Edible Insects | Ask the Expert
High in protein, a source of minerals, and eaten by 2 billion people worldwide, edible insects are an underappreciated food source. They’re versatile, numerous, and require little space to farm. And they’re even reportedly pretty tasty! So why aren’t we eating them more often?
Edible insects could provide many of the nutritional benefits of larger livestock, at lower costs of climate emissions. But in many Western countries, the idea of eating insects evokes controversy, rather than appetites. So what will it take for edible insects to conquer supermarkets, recipes and dining plates? Christian Bärtsch is the founder of Essento, a Swiss company that has been promoting and producing food products made from edible insects since 2013. He joins us to explain why he is passionate about getting people interested in eating insects.
When did you first realise the potential of edible bugs?
Eight years ago I came across an FAO report by the UN that highlighted the potential of insects. It described how over 2 billion people are regularly consuming them already. And I thought well, why are we always putting technology into making food products when we could use something that nature is already offering?
It turns out insects are highly nutritious. There are differences depending on what feed the insects are eating, but we’ve found that all insects have a good amount of high-quality protein and contain all the essential amino acids that are important for our growth and function.
So you formed Essento so more people could eat insects?
Exactly. We have a whole range of different products now, from whole insects (either unseasoned or as seasoned snacks) which go quite well with a glass of beer or wine, or as a topping on a soup or on a salad to add extra protein. Then for sporty people, we have protein bars that we offer in two different flavours, and then as a main meal we have our hamburger!
Have you faced any challenges getting edible insects onto people’s plates?
When we started, people called us crazy because they said nobody would want to eat insects - it's not even allowed! So first we had to really get working on the legal aspect. It took about three years until edible insects were legal in Switzerland. Legalisation is still an ongoing project in the EU, under the regulation of novel foods.
Are edible insects legal?
Prior to 2018, European countries legalised or banned the sale of insect-based foods depending on their interpretation of a 1997 EU law on novel foods, which stated that “foods or food ingredients not eaten before that 1997 must get novel food authorisation”.
Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and the UK decided to interpret this law as not applicable to whole animals and therefore legalised edible insects for marketing and sale in 2017. For countries in the EU, the law was clarified in 2018 to explicitly include insects, though in nations that had already legalised edible insects, sales were permitted to continue for a transition period.
At the time of this interview, no edible insects have yet been authorised across Europe by the EU as novel foods.1,2
But to change people’s perception of eating insects is obviously a much more time-consuming process. Because here we're talking about emotions, about food culture as well, and this is obviously a bit more complex than just updating a legal text.
Do you think edible insects can move from being a novelty or a niche product and become a mainstream food in our diets?
Food culture is always linked to how people view the planet, and to our daily lives. In the last couple of years people are paying more attention to the sustainability of the food chains than before, and this has gotten a lot more people interested in insects. After eating one or two grasshoppers, your mind really starts looking differently at it: we see lots of our customers saying ‘okay, I did not think that it would be so tasty!’ It helps confirm what we are convinced of here at Essento - that insects do have a place in our diet and can help make it more sustainable.
For all of those who have never eaten one: what do edible insects taste like?
When you ask people what they think an insect tastes like, they often have no clue and they believe it's some kind of special flavour. But actually, they have quite familiar flavours: mealworms have a slightly hazelnut-like taste, crickets are often compared to popcorn, and some people say locusts actually taste like chicken. So there is already a good variety of flavours among insects for cooking with!
What's your favourite insect to eat personally?
I really like the grasshoppers - they have this slight chicken-y flavour. Our supplier of grasshoppers is based in the alps, so we produce alpine grasshoppers spiced with alpine herbs!
How are changing the social landscape around edible insects?
Like any food, it is about getting the opportunity to try eating insects, and to find out for yourself that they actually do have a nice nutty flavour or taste like chicken! I think this is really the starting point for most people. At the other end, you have companies like ours which make insect food products easy and accessible, so that people do not need to eat like an entire locust but can have a hamburger or a protein bar, which is much easier for them to integrate into their everyday diet.
