From protein shakes to cereal bars and granola, bugs are on the rise in Europe in all sorts of nutrient-rich foods, as well as becoming ingredients in such popular dishes as pasta, pizza, cakes and burgers.
There are glowing testimonials for chowing on tiny critters, including from three-Michelin-starred chef René Redzepi, and commander of the International Space Station, Samantha Cristoforetti.
The revolution has already arrived, bugs aficionados and edible insect evangelists claim. Worms and other creepy crawlies are the standard-bearers of a drive for sustainability in the food supply chain, a project which fulfils the ambitions of the Green Deal – the European Union’s flagship environmental initiative. This means the EU is championing the new foodie trend.
“Insects are a superfood which is healthy both for the planet, for its small carbon footprint, and for humans, as it provides many nutritional benefits,” says Gabrielle Wittock, the founder of Yuma, a Brussels-based start-up using cricket flour to make crispbreads and crackers.
Yuma’s products are proving popular. A staple on the shelves of Belgium’s organic food shops, they are also stocked by the country’s mainstream supermarkets, and are now venturing into the Dutch, French and UK markets.
Wittock says she’s a keen consumer. “A bowl of dry whole crickets is my healthy alternative to chips during movie nights on the sofa,” she explains. But what triggered her enthusiasm for edible insects?
As someone eager to help tackle two of the world’s biggest problems – food insecurity and climate crisis – Wittock was excited to find an alternative to meat consumption in a product that could last months rather than a couple of days. She entered the world of insect farming, later starting her own project using a very small percentage of cricket flour in the baking process, to convert people without scaring them off.
Many associate bugs with crustaceans, but Wittock says the flavour profile is quite different. “Crickets taste like nuts, with a little smoky aftertaste; mealworms resemble smoked bacon, and ants have a distinct lemon tang,” she explains.
In Parma, north-west Italy, dry-cured prosciutto crudo is known as the king of hams and has reigned supreme for centuries. However, this temple of traditional gastronomic heritage is also home to Europe’s newest food innovation wave.
Not far from the seasoning cellars where the “royal” hams age, a battalion of biologists, toxicologists and food safety experts is paving the way for insects to hop onto dinner tables as an alternative and more sustainable source of protein.
With its Parma-based European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Union is at the forefront of these developments. The agency is tasked with assessing the risks and providing stringent scientific evidence to support the authorisation of edible insects entering the EU market as ‘novel’ food. This definition covers a catalogue of newly developed, innovative food produced using new technologies and processes, as well as substances which have not been traditionally consumed in the EU – including edible insects. Novel foods must be safe for consumers and properly labelled.
Following a 2018 regulation, food business operators wishing to have a novel food approved must submit an application to the European Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE). The documents are transferred to experts at the EFSA for their evaluation and if the agency gives a positive opinion, the Commission then decides whether to formally adopt it, in a committee including representatives from Member States.
Legal authorisation means the novel food will be permitted for human consumption in the EU and can be placed in the single market, with identifying product specifications and labelling requirements.
Novel food applications are growing. An EFSA source said an average of 52 submissions were received each year in the past four years, up from fewer than seven a year between 2003 and 2017. In May 2021, the European Commission gave the go-ahead to the yellow mealworm. Two more insect species have won approval in recent months – the migratory locust last December and the house cricket in March.
The Agency has given the green light to consumption of these insects in a variety of different forms, including frozen, dried, powder and ground.
Ongoing applications under scrutiny by EFSA include the black soldier fly and the honeybee drone brood.
While it may appear a modern fad, eating insects is in fact far from novel. Humans have been consuming bugs as part of their diets since the dawn of civilisation, and it is estimated around two million people worldwide regularly eat them, particularly across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been leading work on edible insects for almost 20 years; according to its most recent estimate, around 2,000 species of insects are consumed in about 140 countries, the vast majority wild-harvested, with only two per cent farmed.
Insects are nutritionally sound and are gathered at lower cost in terms of climate emissions compared to other animal proteins. Bugs require less land, water and feed than traditional and larger livestock, while bringing the same nutritional benefits – if not more. Scientists argue that crickets, worms and grasshoppers are good alternatives to meat, being richer in protein, fibre, vitamins (including B and C) and amino acids. They offer higher sources of minerals such as iron and magnesium than, for example, sirloin beef.
Insects are nutritionally sound and are gathered at lower cost in terms of climate emissions compared to other animal proteins
Recent research by Maastricht University found insect protein is as nutritionally beneficial as milk protein. Both have the same effect on digestion, absorption and the ability to stimulate muscle production.
With recent confirmation that the global population has exceeded eight billion, concerns are growing over whether the planet’s finite resources in terms of agricultural land and fresh water can meet the food needs of so many people.
The FAO estimates agricultural production worldwide will have to increase by 70 per cent, putting an even greater strain on the environment and threatening ecosystems and biodiversity: At present, 80 per cent of the world’s farmland is used to raise and feed livestock, a recent report by the United Kingdom-based policy institute Chatham House found, even though animals account for only 18 per cent of global calorie consumption.
Shifting from meat to eco-friendly and green alternative proteins, such as insects (but also plant-based and cultured meat) “is a possible change in our daily lives to help meet the growing global demand for proteins in a sustainable, ethical and healthy way”, a study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says.
Whereas cattle require approximately eight kilos of feed to produce one kilo of bodyweight gain, insects can convert two kilos of feed into one kilo of mass, according to the FAO. In addition, the production of greenhouse gases by most insects is up to 100 times lower (per kilo of weight) than that of conventional livestock.
