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Promising Proteins Could Solve Many Food-Related Issues, If We Let Them

2 new studies examine the potential of edible insects and mycelium to boost both human and planetary health, and the barriers and systemic issues that must be overcome to realize that potential.

Novel food regulations remain a barrier for scaling edible insects

Image credit: Yum Bug

Edible insects could be a key to a more sustainable food system; yet novel food regulations could be restricting alternative environmentally friendly sources of protein for consumers, according to a new report.

The report from the UK Edible Insect Association (UKEIA), produced with support from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food (ISF), aims to help the Food Standards Agency (FSA) review UK novel food regulations — but the insights could be applied globally.

Towards effective and sustainable regulation of edible insects in the UK shows that current regulations impose an extremely high barrier to entry for edible-insect companies, potentially restricting the sector’s potential to contribute to a more sustainable food system.

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With an increased focus on finding solutions to tackle climate change, insects can provide an alternative and environmentally sustainable source of protein relative to other sources such as conventional meat — which are widely considered to be unsustainable. Startup innovators and global companies alike around the world have been exploring insects’ nutritional and environmental benefits and their potential as a replacement for livestock as a primary protein source — thanks to the amount of food that they can produce relative to their resource use (ex: It takes 100 gallons of water to produce 6 grams of beef protein, 18 grams of chicken protein or 238 grams of insect protein), as well as their high amino acid and micronutrient content.

A growing number of insect species have been extensively researched for their potential for human consumption. The new report found that following strict farming and production practices will result in edible-insect food ingredients with no more risks than those of commonly eaten foods such as chicken, pork or shellfish. The report argues that effective and science-led standards developed with the sector and a licensing requirement for farmers will provide thorough protection for consumers.

“Feeding a growing population is a major challenge; so — as well as reducing meat consumption and promoting a higher intake of fruits, vegetables and pulses — other innovative approaches that work to increase the consumption of alternative sources of protein, such as insects, are also needed,” says Professor Peter Jackson, Co-Director of the ISF. “This independent review of the evidence surrounding the safety of insect consumption comes at a crucial time when the UK’s exit from the EU presents a unique opportunity to review the current legislation on novel foods and to propose some alternatives that are consistent with the scientific evidence and proportionate to the foreseeable risks.”

Until recently, the UK has followed European legislation on novel foods such as insects, with the FSA following the rules set by the European Food Safety Authority. Brexit has provided an opportunity to change the legal requirements in ways that are more proportionate to the known risks of eating insects — several of which were examined in the 2021 FAO report, Looking at Edible Insects from a Food Safety Perspective:

  • Wild vs farmed insects — Food-safety risks can be higher when insects are harvested from the wild and consumed raw. But farming insects under controlled, hygienic conditions with sanitary processing techniques should reduce hazards such as microbiological contamination.

  • The quality and safety of feed and substrates used for rearing insects — As the nutrient content and food-safety aspects of reared insects depend on the substrate, further studies and monitoring will be needed to determine the quality and safety of such side streams as well as the insects that are produced.

  • Shellfish allergies? — Insects and crustaceans (shrimp, prawns, etc) belong to the arthropod family; so, potential allergenic risks associated with consuming edible insects need further investigation.

The UKEIA report contends that the risks associated with the most extensively farmed insects (crickets, mealworms and grasshoppers) are comparable to other livestock-production sectors and that proper management informed by on-going research is the route to enabling the growth of this potentially highly important new source of nutrition, rather than requiring onerous and costly laboratory studies.

“Food-safety authorities are worried about the introduction of any novel food due to their potential health impacts; but there is evidence that any similar risks of production to more commonly eaten foods such as chicken, pork, or shellfish can be mitigated by good production methods,” says the ISF’s Dr Mike Foden. “Insect-based foods … are not a familiar part of European diets; but they can be consumed in processed forms such as burgers, nuggets, or mince — which are more familiar to European consumers.”

Other identified potential risks and challenges associated with insect farming in the UK include achieving the temperature and humidity conditions optimal for rapid growth while either powering it from renewable sources or minimizing demand for grid electricity; and current costs of the product tend to be higher than imports from Southeast Asia, requiring a strong focus on quality and scale to achieve parity.

