A more common staple in eastern cuisine, many would be forgiven for thinking that the idea of eating insects is never going to achieve mainstream appeal for western consumers. But to those who have not been paying attention, it may come as a surprise to learn that it has been doing just that.
Insect-based products have been growing in availability in recent years – UK retailer Sainsburys was the first major in the country to introduce an insect product in stores, with Eat Grub in 2018.
Since then, many consumers may have noticed various forms of creepy crawlies appearing in-store and online, from energy bars to protein powder – even cricket pasta. The sector is certainly growing healthily, with some estimates that by 2023, the global edible insect market will be worth $1.18bn – up from $406m in 2018.
Considering that there are over 2,000 edible species of insect, there certainly does seem to be a lot of possibility for new products in the future.
For many, eating insects may be a fad, or a one-off purchase when consumers are feeling adventurous. But there are those who see it as a viable, and maybe even necessary, source of protein as the population increases.
Sustainability: the number one agenda
ValuSect, a consortium launched in April this year, is aiming to help the development of sustainable production and processing techniques of insect-based products, as well as transferring developed knowledge to agro-food businesses.
Coordinated by Thomas More University of Applied Sciences, the consortium is supported by a €2.08m grant from the INTERREG North-West Europe programme. Alongside Thomas More, ValuSect comprises nine full members and eight associated partners from seven different countries. Amongst those involved are universities, research facilities and agro-food businesses.
“At a time of rising population and decreasing resources, especially in densely populated areas such as north-west Europe, sustainable alternatives for food resources are needed. Insects could be one of them,” says Dr Sabine Van Miert, ValuSect project leader at Thomas More University.
“Recent developments show edible insects to be a promising alternative for the conventional production of meat as a protein source. ValuSect will help expand this market.”
Van Miert believes that insect production will be part of the transition towards more resilient and sustainable food production systems, amidst a growing population and increasing consumer focus on food sustainability.
“Insect farming will contribute to the circular economy by revitalising rural areas by connecting agri-food supply chains,” explains Van Miert.
“There is a positive impact of insect rearing on the environment. Less land and water is necessary [compared to larger livestock], as insects can be reared on small surface areas and have a limited intake of water.”
The sustainability of insect production certainly does look impressive – according to the UN, insect farming produces one hundredth of the emissions of the equivalent output from beef cattle or pigs.
Fostering consumer interest
According to ValuSect’s data, 30% of consumers in the EU would be willing to eat insect-based food, a number that Van Miert views as “very low” when compared to Asian or African countries and a “missed opportunity” given the possibilities.
This lack of acceptance is often caused by a shortage of knowledge and a lack of visibility surrounding insect-based food, but part of ValuSect’s mission is to increase the number of people open to eating insect-based food and improve existing consumer attitudes.
“Consumers’ attitudes – consumer awareness and acceptance – towards insect-based products is part of ValuSect and will be a topic during the co-creation sessions with all stakeholders,” explains Van Miert.
“In ValuSect there will be an interaction between research institutions and enterprises with consumers, regarding insect-based food products and introducing new products.”
But what form will these new offerings take? The versatility of processed insects as an ingredient can’t be understated, and introducing insects to the diet of a modern western population opens the door to a big market, which creates a variety of possibilities.
“Insects can be used in snack bars, biscuits, pasta or as meat replacers. Which sector will embrace the insect-based food innovations the most is still uncertain, but it is clear that there is a lot of potential,” explains Van Miert.
This versatility is also a key aspect to consumers getting on-board with the concept. As insects can be processed into a variety of food stuffs, the ‘ew’ factor will likely be lessened in the absence of the visceral, visible form of an insect.
“Based on our own findings it is obvious that European consumers are not really willing to embrace insects as such, that they are still recognisable. But, once the insects are processed as flour, or are used in a formulation and are not recognisable anymore, the consumers’ willingness improves.”
Waiting for critical mass
So, what are the next steps for this sector, which seems to be brimming with potential? As with most novel ingredients, it seems that patience is the key. A concerted effort from all those involved, be it researchers, businesses or legislative bodies, in the production of new products is always vital to sector growth.
“There is a need to create critical mass about insects as a biobased resource for food and a need to tap the potential of innovative clusters transnationally to promote smart specialisation and innovation in food in the EU,” opines Van Miert.
“Introducing insects in the diet of the Western population opens a big new market segment that creates a variety of possibilities. The success depends on governing current legislation adaptation; the interest from farmers and/or food companies for this new source and consumers’ attitudes towards insect-based products.”
All things considered, the market growth sounds especially promising in Europe, which Van Miert explains is the fastest-growing region for edible insect products, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 20.5%, even though it’s in its early stages.
However, the wait for critical mass will all be for nothing if consumers aren’t on-board with the concept.
“The success of these insect based products depends on the interest,” Van Miert admits, while remaining optimistic that this interest can be generated by increasing the quality of the insect production processes, and the quality of the final product offered.
This will most likely be the final and probably largest hurdle to overcome; but given consumers’ apparent willingness to embrace sustainable products, the insect-based sector may well be at something of an advantage.