We released a mainstream cookbook focused on cooking with insects in 2016 which was voted as one of the best German cookbooks that year. We wanted to encourage people to cook insects at home, but the hesitation for much of the population is still too high.
But the concept of an insect burger, in particular, is easily understandable, and I think that’s really important. People need to know how to cook something, and if they see a flat burger disc they know they need to fry it on the two sides and put it between pieces of bread, and they can make the thing that we call a hamburger - even if the burger is actually made from insects instead of beef!
But cooking with insects must be very different to cooking meat like beef or chicken?
One of the main differences is the size of the pieces. In traditional Western cuisine, we have a centrepiece, like a big piece of vegetable or meat that all the other parts of a meal are prepared around, but in some other cultures it’s normal to have lots of smaller pieces of food mixed together instead. So in the West we need to fit tiny little insects into our understanding of what a healthy plate looks like!
But when it comes down to cooking edible insects, the methods you can use are the same as for any other foods: you can either steam them, boil them or fry them depending on the texture that you want to have. A lot of people like crunchy food, so obviously frying is a good option to start with!
What bugs can you eat and how are they grown?
We work with all the species that are legal in Switzerland - mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers.
One important thing is that edible insects are farmed specifically for human consumption, they're not harvested from nature. An insect farm is basically a bakery without any windows, which is kept at 26-29°C (depending on the insect species being farmed - different species of insect require different conditions!) You can really grow insects on top of each other, so they are quite efficient when it comes to space.
This farming is done without any medication, antibiotics or artificial products added, and another advantage is that we feed the insects food waste which would otherwise go to be composted. I think this upcycling is what makes insects a really valuable source of protein and vitamins and minerals for our future food system.
Is farming and eating insects ethical? Do they feel pain?
No one truly knows how an insect feels, but we don’t truly know what a plant feels either. When talking to philosophers and ethical specialists their opinion is quite clear that we need to be respectful to all living beings. But it’s also clear that insects do not have the same degree of awareness as other animals.
A famous ethical expert in Germany says if we need to consume animal products, insects are the most ethical and sustainable way of getting those high-quality nutrients. From that point of view, I think insects are a good option to get valuable nutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamin B12 from a natural product, rather than an artificial man-made product.
While farming insects, it is very important for us to work closely with the insect farmers; we visit their farms, and we work together with animal protection agencies to see that the insects are being kept in the best possible conditions.
Once you’ve grown them, how are edible insects processed, cleaned and made into food?
Once they're at the optimal stage of growth they’re harvested, put quickly into hot water so the organism stops functioning (this is the most animal-friendly method) and then cleaned and processed. Exactly how they’re processed depends on the food product you’re making, but you can often consume up to 100% of an insect, compared to only about 60% of traditional livestock. This means there is less waste!
But insect farms must still produce some waste?
Yes, but the insects’ excrement - or ‘frass’ as we call it - is actually a super valuable fertilizer that farmers can use for growing plants. So there is no waste produced that doesn't already exist in nature. I think this is what insect farming exemplifies - whatever comes out of one process is useful for another.
What’s your vision of the future when it comes to edible insects?
Over 2 billion people in the world are consuming insects on a regular basis - but there is not much domestication and farming of insects, which is needed for them to be a sustainable food source. We do find insect farming in Asia but the standards of quality are quite different. And if we want to have an environmental impact we need to change the food habits that we have more widely.
Something I learned when travelling is that a big part of the planet aspires to live the way we do in the West. I think by having more sustainable products in our diet, we can set an example for other countries and cultures., and we can also export and share food hygiene and animal welfare standards with other countries, other entrepreneurs and people that are interested in sustainability.
So it is really about getting inspired from the countries where they already prepare insects. But then we need to find our solution here with the technology to make those processes much more efficient, so it is also a collaboration. So we learn something from them, and they learn something from us, and together we advance the sector and make the entire planet’s food system more sustainable.
Have you ever tried edible insects? Would you try eating bugs? Let us know in the comments below!