Foden pointed out that there’s also still often a "yuck factor” for us Westerners at the idea of consuming insects; but this tends to be exaggerated when compared to familiarity, availability, cost and taste — which are factors that apply to any new food product.

The UK has the potential to build a substantial hub of insect farmers and food product innovators but will require a significant change in the regulation of the sector. So, the UKEIA is campaigning to adjust the legislation on insects; the report aims to show how the safety of insect-based foods can be ensured so they can potentially become part of UK diets, as they have in other parts of the world.

Aaron Thomas, Chair of the UKEIA Board and co-founder of Yum Bug — a London-based startup that has developed a range of cricket-based ingredients (including mince and strips) that it showcased in a Shoreditch pop-up restaurant last fall — says: “I believe that insects have a critical role to play in creating a sustainable, future food system. The novel food regulations in the UK have provided a substantial challenge to our sector's innovation and growth, which we feel is disproportionate to the risks to consumers.

“Yum Bug has successfully introduced tens to hundreds of thousands of consumers to edible insects and we have absolutely no reason to think any have come to harm. We strongly endorse the suggestions for a more balanced approach to protecting consumers and offering more sustainable food options.”


Mycelium's role in a healthier food system

Image credit: Meati

Meanwhile, another new study explores the many reasons why mycelia could offer a viable solution to some of the many issues caused by our broken food system — including world hunger, malnutrition and undernutrition.

Published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the study — authored by researchers from University of California Davis and the University of Tennessee; along with Harold H. Schmitz, Chair of the Scientific Board for Meati Foods, and Meati Senior Advisor Behroze Mistry — explains the enormous diversity in the fungal kingdom: Metabarcoding data suggests there are as many as 1.7−13.2 million species. And despite already playing a major role in traditional food culture and society via foods including cheeses, soy sauce and the mushrooms themselves — not to mention many of our favorite alcoholic beverages — fungi remain one of the largest and least explored biodiverse resources on the planet.

But as the many shortcomings of our current food system continue to reveal themselves and experts explore more sustainable foods and systems, there has been a spike in scientific and commercial interest in the use of fungal mycelia as a food source — especially for species that have a good safety profile and can be utilized as an easily cultivated, rapid-growth source of high-quality protein and desirable nutritional value. Mycoprotein is becoming a major presence in the alternative-protein market, as brands such as Quorn and Meati and a growing number of enterprising startups bring their mycelium-based meat and seafood alternatives to consumers seeking healthier, planet-friendlier food options.

In addition to the environmental benefits, including a dramatically lower carbon footprint when compared to conventionally raised, animal-sourced foods (ASFs), the report highlights the many nutritional and health benefits of mycofoods — including the potentially game-changing benefits of mycelial extracts on the immune system, and in treating cancer and cirrhosis.

On the nutrition front, commercialized species such as Fusarium venenatum and Neurospora crassa are low in fat and provide quality protein and essential micronutrients similar to those in meat, as well as being a good source of fiber and all necessary amino acids. Current modeling also suggests that replacing ASFs with mycofoods would mitigate much of conventional protein production’s environmental impacts: Environmental inputs (feed, water, land use) aside, accounting for all outputs of conventional, ASF production — including feed production, manure storage/spreading, enteric methane, and processing and packaging of the finished product — carbon footprint estimates of mycofoods were 10 and 4 times less compared to beef or chicken, respectively.

While initial studies on the anabolic effects of mycelium are promising, the study acknowledges the need for additional data on the ability of mycelium protein intake to support human growth. Future considerations also include adapting production of mycofoods to utilize local resources and creating educational programs that demonstrate how these ingredients can fit with current cultural practices and meet consumer taste preferences. The ultra-processed nature of many current plant-based meat substitutes — including the addition of sodium, sugar, saturated fat and additives to enhance flavor, texture and color — is a concern for both health professionals and consumers; but the filamentous nature and nutrient density of certain types of mycelium, coupled with the potential for innovations in fungi flavor, can enable very ‘meat-like’ product development that requires fewer additives for flavor and texture.

But, along with mycelia’s promise, the researchers acknowledge that hunger and food insecurity are the result of the inextricable link between social inequality and access to healthy food options; so, the potential benefits that mycofoods present to human and planetary health can only be realized if the availability of sustainably produced, nutritionally sound, cost-competitive mycofoods scale to the point where they’re universally accessible.

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