As the planet prepares to host 9 billion people by 2050, shortages of food and other resources remains a key concern for international groups.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently produced a report about edible insects, noting that to accommodate rapid population growth, current food production would likely need to double.
“Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option,” the report stated. “Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today—there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide—and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.”
Humans have been eating insects for a long time. “There are a billion people who eat bugs and insects across the world; it’s just us westerners who haven’t caught on to this as a food source,” said Kimberly Egan, CEO and principal of CCD Innovation (Center for Culinary Development), a food and beverage product development company that blends culinary creativity with strategic marketing expertise.
“Americans are consuming insects already, whether they realize it or not,” Ms. Egan added. FDA’s “Defect Levels Handbook” covers “natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans,” including an acceptable limit of insect infestation in certain food products.
For intentional/nutritional consumption, most edible insects are gathered from forests, according to the UN report, but many countries have started farming systems and are currently driving innovation. “Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries,” the report concluded.
While species selection, sourcing and quality control will need to be considered, Ms. Egan said the edible insect industry poses no special regulatory issues.
In the western world, key drivers behind the emerging and still very niche trend have been and will continue to be a sense of responsibility for the health of the environment and a sense of adventure.
“Millennials and Boomers are aligned on a lot of different eating trends” because of these two factors, Ms. Egan noted. “I think we are feeling more and more responsibility as a culture about our footprint on the planet and being better citizens. That’s one of the key drivers.”
Farming insects and removing pests from crops could result in reduced use of pesticides, Ms. Egan said, noting opportunities for “mutually beneficial” partnerships. “These things can be easily farmed in a fairly low-impact way,” she added.
So which bugs are in play? Industry should probably steer clear of those that consumers have romanticized, like ladybugs and butterflies, as well as those they dread, like cockroaches. “But the ones in between—crickets, locusts, beetles—would probably be fine.”
From a health standpoint, different varieties and species of insects present varying amounts of protein and nutritional profiles. For example, Ms. Egan noted, termites are typically 38% protein, but a Venezuelan species is 64%. Ants offer 14 grams of protein per 100 grams, as well as 48 grams of calcium.
Another market driver has been a fascination with and craving for unique food culture, which is helping to move the needle from taboo to exotic.
While still several years away from showing up in mainstream supermarkets, companies developing insect-based flours are at the head of innovation, creating application opportunities for snack bars and backing mixes for any number of products.
Other small restaurateurs (including Latin cuisines) have started to sell creative insect offerings, like chocolate-covered salted crickets, which has helped to expose people to the idea that it’s ok to eat bugs.
With so much focus on and demand for protein, the conversation about alternative sources has grown louder. “Plant-based protein is a very hot topic right now,” Ms. Egan said. “As a society we’re starting to see more ‘flexitarian’ (semi-vegetarianism) behavior. Why shouldn’t the next concentric circle out be protein and nutrition coming from insects? Ironically, I think the western world is behind the times when you think about it.”