product, and that is lab grown chicken nuggets first served at a restaurant in Singapore in December 2020. Cultivated meat, just as insects, has a problem with regulations (only Singapore has accepted sales of lab meat) and price: it will take many years before cultivated meat reaches the same price point as slaughtered meat.
A greater threat to the success of food products made with insect protein is the new generation of vegetarian plant based meat products. In 2016 both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods launched their meat-like vegetable burgers, and following their success a lot of fake meat/fish/prawn/egg/cheese companies have popped up. Looking at my own home country Sweden, all big hamburger chains have a plant based meat alternative. McDonalds was the last chain out, they are launching their McPlant this year. The other ones launched their plant-meat-burgers in 2019.
The success of these alternatives and the amount of interest shown from investors have in some respects overshadowed edible insects as a protein alternative. Throw in the yuck-factor and maybe I should give up Bug Burger and the edible insect business?
My answer is no. We need many alternatives to create a more resilient and healthy food system. But to make edible insects an important food contender we must recognize what makes this protein source special, and what role edible insects can play.
The best arguments for edible insects in the long run:
1: Circular – the resilient alternative
It’s already been proven that insect farming can be done more efficiently than conventional breeding of livestock… but what’s even more interesting than efficiency is that we also have a great potential to make insect farms part of a circular system. A circular food system relies on an animal to work, and few animals are as well suited for this as insects. The dream scenario is feeding insects waste products, turning them into healthy proteins and fats that we humans consume, the frass (insect poo) is used as fertilizer for growing plants that we also can consume, and we use the waste to feed the insects. Initially the circular insect farms use safe side and waste streams from the food industry, like draff from breweries. But these are side streams that are also used to feed traditional livestock. If we can find feeds that result in perfectly healthy proteins, but are only consumed by insects, we have a brilliant argument for insect farming. Even when it for many might seem absurd at the moment (and is illegal according to existing regulations in the EU), we could in the future actually be raising insects on manure or even feed plastic to insects.
I believe that the insect food industry should strive for circular solutions from the start. Initially the insects from these plants will be used to feed animals, but in the long run, if proven safe, circular insect farms are necessary for making edible insects for humans a success.
2. Health benefits – possible miracle medicine
Insects are nature’s superfood. Small packages stuffed with complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids (25-75 percent dry matter depending on species), healthy fat (10-70 percent), vitamin B12 and important minerals. They are low in carbohydrates and contain fibre. But there is potential for even more health claims. One that is already being made (but unfortunately not scientifically proven) is that insects contain chitin, a prebiotic that can be good for your gut health. So far there is only one study on this, and it is based on a quite small group of subjects.
It would also be interesting with more studies on iron and zinc. Many insect species could be a good source of these important minerals but we need more studies on bio-availability. How does the human body absorb and uptake iron and zinc from insects? I have heard suggestions that insect iron might be as stable as non-hem iron, but with the same bioavailability as hem-iron. This theory has not been proven, and from what I’ve heard there still hasn’t been a proper in-vivo study of the uptake of iron and zinc from insects. If insects prove to be a better source of iron than hem-iron it could really be a gamechanger, especially targeting women that today take supplements.
There is a lot of research to be done, and many health claims that if proven could be a great way to promote insects as food. Nanna Roos and Arnold van Huis wrote an article in 2017 where they list several possible health benefits that need more research:
- Lower blood pressure: Tests on rats have shown that peptides found in silk moth larvae, mealworms and wax moth larvae can lower blood pressure.
- Counteract obesity: Tests on overweight mice indicated that there are bio active components in mealworm powder that can induce weight loss.
- Prevent Parkinson’s disease: A Korean scientist’s found that when boiled and freeze-dried powder of the silkworm was fed to Drosophila flies, lifespan increased, while symptoms of rotenone-induced Parkinson’s disease were reduced.
- Source for antioxidants: Antioxidants have the potential to prevent molecular damage in the human body, and foods rich in antioxidants have been considered potentially beneficial in the prevention of cardiovascular and other diseases. Studies like this one from 2019 show that insects are a source of antioxidants but according to the study “more evidence is needed in order to understand if the practice of eating insects and invertebrates might contribute to modulate oxidative stress in humans and the identification of their bioactive ingredients.”
