Sílvia de Lamo

Food, Innovation and Engineering (FoodIE) Research Group

“We’ll eat crickets and black fly larvae”

Does eating insects provide the solution to upcoming global food supply problems? Sílvia de Lamo from the Food, Innovation and Engineering (FoodIE) Research Group at Rovira i Virgili University shares her thoughts

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has approved the human consumption of larvae from the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor. EFSA has included the insect, which is rich in protein, fat and fibre, in its list of Novel Foods, opening the door to the future production and marketing of different forms of mealworm (such as dehydrated or as a powder) in EU countries.

What does EFSA’s approval mean?
It’s an important advance and is just the start of what’s to come. It allows consumption of the worms in three product types: energy bars, pasta and biscuits. In addition, it can also be produced in a powdered form.
Is there a lot of demand for worms?
EFSA issued an opinion in response to a project sent to it by a French company. This company had processed all the required documentation to request that mealworm be recognised on the list of so-called novel foods. The agency has given its approval, and this is important because it’s a starting point for regulating consumption. The EU now has to negotiate with member states so that each can legislate on the issue.
Does EFSA’s recognition mean we will soon find worms in the supermarket?
The last step of the process is missing. Once each member state approves it, companies will be able to market it. It should be possible to get it by the summer. The EFSA resolution has been on hold since last year but it was delayed by the pandemic.
Does that mean it will now be open season on insect-based foods?
EFSA has 20 more insect-related applications. That’s not to say they will approve all of them, but a precedent has been set.
Will eating insects become normal?
They’re already well established in animal feed. The door is now open to legally incorporating them into the human diet.
Why are new sources of protein needed?
Because by 2050 there will be many more of us in the world than now, and to feed ourselves we’ll need more than 50% of the protein we produce today. The ones we have won’t be enough. Livestock cannot grow indefinitely and it also causes pollution. Insects are a good alternative source of protein.
What will join mealworm on the menu?
Some species of cricket or black fly larva.
So eating insects responds to a need rather than a taste or preference.
Yes, it’s a necessity, but it must be done right. They must be grown on farms that have the right conditions. The International Insect Food Platform has a guide with information on how to raise them and how to harvest them. It also details what feed they should be given.
What is the diet of farmed insects?
Different types of feed and high quality organic matter, usually waste from the food industry. For example, the waste from making almond milk makes good insect food. And if we recycle properly, the organic waste that goes in the brown bin could also be used.
Does using waste to feed insects that we will then eat close the circle?
We can’t give just anything to the insects to eat. We must be careful with the kind of waste we give them, because they could accumulate components that could end up being harmful to our health, as is the case with fish and mercury. It’s now also being assessed whether they can be given supermarket and restaurant waste; at the moment that still doesn’t happen. The great advantage of insects is that they are effective in converting waste into protein, lipids and micronutrients. They gain weight very quickly and eat very little, unlike a cow, which needs a lot of food to produce protein.
And is the protein from a cricket as good as what we get from a steak?
To find out if a protein is good, you need to look at the amino acid profile. It depends on the insect species and the metamorphic phase, but in principle they have a good amino acid profile.
Do they have to disguise the insects in biscuits or energy bars because otherwise people wouldn’t eat them?
Our group has done a lot of outreach on this. Mostly there is rejection, but there’s also a section of the population that doesn’t see it as disgusting. The more the consumer is informed about the need to eat insects, the more the distaste can be overcome. I’ve seen chocolate bars with an insect on top or muesli containing insects. But it’s true that it’s an ingredient that most often appears disguised. For now, the most effective strategy is presenting it as an ingredient rather than as a whole food. People have to get used to it.
Are all insects edible?
No. But there are more than 2,000 species of edible insects. The main thing is to know in what metamorphic phase we can consume them. The FAO [the Food and Agriculture Organisation] collects information on insects that are consumed around the world. The EU wants to focus on a specific type of insect, basically those that can be raised on farms. Maybe later the range will expand, but now we’re basically talking about larvae.
Can a vegetarian eat insects?
Some people say there’s no problem eating them because insects do not have a developed nervous system that causes it pain, unlike a cow or a rabbit, for example.
Is eating insects expensive?
At the moment, yes, because there are few of them and a lot of technology is applied in the breeding process. But it’s a matter of time: the higher the production, the lower the price will be.

interview food technology

Sustainable foodstuffs

The FoodIE research group at the URV has been researching the use of insects as a new ingredient to compensate for the excess production of animal protein for five years. “Since then, we’ve been gaining knowledge in this field to formulate new products and develop techniques that we put at the service of the agrifood industry,” says Sílvia de Lamo. Insects as human food are potentially a more environmentally sustainable alternative source of protein. “There are ever more of us on the planet and we won’t be able to produce enough protein for everyone, so we must look for alternative sources that are also more sustainable. Producing a kilo of beef causes 10 times more CO2 emissions than producing a kilo of crickets,” says the researcher.

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