Bugs could be a billion-dollar industry for food in the near future, winging in on the popularity of protein.
A Barclays report found the insect protein market could be worth up to $8bn by 2030. Insects offer a middle ground for consumers wanting to make their diets more sustainable without going entirely plant-based, as well as capitalising on new eating trends such as paleo and ketogenic diets, according to the report.
In the UK, protein consumption has increased over the past two years, Kantar data shows, but the proportion coming from pork, bacon and sausages is falling as consumers become more conscious of the environmental impact of eating meat.
“Similar to what we have seen with other food trends such as plant-based meats and dairy alternatives, we see small brands disrupting the current landscape and acting as a catalyst for change within the mainstream food industry,” commented Emily Morrison, Barclays analyst.
“Paradoxically, for new trends to move into mainstream adoption, we believe small brands require the scale and marketing power of the big food companies. We saw this within plant-based, with the big food companies acquiring smaller brands, investing in them and⁄or subsequently developing their own offerings and see the same pathway for insect protein.”
Are bug burgers the answer?
The pioneers in terms of eating insects have come from the nutrition and snack categories – for example, Exo’s protein bars in the US and Eat Grub’s cricket snacks in the UK.
“We see the next stage of innovation coming from meat replacement products, utilising textured insect protein or insect powders to create products such as mince alternatives and burgers,” explained Morrison. “We think novelty and snack items will help insects move into the consumer’s sphere of acceptance but believe meat replacements will help with everyday adoption into daily recipes.”
Eat Grub is looking to move into everyday formats with textured insect protein as well as exploring the possibility of opening an insect restaurant in the next five years, while UK supplier Crunchy Critters predicts chilled products will get an injection of insects.
Among food manufacturers, Nestle appeared to be the most open to investing in insects, found Barclays, although agri-tech company Protifarm sells soluble insect protein and oil that can be used in shakes or bakery items and is looking to launch into the UK in the next 12-18 months.
As part of Nestle’s R&D activities, the food giant is looking into various alternative protein sources, including different insect species. “We are assessing them from several angles, including nutrition, taste, techno-functionality, sustainability or consumer acceptance, and we are in contact with a number of innovation partners,” it told Barclays.
Alongside the high protein content, insects are also rich in fibre, vitamin B12, omega-3 and omega-6, contain all essential amino acids and are an important source of minerals such as iron, the Barclays report added. One research project is even investigating the potential benefits eating insects could bring to gut health due to its high fibre levels.
“This is important given that health-conscious consumers do not only care about protein, but also care about vitamins, fibre and omega-3 fatty acids,” added Morrison.
Creating a buzz
But notable hurdles for the market include high pricing, inconsistent regulation, a lack of consumer awareness and overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor.
The price of dried cricket powder has fallen significantly over the past two years, according to Samuli Taskila, CEO of Finnish insect snack manufacturer Entis, who predicts insect protein will be a comparable price to veggie protein in the next five years. The Asian supply chain still offers cheaper options than farms in Europe and the US, but automation and the introduction of robots is expected to make the West more competitive, Barclays found.
A recent study from the University of Leeds and University of Veracruz in Mexico also warned more development is needed in terms of large-scale insect farming, moving from wild harvesting to indoor operations to ensure a bottleneck isn’t created when demand ramps up.
But even before the farm, there’s the need to overcome the 'ick' factor to create a colony around bugs, said the university researchers.
“Eating behaviour is shaped largely during early childhood and in Western countries – eating insects, especially in whole and recognisable forms, remains something seen mostly on TV shows,” said study author Dr Alan-Javier Hernández-Álvarez from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds.
“In some European countries consumers, particularly young adults, have shown interest in new food products that use insects in unrecognisable form, such as flour or powder used in cookies or energy drinks. Developing efficient large-scale processing technologies that can develop insects powders could go a long way to helping introduce insects as a common source of protein and nutrients.”
But insects could also pollinate manufacturing in different ways, the researchers noted, like the ingredient chitin, which is extracted from certain insect exoskeletons and has the potential for use in food preservation.
Meanwhile, Barclays predicts that it will be Gen Z, rather than millennials, that will be the driving force behind insect acceptable as they are most health-aware and environmentally conscious.
Regulation may still prove a sting in the tail. The EU is currently considering which insects will be included in its list of authorised ‘novel foods,’ with a decision expected by the end of 2019.