Are insects the key to a sustainable future?

03/05/2018 - 15:35
‘Sustainability’ seems to be the latest buzzword in the hospitality industry right now. While operators, suppliers, industry bodies and the government have all been playing their part in the fights against plastic and the growing obesity epidemic, questions surrounding sustainability have gradually taken centre stage. Katie Imms reports.

Among them, experts are debating how we - the UK and wider global food market - can ensure healthy and environmentally sustainable diets and, if at all, can we encourage consumers to eat less and better meat? 

While it is fairly safe to say that the hospitality industry is in unanimous agreement that it is “important to consume (meat and fish) in proportion, and to eat better quality and less” – not all, including chef proprietor Thomas Cubitt (The Thomas Cubitt, London), are “hyping” vegetarian food.

Speaking of the Meat V Fish charity event that he’s taking part in later this month (23 May), Cubitt added: “We all have one goal - to keep meat and fish on menus for generations to come.

“Everyone is hyping vegetarian food - it’s said to be better for your health and for the planet, but is that really so? Mass production of meat and vegetables, and over fishing, are killing the planet - not eating meat and fish.

“As long as we commit to sustainable farming methods - with animal welfare being a top priority - eating meat and fish has lots of nutritional benefits.”

By contrast, a new report (‘Principles for Eating Meat and Dairy More Sustainably’) sparked controversy in April by suggesting that consumers need to “eat less and better quality meat and dairy,” which Dairy UK hit back against.

Following that, in the same month, the European national science academies and InterAcademy Partnership called on EU policy-makers to “urgently” re-think their approach to food and agriculture, arguing that “Europe’s current approach to food, agriculture and the environment is not sustainable.”

So where exactly does that leave hospitality businesses?

With such conflicting arguments and a disarray of information, it’s not surprising that operators are often left confused – confused about the best sustainable practices and confused about what consumers want.

Need, or should, they promote meat-free diets? How can they entice customers to try protein alternatives? And how do they relay such information to consumers?

One suggestion is insect protein. While cooking with insects is not unheard of among chefs, it is still widely uncommon for consumers - 38% of global consumers are still not familiar with insects as ingredients or of their health benefits.

Undertaken by data and analytics firm, GlobalData, latest research also reveals that 17% of consumers thought insect protein had a negative impact on their health, 21% a positive impact, and a further 24% thought it had no effect.

Providing a healthy dosage of protein, fibre, vitamin and minerals however, insects are both healthy and highly nutritious. To put it into perspective, cricket flour has twice as much protein as beef, and twice as much iron as spinach.

Edible insects are also a much “greener and more sustainable” alternative to traditional animal protein (such as beef, pork, and poultry) as they emit fewer greenhouse gases and need less water and feed to produce.  

While taboo around insect-eating remains, and will continue to do so for some time we imagine, businesses are investing in high-tech machinery to breakdown the barriers.

Mass-rearing edible insect technology, for example, mills whole insects into fine grain flour, which is then used to make insect-based products such as flour. By making whole insects appear less “unsightly,” it is hoped that consumers will find them much more appealing and ultimately, edible.

Consumer associate analyst at GlobalData, Matthew Perry, added: “The biggest challenge for insect-based food companies is to make consumers aware, and to communicate the benefits of this alternative protein to facilitate its adoption.

“Insect protein manufacturers should shape their marketing and advertising strategies to position the products as highly nutritious and eco-friendly alternatives to conventional animal-based protein sources.  


“Companies should also look to promote the flavor appeal and versatility of insect protein.

“For example, brands can use familiar flavor combinations and promote insect protein as a means of boosting the protein content of smoothies and baked goods, to further the adoption of insect-based foods into society.”

Other options which are due to be discussed at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum this summer (11-12 June), include animal-free meat and gene editing.

With no more agricultural land to produce food from, and almost 60% of world fish stocks fully fished, there is no doubt that action needs to be taken to promote traditional protein alternatives. Insects are one option - but if consumers remain sceptical and unwilling to venture into the trend, health officials worldwide will need to find another pathway to ensure greater food security.

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