Edible insects could be a key ingredient to avoiding a global food crisis, according to a new report, but there are significant barriers to overcome before they are part of the mainstream.
The rapidly changing climate and an expanding global population are serious risks for worldwide food security. Edible insects have a high nutritional value and significantly lower carbon footprint compared to meat production and are a viable option as a sustainable source of protein.
Despite this, edible insect cultivation remains rare in Western countries, where eating insects is still considered unusual.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Leeds and University of Veracruz in Mexico have reviewed current insect farming methods, processing technologies and commercialisation techniques, as well as current perceptions towards entomophagy the practice of eating insects.
Their report is published in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety and reviews research collected from around the world. It highlights that the benefits of increasing insect consumption have been widely explored, but not the technological and processing approaches that can help achieve this goal.
The researchers emphasise that the best way to normalise edible insects is for the commercialisation and processing techniques to focus on the preferences of the younger generation.
Although humans have eaten insects throughout history, and approximately two billion people around the globe regularly eat them today, research on the subject is relatively new.
Study author Dr Alan-Javier Hernández-Álvarez, from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds, said: Edible insects are fascinating. Although humans have eaten insects throughout history, and approximately two billion people around the globe regularly eat them today, research on the subject is relatively new.
Edible insects could be the solution to the problem of how to meet the growing global demand for food in a sustainable way.
The ick factor remains one of the biggest barriers to edible insects becoming the norm. Eating behaviour is shaped largely during early childhood and in Western countries, eating insects, especially in whole and recognisable forms, remains something seen mostly on TV shows.
In some European countries consumers, particularly young adults, have shown interest in new food products that use insects in un-recognisable form, such as flour or powder used in cookies or energy drinks.
Developing efficient large-scale processing technologies that can develop insect powders could go a long way to helping introduce insects as a common source of protein and nutrients.
Drinks with cricket garnish
Study author Dr Guiomar Melgar-Lalanne, from the University of Veracruz, said: In Western countries it is the younger generation that show more willingness to try new food products, including edible insects. The foodies boom and the rise of veganism and flexitarians have opened the door to alternative food sources.
However, in some countries where insects have been part of a culinary tradition, such as Mexico, Nigeria and Botswana, negative perceptions of eating insects have taken root. In these countries the younger population is rejecting insects as a food source, associating it with poverty and a provincial mind set.
In Mexico for example, where insect markets are increasingly popular among tourists, self-consumption, harvesting and farming are declining in rural areas.
Despite the growing demand for edible insects in urban areas, harvesting and indoor farming is limited because farmers associate insects with poverty and do not see it as a potential source of income.
Promoting insects as an environmentally sustainable protein source appeals to the current attitudes in the younger generation. Another successful strategy involves serving insects as snacks between meals, which would increase inclusion of insects in daily diets. These types of snacks are increasing in popularity in the global market.
But if edible insects are to become a common food source current farming techniques and technologies could struggle with the demand and need to be expanded.
Cake with mealworm garnish
Compared to meat production, insect farming uses much smaller amounts of land, water and feed, and it is possible to cultivate them in urban areas. Insect farming also produces far fewer greenhouse gases.
However, more development is needed in large-scale insect farming. Increasing demand could create a bottleneck in the production of more edible insects in an economically efficient, safe and sustainable matter. The lack of availability creates accessibility issues and therefore reduces opportunities for increasing trade. There is significant need for a technological leap from wild harvesting to indoor farming.
Food is only the tip of the iceberg for insects sustainable potential.
Improvements to edible insect farming and processing techniques could also open the door for increasing the use of insects for other purposes. Chitin extracted from certain insect exoskeletons has the potential for use in food preservation. It also has a number of industrial applications such as surgical thread and as a binder used in glue.
Dr Hernández-Álvarez added: Food is only the tip of the iceberg for insects sustainable potential.
Refining extraction technologies could make insects a feasible and sustainable option for replacing some currently available functional ingredients. These aspects should be a focus of future research and technological development.
Image credits: All photos were taken by Guiomar Melgar-Lalanne and Alan-Javier Hernández-Álvarez during an Insect Technological Venue at the University of Veracruz with chef Mario Melgarejo.
The paper Edible Insects Processing: Traditional and Innovative Technologies is published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.
For additional information please contact University of Leeds press officer Anna Harrison via A.Harrison@leeds.ac.uk or +44 (0)113 34 34196.