Over half of U.S. consumers say that they would not eat food made with cricket flour. Only a third of diners in the U.S. and U.K. would take a taste of cell-based meat (that is, meat grown in a lab). So why has there suddenly been so much buzz about how the future of food is lab-grown insects? And is it, actually?
The driving force is a piece in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems by researchers from Tufts University. It suggests that cultured insects (that is, bug cells grown in a lab) are a sustainable source of protein we should be paying more attention to.
According to the paper, invertebrate cell cultures require fewer resources and are more adaptable than mammalian or avian cultures. They can also grow with serum-free media, which makes them significantly cheaper to produce.
This February a new study raised questions about whether cell-based meat was actually better for the environment than traditional animal agriculture. Unlike most cultured meats, however, cultured insect cells require fewer resources (like cooling and electricity), so it’s significantly more sustainable.
Plenty of people have advocated insects as an environmentally friendly protein source, even before cellular agriculture came on the scene. Insects require significantly less land and water than cattle and emit far fewer greenhouses gases, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They produce quickly, have a variety of flavor profiles, also boast an enviable nutritional profile.
But there’s one big problem: the “ick” factor. While roughly 2 billion people around the world consume insects regularly, many Westerners are still grossed out by the thought of eating bugs. A few startups like Chirp’s (which makes cricket chips and protein powder) and Exo (which makes cricket protein bars) have had success selling insect-laden CPG products and ants and water bugs grace menus at Michelin-starred restaurants, but they’re still an anomaly. Edible insect companies are even having a tough time finding employees willing to work to harvest the creepy crawlies.
That’s where the lab aspect could have a difference. Not in the cost of growing insect protein — it’s quite cheap to produce them outside the lab — but in perception. Sure, not everyone wants to eat a full-on cricket complete with wings and legs (though Seattle Mariner’s fans do!). But they’re probably more willing to eat insect protein sourced from a lab. All the more so when they learn about insects’ health benefits: high levels of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and minerals.
That’s not to say people will necessarily want to bite into a lab-grown bug burger anytime soon. (Even if they did, we’re still a few years from even being able to make one.) Instead, I envision a future where cell-based insect protein could act as a partial meat replacement in processed foods like sausages or nuggets — similar to what Better Meat Co. is doing, only with bugs instead of wheat protein. Cultured insect protein could also combine with plant-based meat to make it more realistic in texture, flavor, and nutrition profile.
No matter what form its in, it’ll take a while for Westerners to accept insects as an acceptable source of protein — if they accept it at all. But the recent wave of interest in cultured meat makes me hopeful that insects could be getting their heydey. Perhaps, as the Frontiers article notes, this is “an opportune moment to revisit insect cells as a nutrition source.” Just as a supplement instead of a stand-alone food product.