Insects as a sustainable food protein source

In 2013 the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization stressed that a new approach to food production was crucial if we are to avoid future shortages. Their suggestion was edible insects. It is their sustainability credentials that has lead the UN to highlight insects as the potential future of food, requiring minimal resources to farm and producing substantially less waste than conventional livestock. “A protein shortage is expected in 2050, and we need to find alternative protein sources,” said Catriona Lakemond, associate professor Food Quality and Design Group, Wageningen University.


Around 2 billion people around the world already consume insects as part of their regular diet due to their high nutritional value, versatility and flavor. “In Zimbabwe, over 80% of the population eats insects,” said Lakemond. “Why? Because they like the taste and the nutritional properties.” Insects are a sustainable source of nutrition. “The protein content of the yellow mealworm is comparable to meat and fish.” Eric Michels, Project lead Insects, Vivara/CJ Wildbird Foods ltd. Agrees: “In addition, insects are ver efficient, with 10kg of feed, we can produce 9kg of locusts, compared to 1 kg of beef. Insects produce less waste, less manure and less greenhouse gas.”


Despite the obvious benefits, the western society is yet to adopt the practice on a large scale, but this may be set to change in the next few years. “We already eat a lot of insects, without knowing it,” said Lakemond. “It is estimated that we eat 500 grams of insects per year per person.” There is even a limit set for the amount of insects in our food today. For examples, the FDA’s action level for peanut butter is 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams. “Another example is the pink color used for the ‘pink cookies’, famous in The Netherlands. This color is extracted from lice,” said Lakemond.


“Insects is going to happen, and it is going to be big,” said Michels. Processed edible insect foods are growing daily in number, there are many products available to consumers, it may just be a matter of time before they become an obvious choice. “The demand in pet food is bigger than the supply at the moment,” Michels continuous. Many edible insect companies focus on protein, protein bars and drinks, and protein powder products.



“But we also need to build out knowledge on insect proteins,” said Lakemond. “The protein functionality is different between insect species, and different extraction methods result in different protein levels.” Michels agrees: “We need to identify what waste streams are suitable for insects.” Growing insects is sustainable, and a new law is coming up that will put insects on the market.


“The limiting factors for the application of insects in food, in a food technology perspective is that we don’t have specific knowledge on fractionation methods for insect proteins, or that we have extensive knowledge on the specific functional properties and composition fof the fractionated proteins,” said Lakemond. “It is important to identify how insect proteins can be new protein source.” Michels adds: “It is of utmost importance to scale up, automate and climatize the insect breeding facilieties to be able produce large volumes of constant and known quality for the lowest available cost price.”


The yuk factor

Naturally the other biggest challenge is changing the attitudes of the consumer. “We have to persuade consumers to overcome the ‘yuck factor’. “Insects are new on the market and some people might not eat it. It will take some time to increase consumer acceptance,” said Lakemond. Insects can be eaten either as a whole, or as a conventional product, such as an insect burger. “Put insects next to shrimp, something that most of us already eat. It doesn’t look that gross now does it?”

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