Q&A with producer of edible insect products

We asked Christian Bärtsch, Co-Founder of Essento, some questions about the role of edible insects in the future, to give the perspective of an entrepreneur making insect-based delicacies for new markets.

In your opinion, what role could edible insects play in future Western diets, and also worldwide diets, in terms of nutrition and how soon might this happen?

Insects do already play an important role world-wide – over two billion people consume insects on a regular basis. If we are to look at the West, I see that alternatives are coming up much quicker than in the past – given that it took Sushi 20 years to get established, I’d say that in five years, we will be at a point where insects will be a true alternative.

What contribution do edible insect-based foods make to addressing things like the climate emergency and the collapse of biodiversity that we’re facing?

Insects do offer a true alternative to conventional animal proteins like milk or meat. They provide high value nutrients at a low environmental cost. Given that the population is predicted to grow further, and we need high quality nutrients, insects are a very valid source of quality proteins and fatty acids.

Need/Problem:

  • We waste enormous amounts of food as feed for animals: 1kg of beef requires 10kg of plant feed + 15,000l of water.

  • To nourish 10bn people by 2050 and meet their needs, we have to change the way we produce food and find alternative solutions.

Solution: Insects as food

  • High nutritional values

  • Resource efficient when it comes to breeding

  • CO2 emissions are the lowest of all animal-derived protein production systems

  • Low resource requirements, efficient feed-food conversion ratio

  • Feed - can use non-edible (for humans) byproducts to produce high quality food

Regarding biodiversity, insects offer an alternative use of high-quality side streams and therefore put less pressure on the land. Also, through considering insects as food and integrating them into their diets, people become more aware of these species and their importance in the ecosystem.

In western countries, most people cringe at the idea of eating insects – another barrier to accepting them as an alternative protein source. Do you believe it will be possible to change such deeply-rooted attitudes?

We do have a long history of changing foods in our diet. Let’s take potatoes for instance – it took them a while to get established and these days they are considered a national dish in many countries.

Over the last few years we have seen a significant change in consumer attitudes and we are convinced that it will continue that way.

Do you think insect-based foods will ever replace meat or will their role be more a complementary one, existing alongside the consumption of animal-derived protein?

We see insects as a new category of food, alongside fish or poultry. They are an addition to our current diet. Given the fact that a lot of people are trying to reduce their meat intake and seeking alternatives, insect-based food comes in handy. And indeed, insects do offer comparable nutritional values with a healthier fatty acid structure.

Sustainability is a really important aspect of the alternative protein sources debate. Do you think large-scale production of edible insects that is also sustainable is possible, if and when they become a mainstream food?

A corner stone of the edible insect sector is that we do not want to commit the same mistakes as the past. At this point it seems very possible to breed insects at large scale without medication and hormones. We keep on putting sustainability at the core of what we do, including the insect breeding.

What may stop edible insects from becoming mainstream is their price. At the moment, buying a snack made from edible insects is more expensive than buying a snack made from animal proteins. Do you expect prices to become more competitive with those of meat and dairy?

Prices will go down once production (breeding and food products) scales up – we have seen that in the past we were able to lower the prices quite drastically. On the other hand, prices of meat and dairy currently don’t take account of water usage or CO2-emissions. Given current climate discussions, these factors might get a price tag soon and prices of meat and dairy will increase.

What have you had to take into consideration and what are the challenges of creating foods using edible insects when it comes to appealing to the consumer’s taste?

Consumers take on new foods more easily when it comes in known forms like burger patties, and when insects are processed, in other words, they are ground up and are therefore not recognisably insects.

However, we do see evidence of another consumer group that likes the challenge of new textures, new flavours and is already into consuming entire insects.

Who are the main players in this increasingly crowded area of alternative protein provision? Other than insects, what sources of alternative protein do you expect to carve out a significant market share in future?

There are a few established food companies making an impact in the field, such as Bühler, Protifarm and Protix. And then there are new brands, like us, that are establishing themselves and communicating directly with consumers. We also see signs that, as well as insects, algae and plant-based ingredients will gain market share.

This video from Essento, gives a flavour of the types of insect-based food they are producing.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

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Live Q&A with Christian from Essento

Christian will be answering your questions on Thursday 7 November between 16.00 - 17.00 GMT (17.00-18.00 CET) on this Step. If you would like Christian to respond to your questions, even if you’re not available at that time, please post them in the comment section below before then. Don’t worry if you miss the session for any reason – you can see Christian’s replies in his comment feed by looking at his profile page.

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Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

EIT Food