Overcoming growth barriers for edible insects

Overcoming growth barriers for edible insects
Credit: Shutterstock.com/ wasanajai

Edible insects have the potential to help avoid a global food crisis, but first significant barriers to growth need to be overcome, a new report claims.

The rapidly changing climate and an expanding global population are serious risks for worldwide food security. Edible insects have a high nutritional value and a 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, published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 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.

“Edible insects could be the solution to the problem of how to meet the growing global demand for food in a sustainable way,” said study author Dr Alan-Javier Hernández-Álvarez from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds.

“The ‘ick factor’ remains one of the biggest barriers to edible insects becoming the norm.

He added: “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.”

Dr Guiomar Melgar-Lalanne, study author from the University of Veracruz, said: “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.”

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.

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 several industrial applications such as surgical thread and as a binder used in glue.

“Food is only the tip of the iceberg for insects’ sustainable potential,” said Dr Hernández-Álvarez.

“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.”