Eating insects is not everyone’s idea of tasty. However, culinary creepy-crawlies and the alternative food industry are making headway in the United States, Japan, and the wider Asia region.
In addition to insects, algae-based foods are also growing. Three companies that are enticing the world with alternative foods are Exo, which makes products made with cricket flour; Euglena Co. Ltd., which cultivates the microalgae from which it takes its name; and Bugsolutely Ltd., which has found success in Southeast Asia selling cricket pasta.
Although these alternative food sources may not make your stomach growl, they are rich in nutrients, environmentally friendly, and can be made into everyday products.
A WIDER PALATE
The burden of feeding the global population is already taking its toll on the Earth’s climate and natural resources. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there will be no let up as we race to a population of 9.7 billion by 2050.
Whether due to climate change or natural disasters, political instability or armed conflict, the likelihood of a food crisis in 2017 is high. An FAO Hunger Map for 2015 shows that 795 million people—one in nine of the world’s population—still lack sufficient food to live a healthy lifestyle. Globally, 108 million people in 2016 were reported to be facing crisis-level food insecurity or worse, a 35 percent increase from 2015.
The need to find other food sources that are both healthy and have a reduced environmental impact is increasing. Cricket flour is one such source.
Exo CEO and Co-founder Gabi Lewis claims that cricket flour, 65 percent (by weight) of which is protein, provides iron, zinc, calcium, and other minerals, and “is one of the most sustainable protein sources in the world.”
Exo’s crickets are flash-frozen, dried, and milled into fine, protein-heavy flour. The production effects are notably different from those of regular beef production, for example.
Lewis said that crickets produce 100 times less greenhouse gas than cattle, and require less water, space, and feed.
The company has five flavors of protein bars made from cricket flour. Protein bars are something the co-founders felt were familiar food for consumers, and thus a good product with which to start.
“We wanted to introduce crickets in a way that was easy and accessible for most people. Lewis explained, “We worked with Chef Kyle Connaughton to figure out flavors.”
Bugsolutely Founder Massimo Reverberi also chose cricket flour to create a product that is recognizable and palate-friendly. “We chose to start with pasta, because pasta is a common food all over the world, and because the nutty taste of the cricket flour pairs quite well with the taste of the wheat flour.”
Reverberi echoed Lewis’s comments about the nutritional value of crickets, adding, “In brief, it’s a superfood.”
Powdered algae is Euglena’s central product, and is used mainly for supplements. It has both plant and animal characteristics, and contains many of the vitamins and minerals found in vegetables and fish. So far, the company has rolled out its euglena-based cookies to supermarkets across Japan.
Mitsuru Izumo’s idea was to aid those countries—both rich and poor—that suffer from malnutrition. It all stems from a visit he made to Bangladesh as a student. “We believe that as the population of Earth increases, many more people will suffer from malnutrition. Alternative food has the potential to help these people,” he explained.
At an American Chamber of Commerce in Japan event hosted by the Alternative Investment Subcommittee in April, Izumo explained that scientists in Japan and the United States believe that seaweed and algae contribute to the longer lifespans of Japanese people.
He added that Euglena’s “production cost is one-tenth lower than how euglena microalgae was produced when we first began, so everyone can afford to buy algae products nowadays.”
Although there are certainly successes in this young industry, there are still other barriers to tackle.
Eating more insects could help fight world hunger, or so says a 2013 report by the FAO and Wageningen University and Research Centre, Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security. Although entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—is still taboo in many Western societies, it has been around for millennia.
The report highlights the benefits of insects to nutrition and the reduction of pollution.
One of the main difficulties is what some find to be the distasteful look of the ingredients. They are alien and not widely appreciated.
“People aren’t familiar with insects, so it can be difficult to convince people that insects are a safe and tasty food product,” Lewis explained. “It’s [about] trying to change years of public perception about insects.”
And it’s not just insects that have a negative image. “People associate algae with dirty swimming pools and stagnant water,” Izumo laughed.
Speaking to The Journal he added, “Euglena has the meaning in Japanese of ‘green bug’—though it is not a bug—so people refused to eat it at first.”
