US-based research center to examine the potential of insect protein in food

Dive Brief:

  • Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will become the lead site for the new Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, according to an announcement from the university. The research center, established through a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will support research on farming insects as a potential food source.
  • Mississippi State University and Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, will collaborate with Texas A&M as supporting research sites along with 34 industrial partners, including Mars Inc. and Tyson Foods, and insect farming specialists Aspire Food Group, Protix and Beta Hatch Inc.
  • Insects have long served as a protein source for animals as well as for humans, but it is only recently that the protein source has been considered a viable option in the U.S. With traditional agriculture expected to require a 49% increase to meet the world’s food needs by 2050, U.S. manufacturers and food producers have been taking a harder look at the idea of incorporating insects into the food supply.

Dive Insight:

Insects are emerging as a solution that could solve issues surrounding future protein production as well as the inability for plant-based proteins to exactly replicate the nutritional profiles of animal-based protein.

But there is much research left to be done to determine how to best optimize insect protein for the commercialized production and development of food, as well as ensure strict quality assurance policies. All of these components will be considered by the research universities participating in this new center, and their findings will be important when manufacturers begin approaching the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval to use this ingredient commercially.

Currently, the U.S. and many other markets lack a framework for regulating bugs intended for human consumption. Attitudes are clearly changing in the Western world though. In January of this year, the E.U. food safety agency approved certain dried mealworms for human consumption, Politico reported.

Another major hurdle that insect protein will face with Western consumers is adoption. Consumers still bug out at the thought of consuming insects, regardless of whether they are whole, freeze dried, fried, or processed into a product. However, multiple studies noting the better-for-you aspects — not to mention the sustainability — of insect protein may prove to be a sufficient way to push hesitant consumers closer toward acceptance.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, insects contain a healthy quantity of proteins, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids. A study by researchers at Maastricht University found mealworm protein performs the same as milk when it comes to digestion, absorption and the ability to stimulate muscle growth. Yet another study by Italy’s University of Teramo found water-soluble extracts of edible grasshoppers, silkworms and crickets have an antioxidant capacity five times greater than fresh orange juice.

Despite initial consumer reluctance, the edible insect market could top $1.5 billion by 2026, according to Global Market Insights. Some of the most widely-consumed insects are beetles, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. The growing market has attracted a lot of institutional attention both through funding and involvement from Big Food.

Just this week, Seattle-based insect breeder Beta Hatch announced it closed a $10 million funding round to expand its facilities since currently, all of its available mealworm production is under contract, according to a press release sent to Food Dive. Then last fall, French startup Ynsect, which breeds mealworms for fish and pet food, announced one of the largest funding rounds for an insect farming startup, netting $372 million, Bloomberg reported.

With its positioning to become a breakthrough industry, it is no surprise that Big Food companies such as Mars and Tyson Foods are getting involved to support the research and development of this alternative protein. Mars, which makes food for both pets and humans, has already launched a 100% insect-based cat food formula in the United Kingdom called Lovebug. It also produces insect-based cat treats under its Catit line.

Tyson Foods launched its alternative protein business in 2019, where it is considering insects among other sources. However, as David Ervin, vice president of alternative protein, told Food Business News at the time, when it comes to insect protein, “That’s the one I’m always a bit cautious of, at least from a U.S. perspective.”

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