Insects are the food of the future. Over 2 billion people already eat them daily. Insects have a kick-ass nutritional value, are ecologically and ethically sustainable, and have even provided promising early results for nutrition in space.
Insects offer great opportunities for food tech companies. There is a whole market up for grabs.
So why are insects not part of everybody’s diet? There are two intertwined reasons: culture and legislation.
There was an event on 11th of February in Helsinki, Finland, where people could try insect food. It was organized by Antroblogi, an anthropological online publication. Whilst tasting the insects there were discussions by a chef, a startup entrepreneur, and anthropologists.
Topi Kairenius has been eating bugs actively for 5 years. He has held a lot of bug tasting events in Europe and has noticed that people are very open to eating insects, even though there is no cultural history for eating insects and they are psychologically difficult to be seen as food.
Kairenius thinks that the main insect food product is going to be insect flour. That product is already quite readily available and can be mixed with regular flour to add structure, taste, and nutrition to anything: be it pizza dough, buns or whatever you like to bake or eat without baking. Kairenius predicts that eating whole insects will remain a gastronomic speciality practiced mostly in restaurants.
Insects are superfood. They have calcium, zinc, iron, protein, good fats, and vitamin B, which is often difficult for vegetarians to get. They are also way more ethical to produce than meat – we have all seen cows having panic attacks when crammed in small spaces, but insects do that themselves. Insects might also play a crucial part in saving our planet, as the conversion ratio for feeding them and delivering the end product is on another level from meat.
“Insects are all in all superior food,” Kairenius noted.
Event host Ninnu Koskenalho brought up some interesting statistics. We eat a lot of insects already. The amount can be as high as 1 kilogram per year. They are in our flour, fruit, vegetables, and beer, just to name a few. Even much used bright-red pigment carmine, also known with the name E120, is made from scale insects.
Historically, eating insects was much more “normal” in the world before the European colonization began. When Europeans invaded and took over lands overseas, they brought their own customs. Eating bugs was considered brutal and filthy, so that tradition was discontinued.
In Europe today, what is really holding the bug eating business back is a legislation called Novel Food Act. It states that all foods that are not traditionally eaten in the European Union area must go through a testing process. This creates a bottleneck, as no company wants to go through the process, as it would be time-consuming and expensive and it would open the market for everyone else.
Perttu Karjalainen, CEO of Entocube, is battling with this issue. His company is building cricket farms into old shipping containers. Entocube can’t sell their crickets to consumers directly, so they have deviced an ingenious solution: Sirkkapurkki (Cricket Can). The product is a can containing all ingredient of a healthy cricket granola meal, a.k.a “Hipster muesli”, but the product is meant to be used as a kitchen decoration and as a tool to prepare consumers for the upcoming insects as food revolution.
Entocube started with with a question: “How to make food in Mars?” Insects proved to be the most interesting lead. The idea has been tested, too. Chinese space team survived 105 days on worm diet in a self-contained laboratory in Beijing.
Insects are a great food for space travel, as it is possible to utilize them in circular economy. Insects are often detritivores, meaning they obtain nutrients by consuming decomposing plant and animal parts, and, even better (albeit, a bit gross), feces. In other words, they can eat something we consider waste, and store it is good fats and protein.
There is no ecosystem in Mars and insects could prove a solution for that. There is an ecosystem on Earth, which we are on our way destroying. Interestingly, insects could also provide a solution for this problem.
Last year, the Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 8. This means we are using roughly resources of 1.6 planet Earths – yet we have only one. “We should fix this planet first, then the next one,” Karjalainen said.
The production and consumption of insects ought to climb into higher numbers. According to Karjalainen, there are two things holding back this development: 1) insects are too expensive. This is, of course, a problem of scale. That’s why we need more companies working in the industry. 2) There needs to be product categories that consumers can use daily. This relates to the first problem, as consumers are very price-oriented. But it’s not all about price. Consumers want something simple, like minced meat, that is easy to prepare into food.
Therefore, the insect as food industry needs companies in production, marketing, productization, to name a few key areas.
Meat production has become sort of a problem. Meat is too cheap and we consume it too much, because it is too cheap. Governments give sizable incentives to meat production, but the farmers’ livelihood is still not great. Another Finnish insect company Finsect is currently piloting insect farming with “normal” pig farmers in Finland. Insects could provide new, better livelihood for farmers.
Katja Uusihakala and Matti Eräsaari spoke about their new book, which deals with anthropology of food. Uusihakala mentioned a funny incident of how culture affects the way we perceive how food should be consumed. She had been in a buffet on a cruise ship. There was a Japanese couple, who had filled a plate with beans in tomato sauce and then topped it with strawberry jam. This seemed out of place for her, but it seemed perfectly normal for the couple. Then she looked into other tables with people from different cultures. Some had mixed salmon, strawberry yoghurt, and muesli, some others pancake, lettuce, and bacon.
Culture affects how we perceive food. We should create global culture that is positive towards consumption of insects. That is one piece in the puzzle of saving our planet. Best thing for food tech companies is, that there is huge business potential in bugs.
In Slush Tokyo, XXX will be giving a presentation / participating in a panel discussion on insects!
Some ideas for the themes in e.g. panel discussion:
- respect for ingredients. This could fit the Japanese mindset well, as in e.g. preparing sushi the tiniest details are taken into consideration
- urban food production (e.g. cricket farms on top of all skyscrapers)
- Is there a fusion kitchen scene in Japan with insects in it?