Insects as food and feed in Europe: the future of protein?
Eating insects may seem unusual to some, but with approximately two billion people already consuming them across the world (1), should we expect to see more insects on European supermarket shelves soon?
On top of being invaluable crop and plant pollinators, effective waste decomposers, and crucial ecosystem regulators (2), insects can form part of a healthy, sustainable, and affordable diet for both humans and animals.
In order for this to happen, however, working alongside consumers to ensure trust and acceptance must be a priority for innovators. The EIT Food Trust Report 2021 revealed that just 37% of European consumers would be open to adopting new foods, with variations across countries (3). In the UK, for example, a Food Standards Agency survey revealed that only half of consumers perceived insects as safe to eat and just 26% said they would be willing to try insects (4).
Are edible insects healthy?
Are edible insects sustainable?
Are edible insects affordable?
Examples of edible insect innovation in Europe.
Edible insects and health: a nutritious alternative to conventional meat?
Although the exact nutritional content of insects depends on their species, diet, and stage of life cycle, insects can provide high-quality protein and nutrients for humans and animals, comparable with that provided by meat and fish (1). They are also rich in fibre and micronutrients such as copper, iron and magnesium. However, risk of allergy from insects varies greatly depending on the species consumed (5), and this is made more complex by the fact that they are a novel food source in Europe, so little is understood about population susceptibility.
Edible insects and sustainability: a green source of protein?
Thanks to their high feed conversion efficiency, producing and consuming insects as food is considered extremely efficient (1). On average, insects can convert 2kg of feed into 1kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require approximately 8kg of feed to produce 1kg of body weight gain (1). Combined with factors such as required resources for farming and production arrangements, this means that greenhouse gas emissions by most insects is significantly lower than conventional livestock (1).
Insects also use significantly less land and water than conventional livestock and can be reared in controlled environments (1). Pigs, for example, can produce up to 100 times more greenhouse gases per kg of weight gained than mealworms (1). Feeding insects on biowaste, such as food waste and compost, can also contribute to the circular economy. Insects can transform this ‘waste’ into high-quality protein which goes back into the system as food and feed.
Edible insects and affordability: a solution to help increase food security?
For families or communities that are faced with food security challenges, insects can provide a cheap and nutritious source of protein. The consumption of insects is thought to form part of the solution to the worldwide food crisis (6) and the rearing of insects is already recognised as playing an important role in livelihoods, providing financial income and food security for people across the world (1). Insect harvesting and farming can also provide entrepreneurship opportunities in developed and developing economies (1), with novel food authorisation in Europe providing the potential for further opportunities for innovation in this area.
According to the FAO, a common misconception of insects as food is that they are only consumed in times of hunger, but in most instances where they are a staple in local diets, insects are consumed because of their taste, and not because there are no other food sources available. Some insect species, such as mopane caterpillars in southern Africa, are often sold in high-end restaurants as an expensive delicacy (1).
Examples of insect innovation in Europe
Essento; EIT Food RisingFoodStar Essento is a Switzerland-based startup creating protein-rich and sustainable insect food products. From insect snacks and protein bars to insect burgers, Essento is committed to diversifying the protein sector as well as raising public awareness and consumer trust for edible insects through cooking classes and events.
“Every day we encounter some of the core issues facing our food system. For us, it is about creating a sustainable and transparent food value chain, as well as providing delicious and healthy products to the consumers.”
Nasekomo: Bulgaria based RisingFoodStar Nasekomo is the largest manufacturer in Central and Eastern Europe of protein products - for the feed and agricultural sectors - from the industrial rearing of black soldier flies. The company’s portfolio includes highly digestible and functional insect protein suitable for marine and in-land species, insect protein for pet food, and nutritious and sustainable organic fertiliser as a replacement for chemical fertilisers.
Metamorphosis: This EIT Food project, led by research and development company Matis, set out to explore how insects could be used as healthy, sustainable aquaculture feeds instead of ingredients such as soy which typically have high carbon footprints. In the first year, the project team assessed the growth performance results with salmon and will continue to explore new formulations in order to scale insect feeds commercially.
Alternative proteins are estimated to make up 33% of global protein consumption by 2054, with insects accounting for approximately 11% of the alternative proteins market by the same year (8). Will you be part of the buzz? Sign up to join the EIT Food community here and keep up to date with the latest trends, challenges and solutions in protein diversification.
4. Food Standards Agency: A third of UK consumers are willing to try lab-grown meat and a quarter would try insects
6. FAO: Insects for food and feed