"Don't worry. Bugs are just extra protein." Chances are if you grew up in the United States, your mom or dad said this to you more than once when you complained about an insect contaminating your food or flying into your mouth.
And while Americans have an aversion to munching on a little exoskeleton, lots of people across the world do it on a daily basis. Even celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Angelina Jolie devour insects on a daily basis and teach their kids to do the same.
Insects are a sustainable healthy alternative to resource-intensive staples like beef, poultry, and fish. For a long time, The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization has advocated for their inclusion in a regular diet. Yet, the product is still not widely used in the US, even with an established demand for meat substitutes.
Fortune Business projects that sales of insect proteins will increase from $189.32 million in 2022 to $856.08 million by 2029, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24.1% throughout this forecast period. The United States market was the largest in North America for insect protein in 2020 and will expectedly maintain its lead until 2027.
Though it has a sizable end-user market, insect protein consumption in the United States is mostly for livestock feed.
Emphasizing the benefits of insect protein, Brian Chau, a food scientist who runs his own consulting firm, Chau Time, says that the nutritional benefits of entomophagy - eating bugs - are that they are complete sources of protein. Eating the whole insect results in 100% of the protein consumed to meet the complete amino acid count humans need compared to most plants, like pea protein, which requires a blend of other plant proteins to be a complete protein source.
Compared to meat products, Chau says insects have more protein per pound and contribute some calcium from their exoskeleton. He adds some insects are rich in vitamins and trace minerals like copper, selenium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc.
"Their environmental benefits," Chau says, "include reduction of carbon footprint for protein consumption." According to a study by researchers at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, insects can reduce methane emissions by as much as 80% compared to cows.
Early Start Up In The Industry
All Things Bugs, founded by Dr. Aaron T. Dossey, is a pioneer in this industry, founded in 2011. The startup creates environmentally friendly, sustainable technology using insects to increase food security and health. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation first provided funding to the business in 2012 to assist in the production of therapeutic food (RUTF) for malnourished children.
The company has since received over $5 million in USDA and military (DARPA) research money. Early USDA funding was used to develop and commercialize the firm's patented Griopro® cricket powder production method. The firm became the world's first supplier of insect-based food ingredients.
The company's other USDA and DARPA-funded projects have been used to develop additional processing methods (such as protein and oil extraction), food product development, genetic engineering, automated farming, and feed formulation technologies.
Dossey says he's still engaged in several projects for research and development of insects as a sustainable bioresource and just about everything involving insects besides killing them. He recently published the first textbook in this field- Insects As Sustainable Food Ingredients.
However, Dossey admits there's only so much he can do without funding that's not earmarked for research. "Based on how much it costs to build facilities and commercialize products, I have no money," he says, "so beyond putting cricket powder on the market, which I have done, there's nothing more I can do."
Nonetheless, despite the company's turbulent business history, Dossey is still committed to making the world a better place by providing more sustainable protein options. Without the resources for a large-scale commercial launch, he plans to reintroduce his cricket powder sometime this month. His current research projects involve creating automation and mealworm farming technologies as well as a cricket-based breakfast cereal product.
Dossey hints that more Americans may be receptive to accepting insect protein if money is spent on visibility. "People only believe what they see. Americans don't have access and exposure to these alternative protein sources," he says.
"If a big company would work with a startup like mine and launch a product that used insect protein, not only would they bring the money to the table for manufacturing and scaling up, but they would bring the marketing, and their brand would bring credibility to the public. That's the positive way to put it."
He adds, "The other way to put it is they could spend several million dollars and get LeBron James or Leonardo DiCaprio to eat it on a commercial, and then everybody will do it."
The government, Dossey points out, also needs to support insect protein and startups robustly. "This will get the scale up, price down and provide access to the public so their perception will improve with experience and buy-in from major brands.
"Based on biology and efficiency, insects should be the least expensive and most environmentally friendly source of protein. That they are not already is simply a matter of financial and infrastructure resource allocation," he concludes.
As someone who is concerned about life on earth and passionate about protecting biodiversity, the Ph.D. Biomedical Scientist and self-taught Entomologist believes that positive change will always look impractical artificially if resources have not been applied to the right revolutionary ideas.
He says, "if the production economy of insect protein improves and prices could go down magically, big companies would be interested-sort of a catch 22." He adds that investing in new technologies and automation will make insect farming scaleable and economically feasible.
Holistically, Chau asserts that insects are cheaper alternatives than beef, pork, and chicken as there is less feed, less land, less water, and overall fewer inputs to grow insects. "However," he says, "the new infrastructure for large-scale insect farming and the electricity needed to grow insects are still largely unknown, as commercial operations are not yet at a large scale."
According to the food scientist, commercial insect growth operations may be on par with commercial plant-based meats and cellular agriculture operations, pending the processes. Again, this circles back to the importance of investing in the right technology and automation procedures to make insect farming worthwhile.
The "Ew" Factor
Ultimately, many people simply find insects to be unappetizing. According to Chau, culturally speaking, many societies deem insects to be dirty and full of disease, which enables a close-minded society toward insect consumption. Furthermore, Chau continues, insects may be labeled as an allergen if entering into mass markets as insects are often closely related to shellfish.
If labeled as an allergen, this limits food manufacturing facilities as concerns over cross contamination will be paramount. Lastly, Chau notes that existing regulations around insects in quality assurance would need to be reworked or re-worded, which only slows down the acceptance of insects into prepared foods.
"Flavor, texture, and color Chau says, will all be new to the public, creating a huge barrier to buying new foods. While marketing and commercialization may influence perception, "education in marketing efforts," he says, "will require years of training the consumer to adapt to eating insects."
Food culture is known to evolve. Or else Americans wouldn't eat lobster today, nor would Italians eat tomatoes. Experts project that the demand for insect protein to eat will increase as more people become concerned about their health. This could explain why online searches for "insect-based food" have increased significantly over the last five years.
The number of searches has increased by 640 percent. Other trending startups operating in this space include Aspire Food Group, Tebrito, and BugBox. With all the benefits of eating insect protein and the right partnerships, it's hopefully only a matter of time before consumers adopt this product.