However, according to Nobuhiko Nakashima, director of the division of Insect Sciences at the Institute of Agrobiological Sciences National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) insects are already used as a protein source in Japan. Nakashima mentioned inago—a type of locust—as one such insect. He also suggested that insect ramen is already making its way onto menus and algae-related products onto supermarket shelves.
“We think it will not be difficult to encourage the public to try alternative food sources, such as insects and algae, because they are already used to eating these kinds of foods as a side dish,” he suggested.
As with any new industry, there comes a point when regulation is required to maintain standards and garner support, and the insect market is no different. The North American Edible Insect Coalition was started in 2013, followed by the AFFIA ASEAN Food and Feed Insects Association in August 2016; and South Korea, Reverberi said, recently regulated edible insects.
Another challenge arises in logistics costs. Online Japanese distributor of edible insects, Takeo, sells everything from canned tarantula and giant water scorpions to larvae mix and chocolate-covered superworms. It also sells Bugsolutely’s cricket pasta.
“In Tokyo, we have Takeo helping us test the market, although with small quantities,” Reverberi explained. “The transportation costs highly affect the final price.”
Finding large retailers in Japan means that Bugsolutely will be able to have a much cheaper retail price, as shipping costs will go down when they are able to ship in bulk.
He added: “The product is designed for Western countries, with a few exceptions, like Japan, where the food culture is open to innovation and where quality, nutrition, and sustainability have an audience.”
Although Exo has not yet made it to the Japanese market, Lewis revealed: “We actually do have a Japanese investor, which is Dentsu—one of the largest advertising firms—so we’re confident that, if we were to enter the Japanese market, we’d have a great plan.”
SAVE THE PLANET
Wider environmental benefits are a key driver for any green-conscious company looking at growing the entomophagy industry.
Exo’s Lewis expressed belief that alternative food sources are vital. “In our current world, which is so greatly affected by climate change and the effects of unsustainable products, it’s important to have alternative food sources to help effect change in the food system.”
Nakashima highlighted the environmental benefits of alternative food sources. Specifically, he said insects have “high feed conversion efficiency in comparison with vertebrates, and lower CO2 and methane gas production in comparison with conventional domestic animals.”
Large quantities of insects can be reared in limited space, and mass production requires less water.
At Bugsolutely, Reverberi highlighted the efforts of the French government, which has provided funding of €1 billion for alternative protein research. In Japan, however, no budget for research into alternative foods has been allocated. According to NARO’s Nakashima, this is because it is not yet considered a major industry in Japan.
That could change, though. “If farmers and consumers realize the need for alternative food production—and if the government decides to provide research funding—NARO will contribute to, and pursue, research on alternative food sources,” he added.
When asked why Japan is not investing in alternatives such as insects, Nakashima explained: “At present, the cost of large-scale production of insect powder is much higher than of fish powder. Therefore, the government and private industries do not see the need to invest in alternative food sources, as there is no crisis on hand. If the need for alternative food becomes inevitable, enough budget for research and development should be made available in the future.”
Reverberi mentioned the efforts of NARO, which in November 2016 hosted the international symposium, Perspective on the Utilization of Insects for Feed and Food in Tokyo. In addition, Bugsolutely is now part of a food acceleration program in China to develop the first insect-based packaged product for the Chinese consumer market.
“As soon as we can optimize both the farming and the processing of insects, the wholesale prices will be aligned with those of other meats and it will be easier for insects to become mainstream,” he explained.
Lewis suggested that, one day, insect consumption will “be dominating and hopefully be the main source of protein for most people.”
Reverberi echoed this, adding: “Eating insects is not just a duty, it is a pleasure. People do not know that they are yummy. Eating insects is a win-win solution.”
Elsewhere, companies are beginning to investigate the prospect of eating insects, and how to do so. Innovations such as The Hive from Hong Kong-based Livin farms—a contraption designed to grow protein-rich superfood mealworms—is one example of a growing interest in the industry.
While not an immediate solution to the world’s food problems, insects and algae are healthy alternatives that may be agreeable to more people over time. Ultimately, they have the potential to aid in food crises and help create a more sustainable food source for the planet’s growing population.
Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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