Eat the buggers: faux-meat maggot and mealworm burgers are the future

2021-12-08 07:55:00 AM

Growing numbers of producers are exploring insects as a source of protein

K Oanh HaA fried mealworm insect burger. Picture: 123RF/FOODANDMOREDiners have increasingly warmed to the idea of burgers made from peas and coconut oil, crab cakes crafted from artichokes and kelp, and chicken nuggets formed with gluten and tapioca starch. Big food producers are betting they’ll soon welcome crickets, beetles, mealworms, and maggots to the mix as well.

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“Everyone is looking at the environmental impact of sourcing food, so there’s a lot of growth potential,” says Tunyawat Kasemsuwan, group director of innovation at canned tuna producer Thai Union which is diversifying into insect proteins. “Chicken and tuna made from vegetables, cellular culture, or insects, we know the demand for it will grow much more than what we’re seeing today.”

Though vegetarians would not eat them — insects are, after all, animals — bug evangelists say the 2,000 or so species of edible critters have a lower carbon footprint and require less land than livestock and many grains. And various breeds have different characteristics that fans say make them work as a food source. Mealworms are clean, odourless, and rich in minerals and vitamins; crickets and grasshoppers are loaded with protein; fruit fly larvae — most people call them maggots — have a mild taste and light colour, so they are easy to hide in foods; black soldier fly larvae will eat virtually any organic waste.

The potential market got a big lift this year when the EU approved locusts and mealworms for human consumption, and EU regulators say they are examining applications for almost a dozen other species. Barclays predicts annual sales of edible bugs will grow to $8bn by 2030, from less than $1bn in 2019, a potential challenge to the $30bn plant-based faux-meat market.

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“Pound for pound, insects are more efficient than livestock and need less space to grow than soya,” says Mohammed Ashour, CEO of Aspire Food, which is building an 11-story vertical cricket farm in Ontario. “And insects are one of the easiest things to make delicious. They take on the flavour of whatever you feed them.”

Picture: BLOOMBERGMore than 2-billion people in developing countries eat insects, but most consumers in wealthier places find the idea, well, icky. That has spurred dozens of companies worldwide to develop bug-based foods that do not look, feel, or taste buggy. Thai Union, which sells tuna and other seafood products under a dozen brands such as Chicken of the Sea and John West, in 2019 introduced a $30m venture fund that has invested in three insect-protein start-ups.

Another Bangkok giant, Charoen Pokphand Foods, is researching black soldier flies as food for humans and animals. Paris-based Ynsect sells buffalo mealworm protein that is used in faux meat sold in supermarkets and restaurants in Austria and Denmark. “This is insect farming 2.0,” says Constant Tedder, founder of FlyFarm, a start-up that builds automated critter factories. “Right now, people are making jokes about bugs. Soon, you’ll be eating them in your burger.”

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Much of the research into boosting the appeal of plant-based faux meat will also help insect producers, says Eran Gronich, CEO of Flying Spark, an Israeli start-up backed by Thai Union. The company is working on seafood alternatives based on fruit fly larvae that take just a week to reach maturity. One product is a canned  tuna substitute that is made by combining protein from the larvae with spices, flavouring, and colour to mimic the real thing.

“We can create different textures, smells, tastes, and colours using the latest food technology,” Gronich says. “You can get people to try it once, but if it doesn’t taste great, they’ll never come back.”Livin Farms uses black soldier fly larvae to make a protein powder. Picture: DAVID AVAZZADEH FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Many companies are starting with food for animals. About 90% of the 3-million tonnes of insect protein expected to be produced in Europe in 2030 will go into animal feed or pet foods, according to the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed, a nonprofit in Brussels. And for the past couple of years, companies such as Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, and Purina have been making pet food, fish meal, and livestock feed that include bugs. “There’s huge demand for insects in the premium pet food category,” says Gorjan Nikolik, senior analyst at Rabobank.

As interest in insect protein picks up, demand has started to outstrip supply, spurring some entrepreneurs to search for new ways to grow bugs. One idea is feeding them food waste such as overripe vegetables, fruit pulp from juice producers, and grains left over from brewing.

Livin Farms, a start-up in Vienna, aims to build dozens of facilities near food-processing plants in Europe and Asia that will each produce anywhere from 500 tonnes to 30,000 tonnes of insect protein a year. The automated facilities will use robots to turn black soldier fly larvae into powder, extracting the oil, which can be used for feed. As a bonus, they will also collect frass — fly poop — to be sold as fertiliser.

“There’s millions of tonnes of food waste,” says Livin Farms CEO Katharina Unger. “With an insect factory, they cut down their emissions and turn the waste into a product they can sell.”

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