Bitten by the bug: the next novel super food?

When I think of the word ‘super food’, products like avocados, kale, and broccoli are ones that come to mind. I never thought I’d find bugs being considered a super food, probably because when I see an insect, my first instinct is not to eat it.

But that is not really the way others are thinking, considering that edible insects might be the next industry trend in the food and beverage market. Working at Polestar where we cover the Food and Leisure industry and trends, this is a market definitely worth mentioning.

The Market

The edible insect market made recent news with the European Union Food Safety Authority (EFSA) allowing approval this year-specifically dried yellow mealworm. This is the first insect approval under the new EU Novel Foods Regulation, which was passed in January 2018. The approval was backed by scientific evidence published by EFSA, which concluded the levels and uses proposed by Micronutris. 

Edible insects are consumed by 2 billion people worldwide, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and is promoted by the UN to help curb pollution and boost nutrition. However, “consumer disgust” is what is stopping the Western world from adopting this source of food into their diet. 

But, we may see that reverse sooner than we think.

By 2027, the edible insect market is projected to reach $4.63bn (£3.36bn). From the recent approval, European countries are now investing in these products. There are over twenty pending applications submitted for the authorisation of insects as a novel food, such as house crickets  black soldier flies, locusts, and more. locust). Since there is already a market for insect consumption in developing countries already, there could be a potential for a huge global investment opportunity. As more and more insect types are approved, we’re only going to see the market grow. 

The major players in the global insect market are Protifarm in the Netherlands, Micronutris in France, Essento in Switzerland and Entogourmet in Spain. Ÿnsect, a French mealworm company, completed $372 million in funding to build the world’s largest insect farm.

Smaller players and start ups include Exo cricket protein bars inNew York, Jimini’s in France, Bugsolutely in Bangkok, and Insnack in Berlin. A new meal kit service for edible insects called Bug crowdfunded £300,000 to help get the business off the ground in the UK. Sainsbury’s back in 2018 was the first major UK grocery retailer to stock edible insect products- specifically crickets- on its shelves.

Why do we need an edible insect market?

The popularity of the insect market is based on two reasons: food insecurity and the climate crisis.

For food insecurity, an insect diet can provide an important nutritious diet to developing countries. While in the UK we have a decently nutritious diet, African countries may not. Many African countries are rapidly scaling up production of insects to feed both humans and animals. Mealworms provide the same protein, vitamins and minerals as fish or meat, while grasshoppers have the same protein content as lean ground beef but less fat per gram.

In terms of the climate crisis, an insect diet helps in both waste production and greenhouse gas emissions. The scale of insect farming could be tremendous. Insects grow at a faster rate than traditional live stock produce thousands of offspring. 

Insect cultivation uses a fraction of land, energy, and water required for traditional farming. And because we eat the whole insect, there is less waste compared to traditional livestock, where a lot of the meat is wasted. Insects can also live off the food and biomass that would usually be thrown away, such as stems and stalks from plants that people don’t eat. And to finish the waste cycle, their excrement can be used as fertiliser for crops.

Agriculture, specifically livestock, is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock produces 14.5% of global emissions, according to the FAO. Crickets produce up to 80% less methane than cows and 8-12 times less ammonia than pigs. Because insects are cold blooded and waste less energy maintaining body heat, insects also require less feed than traditional livestock. For example crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and two times less than pigs, according to the FAO. 

Given all of these benefits that can solve a lot of the world’s problem, only 10% of people would be willing to consume insects, according to a survey by the European Consumer Organisation. Is this a missed opportunity?

Will the UK follow the trend?

In the UK specifically, Brexit has left the market a little uncertain. A 1997 law previously said that any food that had not been eaten before that year should be authorised as “novel foods” in the EU, but countries such as the U.K. decided this law didn’t refer to animals used for food and therefore, they could sell those products (which included insects). This allowed insects to be legally farmed and processed for human consumption. 

After Brexit, while the novel food regulation has been kept under UK law, transitional measures have not, leaving insect producers in a legal mess. Many producers are upset, citing that ‘novel foods’ require “tests and laboratory analysis and tens of thousands of pounds to prove that products that have been on the market for many years are safe ,” as compared to ‘traditional food’. Getting legal authorisation costs between £70,000 and £85,000. There are already 26 edible insect businesses in the UK, from farms to restaurants, product manufacturers and retailers, but most of these are SME’s so legal battles will be a hurdle for them.

Final thoughts

While the legal battle might pose a problem in the UK market, this should be no reason to let this new concept go under the rug. While I personally will need a lot of time to get used to eating bugs, others won’t, and this market will grow a lot in the UK, Europe, and internationally.

Who knows we may be looking to raise funding for an insect vertical super farm in the future, which would make an interesting addition to our usual farming clients!

With their minimal environmental footprint and excellent nutritional profile, insects are seen as a more sustainable form of protein than conventional meat and fish.

By Anusheh Khan on 30/06/2021