Last month, Robert Downey Jr. unveiled his next big venture on prime-time TV.
Speaking with chat show host Stephen Colbert, the Iron Man star showed a container of fine brown powder that – Colbert joked – could easily have been cocoa powder.
Instead, it was protein powder made of mealworms – the creation of French company ŸNSECT, for which Downey Jr and other investors had just helped raise $372m. For the Hollywood actor, the investment was a no-brainer. Insects are a sustainable, affordable alternative to the animal proteins on which the world currently relies, he said, with all sorts of potential to disrupt the food and drink market.
He isn’t the only one who thinks so either. In January this year, the EU’s food safety body EFSA gave the green light to mealworms for human consumption for the first time – paving the way for insect smoothies, snacks and health supplements. Some EU states including Finland, Belgium and the Netherlands already allow sales of insect-containing foods in shops.
Even the UK government has got involved, giving financial backing to a Black Soldier Fly farm to the tune of $12.9m in October 2020. So confident is the edible insect industry that it predicts the number of Europeans consuming insect-based food will soar in the next decade to reach 390 million by 2030.
Is that really likely though? Is a big cash injection, a regulatory stamp of approval and a bit of star power really all it takes to send insects scuttling into the mainstream and on to dinner plates?
Insects might be billed as ‘the next big thing’ but they’ve actually been on the menu for nearly as long as human civilization. Ten thousand years ago, hunters and gatherers ate bugs to survive. The ancient Romans and Greeks dined on beetle larvae reared on flour and wine. In the mid-nineteenth century, indigenous tribes in Nevada went on hunts to capture and cook the wingless Mormon cricket. As a food source, insects have been relegated in more recent times to a role as cheap feed for the current protein of choice – livestock.
There are signs of an insect revival though, as the livestock industry comes under increasing scrutiny for its contributions to climate change. Only in the last few months, we’ve seen the launch of cricket-based protein powders by start-up Protein Rebel; a line of pet food introduced by Purina using black soldier fly larvae and Party Bugs, a Finnish brand selling their packs of seasoned insects as a healthy snack. At ŸNSECT, the plan is to plough the millions invested by Downey Jr and others into rolling out a portfolio of insect protein blends and fertilizers to North America, and building the world’s largest insect farm.
By reintroducing insects as an alternative form of protein, there could be major advantages for the planet, say the companies fueling this current resurgence.
“The overconsumption of meat and dairy products is no longer sustainable,” said Francesco Majno, co-founder of UK-based brand Small Giants crackers, which launched their savory ‘cricket flour’ crackers in November 2020.
Though 77% of agricultural land is used for rearing and feeding livestock, only 17% of global caloric consumption comes from animals, she explains. Insects on the other hand require less land, less water and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. “Insects are one of the most promising sources of sustainable protein and by eating them we can hugely cut down our footprint.”
Majno thinks that the benefits of insect protein for the planet will be enough to convince consumers to give the creepy crawlies a try.
“We believe consumers are ready to give a chance to this kind of new food,” she said. “Research shows how we are increasingly more environmental-conscious when choosing our food, and we believe that consumers will see that there is a direct link between reducing environmental impact and eating insects.”
Large multinational companies are also investing in insect-based protein.
Archer-Daniels-Midland will host a giant black soldier fly farm in Illinois. Nestle, the world's biggest food company, has a pet food range made with insects. Cargill is partnering InnovaFeed to supply insect protein for fish feed.
On the consumer retail front, online retailer Sous Chef, for example, has seen a 500% year-on-year increase in sales of insect-based snacks, said the company’s Ellie Edwards. It isn’t only sustainability but health benefits that are drawing consumers in, she said. “When it comes to protein, insects are almost on par with a steak with an average of 205g/kg protein compared to beef’s 256g/kg - some insects even weigh in at 80% protein.”
To be sure, there will be challenges ahead for the burgeoning bug market. For one, some are unconvinced that insects offer an inherently more sustainable alternative to animal proteins.
“It’s almost an exact repeat of what’s happening with our oceans, where the tiny creatures at the bottom of the food chain such as krill, sand eels and capelin are being hauled out to feed farmed animals,” said Tony Wardle, associate director at animal rights group Viva. “The effect on the oceans’ ecology has been devastating, just as it will be if the basis of the land food chain is attacked.”
Convincing consumers beyond the health or climate conscious set will also be an uphill task.
A 2020 study of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) conducted across 11 EU countries found that “as little as 10.3% of consumers on average would be willing to replace meat with insects (76.8% would not, 12.9% are unsure).” That’s despite the fact that two thirds of these same people say they’re open to changing their eating habits to help the environment.
It isn’t as simple as grinding up mealworms and adding them to protein powders or potato chips, said Jonas House, a sociologist at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.
“There's an attitude of 'if we build it, people will come' with insects, with companies grounding them up and including in conventional European foods, but there's not really any evidence that works as a method of introduction,” House said. “If insects don’t beat alternatives on price or on taste, then people aren’t going to eat them.”
It isn’t so much revulsion at the idea of consuming insects but a lack of a compelling reason, he said. In other words, you might grab a pack of cricket potato chips once for novelty, but there’s very little reason to make you reach for them the next time.
If the edible insects industry is to reach its forecast potential, then it has to come up with a compelling reason for consumers to eat bugs. And fast. Otherwise, even Iron Man himself won’t be able to save them from a commercial splat.