The potential of insects as a mainstream UK food has been discussed more than a few times over the last few years.
The stats are pretty revealing, with the global edible insect market 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 $46m (£36m) by 2023.
Indeed, 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 in 2018 found that 32% of people were open to trying bugs.
While the ‘yuck’ factor is still a huge hurdle for consumers, a recent study conducted at Ghent University in Belgium found that a taste panel was unable to tell the difference between baked goods made with butter from those made with insect fat.
So, could a positioning of insects as a taste-friendly, sustainable, low-cost, healthy alternative to traditional dairy-based butter be a viable route into the mainstream?
In the aforementioned study, the researchers used fat from black soldier fly larvae in waffles, cookies and cake.
They baked three types of each version – one with only butter, one with a quarter of the butter replaced by insect fat, and one where half of the butter was replaced – with the trio then presented to the blind taste panel to see if they could taste the difference.
Remarkably, the taste panel failed to notice that a quarter of the butter was actually insect fat in the cake. And they failed to notice the insect fat when half of the butter had been replaced in the waffle. It was also said that the texture and colour were hardly affected by the switch.
But what would be the benefits of switching out butter for insect fat?
“Insect fat contains lauric acid, which provides positive nutritional attributes since it is more digestible than butter,” said researcher Daylan Tzompa-Sosa.
“Moreover, lauric acid has an antibacterial, antimicrobial and antimycotic effect. This means that it is able, for example, to eliminate harmless various viruses, bacteria or even fungi in the body, allowing it to have a positive effect on health.”
Two bugs with one stone
Health, it seems, is a problematic area in terms of perceptions with butter alternatives, with food development expert Jonny Bingham explaining that fats - for once – have won over consumers.
“Although replacements were originally sold as being healthier, there has been a clear marketing campaign showing why butter is generally better due to the trans-fat,” Bingham tells Food Spark.
“This has left consumers with a feeling that they have been somewhat lied to, making it difficult to recover interest in products that are genuinely good.”
Bingham does, however, think that using insect fat is “an interesting idea”, not only in terms of potential butter replacements, but also to improve high protein insect-based products.
“Insects actually have a high fat content, which tends to get in the way if, for example, you’re trying to make a high protein product with them. The fat makes it difficult because the labelling requirement is based on total calories.
“Separating it out is a fairly simple process. And you are left with potentially two valuable products rather than one, and your main commodity (the powder) has improved potential because of it.
“Depending on the insect that you use it is going to be quite a healthy fat too as there is quite a high level of polyunsaturates in there.”
We could make an insect product that is saleable tomorrow. It is entirely possible to turn that around very quickly, but the problem is that the vast majority of producers are focused on niche products that are legitimately worse than standard competitors which lack the neophobia that insects cause.
Ultimately, it's a dream that is stuck in limbo. Retailers can't move on it because of the uncertain legality, producers can't develop without retailer acceptance and nobody is willing to push forward with the costly legality side of it without some defined reward.
People are still trying though, but this vicious circle is making for very slow progress.