I would like to end my health argument with mentioning a Korean study on rats claiming that consumption of Silkworm powder can reduce the alcohol concentration in blood. In practice, if it works on humans, silkworm powder could be used as a way to prevent hangovers!
3. “Natural”, authentic and ethical
Even though all kinds of farming is an intrusion in the ecosystem, many people feel that breeding and eating animals is more natural than eating lab grown steak. “Natural” is in many respects another way of saying “traditional” when talking about food.
Many people also believe that plant based burgers using around 20-30 different ingredients to create the meat like texture and taste, are less natural. There is a fear of processed food. These views on natural vs fabricated might give insects a market advantage in the long run, as insects really are the superfood of nature. I often say that if I believed in God I would think God created insects as food. So many animals rely on insects as a food source, and, even if Westerners don’t believe so, it has also been an important food source in many human cultures throughout history. Most insect species have adapted evolutionarily to being at the bottom of the food chain. They lay a big amount of eggs and count on a small percentage of them surviving till adulthood and laying new eggs. This is a big difference to for example a cow that gets 1-2 calves per year and invests everything into these individuals’ survival. Another strong case for cold blooded insects versus for instance warm blooded pigs is that you can kill the insects more humanly by cooling them down and then freezing them to death. The most common, industrial way to kill pigs nowadays is using highly concentrated carbon dioxide gas, suffocating the pigs. A method that sometimes can take up to a minute with screaming pigs gasping for air.
There is much more to say about insects and ethics (I wrote a chapter on it in my book, and you can find an academic paper here), but I really do think there could be possibilities for an emerging group of conscious ento-vegetarians that only eat insects and vegetables.
Insects can also be marketed as “authentic”. Chefs can serve insects in Mexican dishes and say it is “authentic Oaxaca” or “authentic pre-columbian”. They can serve insects and call it “Thai street food”. Even if we in the West lack an insect eating tradition we can retell and claim a long culinary history from all around the world. Chefs can also make culinary experiments with new flavours when new insect species are discovered. Serving “fake meat” is in this respect not as flavourful. At least when it comes to plant based meat. Lab grown meat opens up completely new possibilities. You can keep up old meat eating traditions and at the same time develop new ones. There are probably chefs that hunger for the possibility to serve lab grown Tiger meat… or the extinct Dodo.
4. Food security
Our current food system is fragile. We have built a very specialised agricultural system that relies heavily on transportation. We transport feed, food, fertilisers, petrol for the tractors etc. Building circular systems with insects as mentioned above could play an important role in securing countries’ local food production in the future. Breeding insects instead of for instance industrial farming of pigs could also be positive from an epidemiological perspective. We know that our current pig and chicken factories can give rise to epidemics (and pandemics), and the extensive use of antibiotics on animals can lead to bacterial resistance. Pigs have a lot in common with humans, insects have not. The risk of a disease killing insects harming human beings is practically non-existent. Many of the diseases don’t even spread between different insect species. This makes insects safer for mass breeding.
5. Climate friendly – good for the environment
Eating insects isn’t automatically a climate friendly act. When an insect chef shows off an insect dish using let’s say collected Giant water bugs flown half over the world from Thailand, and claims that the dish is “sustainable and climate friendly according to the UN”… the chef doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.
BUT: edible insects have great potential of being a climate friendly and sustainable alternative to other protein sources if they are handled in the right way. I believe that edible insect farms must make a complete life cycle assessment and really prove that the end product makes a smaller impact than competing food sources. Include everything from heating to feed, “butchering” (in this case cooling), packaging and transportation.
If we create circular systems we surely will get there, and we will also be able to claim even more benefits for the environment. For instance the frass from insects (with healthy bacteria) could do a lot of good to improve our degraded soils without using petroleum based artificial fertilizers.
That was my case for edible insects and how I would like to see the sector develop. I wrote that edible insects “competed” with other protein alternatives. But if we use the strength of each alternative I don’t really see this as a competition. They complement each other and one of our best strategies to handle the challenges ahead of us is to diversify. Lab meat, plant-based, fungi, algae, edible insects, traditional farming and processes to create proteins out of carbon dioxide, all have their pros and cons. All have their role to play.
Let’s give them all a fair chance, and use them in a smart and resilient way.
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