What will bring edible insects to the mainstream?

5 Aug 2019

A new study has found that insects contain more antioxidants than orange juice, but while it may be good news for the edible insect industry, there is still a long way to go before most western consumers will add insects to their diet. What will it take to persuade them?

This latest study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, examined the antioxidants in water-soluble extracts from commercially available edible grasshoppers, silkworms and crickets, and found they contained five times more than those in freshly squeezed orange juice. This is not the first time that researchers have praised the excellent nutritional profile of insects, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has highlighted them as a healthy, nutritious alternative to meat and poultry, being rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc. It points out that more than two billion people around the world already consume insects as a regular part of their diet.

What will bring edible insects to the mainstream?

However, in western markets, insects remain a niche part of the novelty snacks market, despite efforts in Europe from companies like Buehler, which has invested in a plant to process black soldier flies for animal nutrition in the Netherlands with its partner Protix, and Fazer Mills, which introduced an insect-based bread in Finland in November 2017 made with a blend of cricket flour and traditional wheat flour. In North America, companies like Exo and Chapul have made inroads with their insect-based protein bars and powders, but the overall market for edible insects remains relatively small.

Several studies have suggested that taste, cost and convenience are the top factors for consumers when deciding what to eat, and other factors like nutrition and ethical standards only come into play when these basic conditions are met. For now, many edible insect companies still focus on the nutritional benefits of insects and their environmental benefits in comparison with other animal proteins. However, even if taste, cost and convenience were brought to the fore, manufacturers must still contend with the disgust factor, which remains prevalent in western markets.

The most successful edible insect companies recognise that insects are still at an early adopter phase, and many leverage the novelty factor in their marketing. This might mean processing the insects into flour and using them in familiar products, as is the case with snack bar companies like Chapul and Exo in North America, and Bugalicious in The Netherlands, or marketing to consumers who are already extremely focused on their health and nutrition, such as in the sports nutrition sector.

UK-based Eat Grub is among those with a strong focus on flavour – while acknowledging insects are a novelty product – with products like roasted crickets flavoured with sweet chilli and lime, and cacao and coconut flavoured “cricket powered” energy bars.

Research also suggests that marketing could make a real difference. A recent study from Oklahoma State University found that about a third of participants said they would try cookies made with cricket flour – and when shown a picture of the cookies this jumped by nine percentage points.

In the near term, greater acceptance of insects in the animal feed sector may provide a bridge toward wider direct human consumption of insects in the future. Insects are already a natural part of many animals’ diets, and in late 2016, the European Food Safety Authority authorised insect protein for use in fish feed.

Although the edible insect sector is still small in western markets, the buzz around such products is undeniable, and certainly signals widespread curiosity. Whether that will translate into broader acceptance remains to be seen.

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