Developing insect protein products that overcome the “yuck factor” with consumers is among the steps the food and beverage industry can take to increase sustainability and resilience, according to Keren Kles, PhD, chief technology officer at Yeap, who offered a prerecorded session on the topic, then participated in a Scientific & Technical Forum at IFT FIRST on Tuesday that examined a variety of those steps using novel technologies.
The development of insect protein will help address the facts that the population of the planet is growing and that livestock impacts the environment by taking up agricultural land and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, Kles said. “In addition to that, people are looking to consume less meat due to health reasons,” she said. “Oceans are also being overfished.”
Insect protein provides an alternative source, with more than 1,900 species already consumed by about 2 billion people around the world, according to the United Nations, Kles said. “Insects are highly nutritious and healthy food sources,” she said. “They have high fat content, high protein content, [and] high vitamin, fiber, and mineral content. … Insects have always been part of the human diet.”
While producing insects in an industrialized fashion will take time to become economically efficient, it’s developing quickly, uses very small amounts of land and water, and eventually will lead to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, Kles said. Over time, crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms, and termites have been the most commonly eaten, but that’s mainly because they’ve been the easiest to find and catch.
“Catching them in nature is not going to be efficient if we want to produce a consistent, low-priced product, and traditional breeding is not going to be efficient either,” she said. “We actually need to think, what is the best insect to grow on an industrial scale?”
Other key qualities for the target insects should be high protein content, lower fat content (or at least high-quality fats), durability in small spaces, and flexibility in what they eat. “Can we feed it a lot of cheap substrates, or is it very picky and only eats one thing?” she added.
Insects that do not have a larval stage would be more challenging to market to the uninitiated because they have organs, antennae, and legs, leading to “what we call the ‘yuck’ factor,” Kles said. “Growing the larvae stage makes more sense because it’s a more consistent product. ... When you mill it, or when you grind it, it gives you a more consistent protein powder.”
Unlike other life stages, larvae also do not fly around and potentially end up spreading diseases to one another, collapsing the colony, Kles said. But they still need to be processed, including a kill step to eliminate their microbiota, and also to separate out fat content, and ideally grind them into a powder. “How do we convince people to eat insects? One solution is using powder versions,” she said. “Another possibility is, start them young. Kids are not as susceptible to previous notions.” And then, there’s using insects as feed.
During the Scientific & Technical Forum, Kles underscored the fact that the regulatory piece will be another challenge to scaling up insect production. “Insects are diverse,” she said. “Each one will require a different application. That will be a long and difficult process.”
Fellow panelist Colleen Cottrell, senior scientist, food discovery and design at Motif FoodWorks said she sees co-manufacturing constraints as another hurdle for the industry. “You’re starting to see food tech companies bring manufacturing in-house. That’s what we ended up doing,” she said. “The minimum volume [to make this viable] is difficult to meet until you know whether you have traction.”
Session cohost Larry Keener, president at International Product Safety Consultants, said he thought the session went well, with “very knowledgeable panelists” who gave “cogent answers” to questions from the cohosts and the audience.
“We need to bring science to bear to solve that [climate] problem and give us the ability to manage rapid population growth between now and 2050, when there will be 10 billion of us who need safe food and clean water,” he said. “These technologies are part of the solution.”
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