Exploring the Brave New World of Insect-Based Ingredients
Are insect-based ingredients the next hot alternative protein source? If the standing-room-only crowd at the Monday morning session on insects as ingredients in human food is any indication, it appears that the answer is yes.
Billions of pounds of insects have been produced for the pet food and animal food industries, but the use of insect-based ingredients in present-day food for humans is an emerging area (although plenty of our evolutionary ancestors included insects in their diets). Presenters at Monday’s session considered the opportunities in this area and also explored some of the reasons for product developers to proceed cautiously when working with the insect-based ingredients.
Presenter Aaron Dossey, owner of All Things Bugs, is a believer in the power of edible insects to help feed the world’s fast-growing population. “Demand for protein is exploding,” he said, and traditional animal protein sources are costly and not sustainable.
“Insects are good for the earth,” Dossey said, noting that farming crickets and mealworms requires little to no water. Insects also offer great biodiversity. There are millions of species, and more than 2,000 of them already are regularly consumed around the world. In addition to being high in protein and good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, insects are free of GMOs, Dossey added.
All Things Bugs uses a proprietary technology to produce cricket powder with particle size of less than 100 microns; the powder has a mild aroma and contains no detectable bug parts. The company has explored product applications with pasta, protein bars, tortillas, and a variety of other products.
Also speaking during the session, chef Michael McGreal, head of the Culinary Arts Dept. at Joliet Junior College, said he sees great potential in getting kids to embrace foods formulated with insect-based ingredients. McGreal, a participant in Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, said he has formulated products including Italian sausage, bratwurst, and fruit leathers with insect-based ingredients and has found that students are very receptive to them.
Food costs are the No. 1 challenge in the foodservice industry, and formulating with insect ingredients may deliver cost-reduction benefits, thus opening the door to a more open-minded perspective on alternative protein sources, McGreal predicted.
George Ziobro of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition spoke on regulatory issues and concerns relating to insect-based ingredients. Ziobro said that FDA has been receiving inquiries about insects as a food source for decades. “There’s been interest in entomophagy for over 40 years,” he said.
“The vast majority of people do not want to see their breakfast walking off their plate,” Ziobro noted. But he added that humans “routinely consume products with insects,” citing examples such as honey, cochineal dye (carmine), and royal jelly.
“Before you commercialize an insect for food, you need to take into consideration if there any reports of this insect causing harm to humans,” Ziobro said. “Insects can be vectors for disease. So with the processing of insects, there is the necessity of a kill step that destroys any possible pathogens.”
Because there are concerns about insects as allergens, Ziobro said that it might be a good idea to put an allergen warming label on products formulated with insect-based ingredients and also to include the insect’s common name and scientific name on the product label.
Presenter Phil Johnson of the University of Nebraska’s food allergy research program expanded on the topic of insects and allergenicity. There is limited research at this point on insects as allergens, Johnson said. However, there is evidence to show that many of those who are allergic to shellfish also have allergic reactions to insects. For this reason, he said that although labeling of insect ingredients as allergens is not currently required, it would be prudent to include a voluntary statement on products formulated with insect-based ingredients indicating risk to those with shellfish allergies.