Bugs offer a range of benefits when it comes to eating them – from nutritional to environmental – but over in the UK it’s been a struggle to bust the ‘ick’ factor that consumers feel.
Yet, nearly a third of Brits believe insects will be part of mainstream human diet by 2029, according to research from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, while a Streetbees survey last year found that 32% of people were open to trying bugs. The insects that were most likely to tempt were crickets (38%), grasshoppers (24%) and ants (18%), Streetbees revealed.
Even Barclays predicted the insect industry could be worth billions in just 10 years, via a move into meat replacements and manufacturing. That’s where Bug Farm Foods believes the potential lies to break down the barriers to insect consumption.
They were tasked by the Welsh Government and Innovate UK to find a way to harness the nutrients contained in insects and deliver them in a form that was acceptable to Western palettes
The result? An insect and plant protein product that is similar to mince meat, called Vexo, which took 50 recipes to perfect. It was developed by husband and wife team – chef Andy Holcroft and entomologist Dr Sarah Beynon.
No to insects on a stick
The duo have already dabbled on the snacking side of insects, with a range available through Selfridges that includes Mocha Chilli Crunch Cricket Cookies and Spiced Orange and Laverbread Buffalo Biscuits. But while these products perform particularly well in the gifting market, Dr Beynon wanted something that would work in kitchens across the country.
“We wanted to look at something more mainstream and to find something that makes a difference,” she tells Food Spark. “We want to get away from [the image of] a whole insect on a stick... because that's not the way it's going to take off. It's going to take off, if it's a more like a mainstream protein. If you suddenly had a photograph of a dried chicken on a stick and were trying to convince people to eat chicken, you know that people would think that that was ridiculous and you would get a huge outcry.”
The insects included in Vexo are currently top secret, but the duo have piloted the product as a bolognaise mince that was tested in schools. Vexo has 70 to 80% less saturated fat compared to its meat equivalent, but similar levels of protein.
“It was vital that we could develop a food that would provide growing children with key nutrients such as iron and iodine, while reducing saturated fat compared to alternatives,” says Dr Beynon. “The provenance and environmental footprint of each and every ingredient was equally as important to us as its nutritional composition and taste.
“You can use it in exactly the same way as you would any meat or vegetarian or vegan mean. There are so many options, right through from shepherd's pie to anything that you could make with a with a processed meat product.”
Winning over the kids
A two year research project canvassed almost 200 pupils in schools across Pembrokeshire and was followed by workshops with another 3,000 children across the UK. Before tasting Vexo, only 27% of participants said that they would choose it for school lunch, but after trying it 56% said they would opt in. When Vexo bolognaise was put on the school lunch menu at a secondary school, 60% of the pupils having hot lunches chose it, while 71% of students said it looked tastier than meat bolognaise.
Vexo will now appear on school menus in Pembrokeshire for theme days this term, while the duo work alongside Pembrokeshire County Council and individual schools to phase the product onto the main school lunchtime menus after Christmas. The couple are also working with other local authorities across the UK to get Vexo on school menus more widely.
But Vexo is only the start. They are developing retail ready take home products, with a goal to hit mainstream shops next year. They have the perfect test bed for any NPD as well as Holcroft runs a restaurant called Grub Kitchen, which serves up insect dishes, along with more mainstream options.
“I would say the most popular dish is the Grub Kitchen signature bug burger, it’s made with Vexo now, and there’s the GFC – the grub fried chicken, and that’s a local organic chicken which is coated with an insect-based coating, that’s a really easy way in for people to try insects,” she comments. “We have Vexo scotch eggs and now the Vexo bolognaise, which is becoming one of the more popular dishes... That then picks up the best products and the ones that we feel have got really got potential to take those further afield.”
Going beyond gimmicks
There is a taster plate of whole insects also offered at Grub Kitchen, although Dr Baynon stresses this is not meant to be a meal, but to give diners an idea about flavours and to deliver transparency about the ingredients going into the food.
“I think we need to be very careful that we don't purely go down the snack and gimmick products market, as it’s not the way for the whole industry to move forward., because something like that it's got quite short life,” she explains. “I feel personally that if we don't move on from that fairly quickly, we're going to be kind of holding the market back from actually making a difference in terms of developing a future source of protein that can actually help the environment and help nutrition.”
Dr Baynon believes a product like Vexo is the future the edible insects industry.
“When you've got a product that contains similar amounts of protein to beef you want to be harnessing that and all the other new trends that are contained within insects as well,” she explains. “So I think that it needs to be mainstream, savoury, healthy products. Because otherwise I think we'd be doing insects a disservice, if we're just using them as additives in other food. Instead it needs to be a very serious inclusion in people's diet.”