A few years ago, Clara Best, an insight strategist at Pepsico, joined the growing ranks of flexitarians and decided to adopt a more plant-based diet. “But I struggled with the options available,” she says. Vegan burgers seemed too processed. Cooking with traditional alternatives like tofu and tempeh felt daunting. And pulses left her feeling bloated. To supplement her protein, she landed on a novel solution: insects.

First, she crumbled mealworms, which are actually beetles in larval form, on her granola, pasta and soup. These are high in protein and available from Eat Grub and Crunchy Critters. Then she graduated to crickets, which are similarly rich in nutrients, especially protein. Mindful of the health benefits, and a burgeoning market for meat alternatives, she quit Pepsico and started developing a line of cricket-enhanced foods “to help people transition to more sustainable eating”. Earlier this year, Saved Food launched its first product, a lentil-flour puff snack fortified with crickets. Available in flavours including black pepper and smoked paprika, each 25g packet contains 2g of cricket protein, the equivalent of one egg. They taste great – the crickets’ nuttiness is indistinguishable from other flavourings. Best calls the puffs a “good entry point” product for western consumers looking to crickets as a possible protein source. She has since soft-launched an expansion of the range including protein powder, pasta and cricket-enhanced meat substitutes. 

Nori-flavour Small Crickets snacks
Nori-flavour Small Crickets snacks © Marcus Harrison via Alamy Stock Photo

Crickets and other insect proteins are a powerful new ingredient. In the form of meat substitutes, they have the potential to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional meat by up to 97 per cent. But there are hurdles. As well as the cost (a six-pack of puffs retails at £6.99), there is the “yuck factor”. Despite being a fixture of Asian and African cuisines for centuries, insects continue to be a hard sell among western consumers.

Insects are part of a larger category of foods known as alt proteins sold as more sustainable options to meat and dairy. Among other environmental benefits, alt-protein production typically requires less water and land and causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In matters of health and ethics, however, opinion varies. Some draw a line between insects and other alt proteins, because insects are still animals. Best points out her insects are killed “humanely” (ie, they’re frozen, lose consciousness and “the way they die doesn’t involve pain”).

Saved Foods cricket and lentil puffs, £6.99 for six packs
Saved Foods cricket and lentil puffs, £6.99 for six packs

Plant-based meat alternatives have also come under fire for being ultra-processed. Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of ProVeg International, an alt-protein food-awareness organisation, regards these characterisations as attempts by the meat and dairy industry to discredit plant-based meat alternatives. These, she argues, are “generally nutritionally superior or equivalent and no more processed” than comparable meat products. 

Alt protein also includes fermented foods. These can be traditionally fermented foodstuffs such as tempeh; biomass fermented foods that rely on rapid-growth micro-organisms like micro-algae or mycelium and include Quorn grown from a filamentous fungus; and precision-fermented products where micro-organisms are programmed like factories to produce flavour molecules and fats, among other things.

Crunchy Critters Crickets, £4.98 for two
Crunchy Critters Crickets, £4.98 for two

One alt protein attracting a lot of venture capital currently is cultivated meat (sometimes called “lab-grown”), ie, meat produced directly from cells. Recent studies suggest that compared to conventional beef, cultivated meat may cause up to 92 per cent less global warming and use 95 per cent less land and 78 per cent less water. The first cultivated burger was unveiled in 2013 by Mark Post of Maastricht University. But until recently, the only place you could eat cultivated meat was Huber’s Butchery and Bistro in Singapore, where regulators approved Eat Just’s cultivated chicken in 2020. Following USDA approval of products by Upside and Good Meat this year (a “watershed moment” for the industry), cultivated chicken has landed on menus at Dominique Crenn’s meat-free Bar Crenn in San Francisco (fried in a Yucatan-spiced tempura batter) and José Andrés’ China Chilcano in Washington DC (as anticuchos kebabs).

In the UK, Aleph Farms became the first company to seek approval from the UK Food Standards Agency this August for its cultured beef steaks – a process that could take up to 18 months. According to Hannah Lester of Atova Regulatory Consulting, however, the untested EU approval process may be complicated by certain member states. France has just introduced a ban on meaty terms like “steak” being applied to plant-based products. Italy is pursuing a ban on all synthetic foods (including flour derived from insects). “It’s going to become highly political,” she says.

Lester is also head of regulatory affairs for Paris-based start-up Gourmey, which aims to cultivate restaurant-grade meats, starting with foie gras (currently under review for approval in the US and Singapore). Among other enticing prospects for luxury consumers are Orbillion Bio’s portfolio of heritage meats from wagyu to elk; Magic Caviar’s Beluga caviar; Wildtype’s sushi-grade salmon; and Cultured Decadence’s Maine lobster. Not to mention Mission Barns’ quest to develop “kosher bacon”. If consumers get onboard with these foods, the results could be sizzling. 


Letter in response to this article:

Still wondering how the crickets I ate met their fate / From Alastair Conan, London CR5, UK

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