Last month, Sainsbury’s introduced roasted crickets from brand Eat Grub into 250 stores, becoming the first major UK retailer to introduce barbecued bugs onto British shelves. Not far behind, Selfridges is planning a pop-up Bug Bar in February to sell a range of products, including cricket flour, while introducing shoppers to new recipes. So are insects finally going mainstream?
It's an argument that's gone back and forth for many years, as Food Spark noted this time last year, when Deliveroo trialled insects (also with Eat Grub). The difference now, however, is the growing number of companies and institutions who have invested money into how to industrialise these invertebrates.
The global edible insect market is set to exceed $520m (£406m) by 2023, according to Global Market Insights. Europe’s edible insect market share, led by UK, Belgium, France and Netherlands, may see sales of more than $46 ((£36) million by 2023.
Some of the appeal of bugs lies in their credentials as a healthy and sustainable food source, where they are described as a “climate and resource efficient food production system” by Dr Anne Louise Dannesboe Nielsen from the Danish Technological Institute.
“Insects use much less water than traditional livestock, have a much better feed conversion rate, a low production area as can you actually stack them, so there can be a warehouse with boxes of insects that can be attended to through robots, unlike cows which would be difficult, and low greenhouse gas emissions,” she explained at Food Matters Live.
Naturally low in calories and suitable for gluten- and dairy-free diets, insects are also exceptionally high in protein. Gram for gram, dried crickets contain more protein than beef, chicken and pork.
The Danish Institute is working on commercialising insects and has already created a number of products like mint and chilli chocolates with cricket powder and snack bars with bugs.
Beyond bug snacking
But Dr Nielsen said there are still a number of barriers before consumers will be regularly picking up bug-based products.
“The main challenges are upscaling to industrial levels – we need to know more about the insect biology, and we are working on that now to optimise the life cycle to get the most product with the minimum requirement for feed and heating,” she commented. “There is also automation and a lot of companies are working on it, development of species specific feed, legal barriers and consumer acceptance.”
The Institute is also investigating different types of insects and have identified three species each for beetles and crickets/locusts that could be eaten by humans and have also looked at the black soldier fly, which right now is mainly used for feed but also has protein powder potential, although its taste is problematic.
Another hurdle Dr Nielsen has identified is that most of the products that use insects are snacks, such as whole roasted bugs, energy bars and confectionery, while some brands have dabbled in areas like granola, pasta, crackers and bread.
“We are not going to save the world or meet protein needs with snacks, so we really need to make more meal-like products,” she said. “From a future perspective in product development, we are trying to move away from snacks to products, like plant-based products where we mix in insects to give the umami taste or mix the insects with meat products to give it another source of protein.”
The Institute has even been working on dishes like mealworm nuggets, and Dr Nielsen believes more exotic species could be introduced once there is wider general acceptance. She said currently the consumers who are likely to eat insects are those interested in sustainability and the environment, but who also want something produced locally, that has a story and is healthy.
Some of these consumers are also parents who want to pass on good habits to their children, so it could be a matter of generational acceptance in the future, added Dr Nielsen.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said at least 2bn people around the world regularly consume more than 1,000 insect species. However, 2% of edible insects occur naturally in Europe in comparison to the larger variety available in Asia, Africa and South America.
Meanwhile, Dutch researcher Jonas House argues that it’s not the 'yuck factor' that is holding back insects in the West, but the lack of culinary identity and authenticity.
“If you then hide insects in food like hamburgers, it simply becomes yet another alternative for beef. They’re not distinctive enough in terms of taste or appearance. The insect products available... have little exceptional taste or appearance, which means that it lacks a trendy image or status as a delicacy; they simply don’t have the wow factor. They lack an authentic cuisine,” said the sociologist from Wageningen University & Research.
Simply being available in supermarkets might lend them the label of being edible, but that doesn’t automatically mean that people will start eating it regularly, he said.
“To try and make something new like edible insects acceptable, you need to focus on their preparation, on the culinary element. Food is essentially about how tasty it is, so the flavour and appearance needs to be good,” he commented.
House, who looked into the introduction and acceptance of sushi in the US back in the 1970s, said the industry can learn from sushi’s story.
“Sushi was popularised because of cultural history, but the practices involved in making it are very distinct and singular. A sushi restaurant serves only sushi, and it has chefs that prepare the dishes in special ways, whereas insects thus far have been added to Western-style familiar foods,” he told Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator.
Manufacturers need to think about traditional cuisines that use insects to give it authenticity and to draw inspiration from them, like Mexico and Thailand, he added.