Bugging Out Over Insect Proteins

Locusts, ants and mealworms are just a few of the insects increasingly being mentioned as alternatives to traditional proteins. Dr. Kantha Shelke reports how the ethical, sustainable, and health credentials of insects may now outweigh the “ick” factor.
Kantha Shelke
January 2019

Humans have consumed insects for millennia. It is believed that two billion people—almost one-third of the world population—eat insects regularly. From scrambled ant eggs, called escamoles in Mexico, to deep-fried locusts in Thailand, hachinoko—bee larva—in Japan, and fried tarantula in Cambodia, insects are a delicacy for many.

In the US and Europe, an insect-derived ingredient, called Carmine, has been a part of our supply chain for centuries. Manufacturers have been coloring candies, ice cream, maraschino cherries, Campari, beverages, yogurt, cosmetics, and textiles with this extract of an insect that lives on cactus plants.

The global demand for protein is expected to grow 80% by 2050. Americans consume at least half a pound of meat per day, and insects are a viable solution to rising demand for protein. Locusts and grasshoppers have protein levels similar to that of raw beef and startups are offering major manufacturers a risk-managed exploration with insect-based snacks and foods.

Insects are now worming their way into our packaged food supply chain as a viable nutrition source. Progressive manufacturers see insect foods as a way to establish a strong environmental image.

While Westerners struggle with the ‘ick factor” of consuming insects, the strong ethical, sustainable, and health credentials of insects are converting many to reconsider it a ‘treat’ and a “must have” in their diets.

Their nutritional profiles match that of meat, they require significantly less water and feed to raise, and produce little to no greenhouse gases. That insects need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein is changing attitudes towards insects as a sustainable foodstuff we cannot afford to ignore.

Health and environmental benefits can persuade people “willing to try new things” but acceptance only comes when the food tastes good and easily integrated into diets. Insects are cleverly being integrated into familiar staples such as burgers, nuggets, meatballs, taco filling, pasta sauce, and anything made from flour. Snack bars and sports nutrition sectors have been first-movers because of the high-quality protein. Edible insects are also rich in vitamins and amino acids, healthy fats such as omega-3s, and minerals such as calcium, iron, selenium and zinc.

Insect-based foods are currently relying on e-commerce to reach the homes of willing consumers. Through direct-to-consumer sales, manufacturers are checking with people to refine taste and confirm proofs of concept.

The FDA and the USDA have no rules or regulations for insect foods or guidance. Insect proteins are subject to regulation just as any other food ingredient. Insects are considered food if that is the intended use and like all foods must be clean and free from filth, pathogens, and toxins. They must have been produced, packaged, and stored and transported under sanitary conditions, and must be properly labeled. The label must include the scientific name of the insect in the ingredient list.

Insects may be an allergen for those allergic to shellfish. The recommended industry practice is to include an Allergy Warning.

The younger generations are already overcoming social aversion and consuming with gusto pasta that is made from cricket flour, burgers, meatballs and pasta sauces made with mealworms or beetle larvae. These are all made in HACCP certified, FDA registered manufacturers following GMP certified processes and rapidly moving the industry from sensationalism to everyday food solutions.

Insects as food may be a few years away, but with the alternate protein trend exploding, the future for insect proteins as non-dairy protein alternatives may be closer than we think.

For PLMA Live!, I am Dr. Kantha Shelke.

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