It has long been suggested that we should start eating insects to help the environment, but for many of us it is not a palatable thought. One Israeli firm is hoping to win over the squeamish by adding different flavourings.
Dror Tamir opens a packet of brown, jellied sweets. “Try one,” says the boss of food tech firm Hargol.
The little gummies are packed with protein, but not from soy or gelatine. They are instead made from an edible, jumping insect – locusts, which are a type of grasshopper.
“Grasshoppers taste like pecans, mushrooms, coffee and chocolate,” adds Mr Tamir. “But with our range of food we can add in different flavours… the gummies come in orange and strawberry flavour.”
The Israeli entrepreneur says he became fascinated with grasshoppers as a child, after hearing stories from his grandmother, who was the cook on a kibbutz, or collective farm.
“I learned about the 1950s, when Israel suffered from both food insecurity as well as locust swarms flying in from Africa and destroying the crops,” he says.
“While most kibbutz members ran to the fields to scare the grasshoppers away, the Yemenite and Moroccan Jewish members collected tons of them to eat.
“That's when I learned that grasshoppers are food for billions around the globe.”
The insects have long been eaten by communities across Africa, Asia, Central America and the Middle East, but for many people in Europe and North America it remains an unwelcome thought.
Mr Tamir hopes to change all that, and his firm is about to introduce a range of products. In addition to the sweets there will be energy bars, burgers and falafel balls.
If you are still not convinced that insects will ever become part of the Western diet, some experts believe there may be eventually no choice due to environmental concerns and projected global population growth.
By 2050 the world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion, up from the current 7.7 billion.
With another two billion people to feed, some say that traditional farming will not be able to keep pace. And that, at the same time, switching to insect protein will be far better for the environment than rearing cows, sheep and other mammals.
“Protein is essential in our diets,” says Prof Robin May, chief scientific advisor to the UK's Food Standards Agency. “But often some of our most protein-rich foods come with significant environmental or ethical footprints – meat or dairy products, for instance.
“Some insect proteins, such as ground crickets or freeze-dried mealworms, are cheap, easy to farm, low fat and have a lower environmental impact than meat.
“And sometimes they may even provide a valuable 'recycling' service, by consuming waste products as their primary feedstuff, so the potential advantages to society are significant.”
Yet Prof May also cautions that some questions remain regarding the eating of farmed insects.
“The way that insects are farmed and the relatively short time in which they have been used as agricultural animals means that we know far less about insect-derived foods than we do for, say, beef,” he says.
A key question at this stage, he adds, is whether some insect proteins may prove to be allergenic or to have significant impact on the human microbiome – the bacteria and other microbes that live inside our bodies.
Mr Tamir is convinced that the environmental and health benefits are enough of a reason to make insects part of the diet.
His firm farms its locusts at an indoor, solar-powered facility in northern Israel. The main species that it breeds is the migratory locust, but it also farms the desert locust, and a bush cricket called nsenene.
“We can breed 400 million locusts a year in our facilities,” says Mr Tamir, who adds that the insect takes just 29 days to become fully grown.
He claims that compared with beef production, locust farming reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 99%, water consumption by 1,000 times and arable land usage 1,500-fold.
Mr Tamir is also keen to point out that locusts are both kosher and halal, meaning that they can be eaten by both dietary observant Jews and Muslims.
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Whether you can actually buy edible insects to eat depends on what country you live in. In the UK, you can buy them from online firms such as EatGrub and Horizon Insects, although the sector would like the UK government to remove expensive regulation.
In the European Union, both the migratory locust and yellow mealworms, the larva of a beetle, were deemed fit for human consumption this year.
French firm Ynsect makes a range of protein powders made from mealworms that are already found in some brands of energy bars, pasta and burgers.
Chief executive Antoine Hubert says the protein is “completely natural” and “a less processed alternative” to many mammal-based meats, such as sausages, hams and breaded chicken products.
He points to a recent study from Maastricht University showing that insect protein is as beneficial as milk protein. “Both have the same performance on digestion, absorption and on the ability to stimulate muscle production,” says Mr Hubert.
Yet Bridget Benelam, communications manager at the British Nutrition Foundation, says more research is still needed. She echoes Prof May's concerns about potential allergies, saying some people may be allergic to eating insects in the same way that others have an adverse reaction to shellfish.
She points out that some unanswered questions remain around the safety of consuming some types of insect, which could potentially transfer toxins or pesticides to humans. “These are some of the barriers that need to be overcome if eating insects is to become truly mainstream.”
Back in Israel, Mr Tamir admits that “the yuck factor” is one of his industry's most important challenges. “But I am convinced it will soon be widely accepted, just like eating raw fish in sushi was embraced.”Internet Explorer Channel Network