With strategic autonomy a guiding principle for the EU’s international outlook – a policy shift which also affects trade arrangements – the EU aims to reduce its dependency on foreign suppliers in sensitive industrial ecosystems, including food security.
Bugs have a role to play as an indirect food source, too. As the experience of many firms shows, prior (and then in parallel) to being marketed for human consumption, insects have been increasingly used as feedstock for poultry, farmed fish and swine – which are otherwise traditionally fattened on more environmentally costly (but in normal times economically cheaper) feedstuff, such as corn and soy.
Antoine Hubert, a vice-president of IPIFF, the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed, which represents 86 bugs producers, calls this: “the circular potential of the insects sector” a means of reinventing the entire food supply chain, from fertilisers to farmed animals – in the spirit of the Farm to Fork strategy – to pet food.
Hubert is currently representing insect producers in talks with EU institutions in Brussels. But his main job is CEO of Ÿnsect (the umlaut has been added to represent insect antennae), a French company which is building the world’s largest insect farm in the north of the country, outside Amiens, an area of some 45,000 m².
The farm is expected to turn out more than 200,000 tonnes of insect-based ingredients a year, with bugs fattened up automatically by robots, to respond to what is expected to become an explosive demand for dry, ground insects.
They will be later transformed into various dishes, including burger patties, falafels and sausages, “which in two years will be widely available in supermarkets,” Hubert predicts.
He believes “Europe is proving to be a world leader in the field, way more competitive than Asia, Africa and the Americas.” Despite being regions with a long-established tradition of breeding insects for consumption, these places mostly rely only on “small-scale traditional firms”, whereas Europe is scaling up its insect economy and can rely on a solid industrial backbone, funding schemes such as Horizon Europe (the EU’s main programme for research), new regulatory tools and a safety net provided by IP rights.
Companies are driving innovation, with investments exceeding €1bn according to 2021 figures from IPIFF, despite total EU edible bugs production currently running to just a few thousand tonnes.
In terms of employment, the sector generates thousands of jobs (both direct and indirect); by the end of the decade this is expected to increase 30 times over.
“IPIFF is in constant dialogue with the Commission to anticipate new policy trends,” Hubert adds, calling “in particular, for the definition of an organic label for insect farming”. At present, there is no such label, which means it is not possible to market a product as organic.
In addition, some stakeholders would like the process for granting market authorisation to be simplified.
Saskia Nuijten is communication director at EIT Food, an innovation community co-funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the EU, which aims to bring together universities, research organisations, industries, start-ups, accelerators and tech clusters all over the continent.
She says: “From an innovator’s point of view, the novel food application process appears burdensome; the length, the cost and administrative requirements of the evaluation phase [which can take up to three years] may put innovators to a serious test. This is particularly true for start-ups struggling to survive between one funding round and the next, or small and medium enterprises.”
Furthermore, investment in insect farming in Europe is moving at a patchy pace, with just a few frontrunners and many countries lagging behind.
Stefano Magnaghi, research and development chief at the Italian Cricket Farm, the country’s main insect firm, explains: “We can see a major divide in terms of private funding between, for example, France and Italy. The latter has a major gap to overcome; if we look at the technological development it is several years behind.”
The main obstacle, insect enthusiasts agree, is the need to win European consumers’ trust and change perceptions. For many, the idea of eating bugs is off-putting, with public opinion not (yet) as keen as regulators to view insects as fine dining.
The main obstacle, insect enthusiasts agree, is the need to win European consumers’ trust and change perceptions
A recent satirical video by Barilla Foundation, an independent research body linked with the namesake food company, prompted an outcry among Italians on social media as a comedian evoked the production of pasta using insect flour.
“We do not have any will or corporate interest in this regard,” Barilla Group reassured customers in a statement.
A couple of months earlier, however, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, in orbit on the International Space Station, invited her followers to embark on a new journey: not to Venus or Mars, but to the supermarket to grab an insect-based blueberry cereal bar like the one she was savouring.
Meanwhile, the gourmand Michelin-starred scene has been embracing the insect challenge for quite some time. In 2012, René Redzepi, legendary chef at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, proposed a crème fraiche dotted with live ants, later followed by a reinterpretation of a Mexican tostada – with creamy ant eggs.
Despite these attempts, the “time is not yet ripe to propose whole insects to consumers”, says Yuma’s Wittock. The philosophy of her company is a step-by-step approach, which distributors seems to appreciate.
Yuma’s recipes contain just three per cent cricket flour: “[Customers] put our products on the table during happy hours and speak about them. Our objective is to get their confidence and afterwards slowly transition towards new offers” – such as worm burgers. “We want to become a daily product, not just a one-off purchase for Halloween,” Wittock says.
Magnaghi agrees that working with insect flours “helps tear down the wall of scepticism among consumers, and likely triggers a snowball effect. Communication is important, as it is the first taste.”
The 2021 EIT Food Trust Report reveals sustainability does not appear to be an important trigger or motivation in the adoption of new foods for European consumers, with only 37 per cent open to experimenting with novel foods.
That is why, for Ÿnsect’s Hubert, it is important that marketed insects are light both in taste and colour.
Nuijten agrees: “Sometimes pushing too hard can generate additional resistance. It is important to inform consumers and propose new options, [and] to move at the right pace and understand how food producers can build a sufficient level of trust. Other key factors are convenience and price.”
So if you fancy a light and healthy worm burger or ant snack, head down to your local supermarket – they might already be available on the shelves.