For insect farmers like Antoine Hubert, 2021 isn’t the Year of the Ox — it’s the year of the mealworm.
In mid-January, Efsa (the EU’s food safety agency) declared the yellow beetle grubs, normally eaten by birds, safe for human consumption.
It’s the move Europe’s insect farmers and food makers have been waiting for, and once full approval is given by EU member states, the edible insect market is expected to boom.
“This is really positive and exciting,” says Hubert, whose company Ynsect, founded in 2011, is now Europe’s best-funded insect-farming business. “We always thought human food would come in time, but when we started the company we said it was too early.”
Now that’s all changed — and Ynsect is putting plans in place to take its mealworm product, YnMeal, mainstream.
Getting over the ‘ick factor’
Instead of coming out with its own branded bug burgers or protein bars, Ynsect’s plan is more subtle: it wants to sell YnMeal into the $20bn global sports nutrition market as a technical ingredient.
It has already struck a €3m deal with a French nutrition business, which it will start fulfilling in 2022 (leaving plenty of room for the full regulatory approval process to be completed). It is also filing a ‘generally recognised as safe’ request with the US Food and Drug Administration, so it can tap into the even bigger sports nutrition market stateside.
Ynsect reckons insect powders sold for human food could soon make up 10% of its overall revenues.
The reason it’s choosing this path is simple: while the EU’s scientists may think humans are ready to eat insects, the region’s consumers still, on the whole, think they’re gross. According to a 2020 survey by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), just 10% of people would choose to eat insects over plant-based proteins to make their diet more planet-friendly. In other words, it’ll be a while before consumers are ready to start stuffing whole mealworms into their mouths.
We’ll sell the functionalities — not the insects.
“The ick factor is the big barrier,” Hubert says. So instead, Ynsect will focus on selling the health and environmental benefits of insects as a technical ingredient, as it has done already in the agriculture and pet food spaces. “We’ll sell the functionalities — not the insects.”
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That’s where the bodybuilders come in. Hubert says YnMeal is “particularly beneficial for athletes, as well as for consumers concerned about their health and fitness”, thanks to its 72% protein content (compared to whey’s 80%) and balance of amino and fatty acids, which all contribute to building muscle.
The muscle powders market is fiercely competitive, and YnMeal will find itself up against whey, pea, soy and hemp powders, each of which has its own unique nutritional profile and loyal following of fitness fanatics who, in pursuit of their specific health and fitness goals, want to fine-tune their nutritional intake just-so. But the potential prize is huge: Ynsect says purchasing intent (the probability that a consumer will buy a product) in the health and fitness protein powder market is as high as 60% in Europe, while global sales of whey protein powder alone are expected to hit $14.5bn in 2023.
Ynsect will have to prove that its mealworm protein powder is genuinely a superior alternative to whey meal — which is considered an optimal ingredient for building muscle.
Ynsect is about to kick off further studies in the US, but Hubert says one already-completed study showed that mice and rats being fed Ynsect’s products have shown a 60% reduction in liver cholesterol compared to those being fed with casein, a milk protein that’s popular among health enthusiasts. “There are interesting health benefits to be further investigated,” he says.
Let them eat insects
Whole roasted crickets aren’t likely to edge peanuts off the shelf just yet, but the EU’s verdict does mean that protein bars, burgers and dry pasta containing yellow mealworm powder may soon be commonplace on supermarket shelves. The International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF), the industry body that Hubert is president of, anticipates that by mid-2021 a raft of new products will launch in this area.
It also forecasts that insect-food-for-humans production will ramp up to 260k tons by 2030 — a whopping 51,900% rise on the relatively measly 500 tons sold in 2019.
Along with bug farming peers Entogourmet in Spain and Switzerland’s Essento, Ynsect is in the process of scaling up its operations to meet this demand. The startup is currently building a vertical farm just outside of Paris that will allow it to increase production tenfold.
When bugs meet bureaucrats
The green light from the EU is a major milestone for the industry, and Hubert says it’s the culmination of nearly a decade of research, development and lobbying by the IPIFF. (Ynsect alone has spent over €200k testing its products for human consumption safety, including conducting toxicology and allergy testing.)
While insect farmers like Ynsect and fellow French startup Agronutris, Switzerland’s Ensectable and Austria’s Ecofly have all found success selling their products into the agriculture sector for use in fish, crop and animal feeds, convincing the EU’s regulatory bodies that their products are perfectly safe for humans to eat too has been trickier.
Without an EU-wide regulatory stamp of approval, it has been impossible for insect farmers to get big food businesses like Nestle or Mars to take a punt on their insect ingredients — meaning the environmental benefits of farming insects, which is said to emit up to 75% less carbon and use half as much water as livestock farming, are going unrealised.
Mealworms are just the first big bug breakthrough. Efsa is currently working through a backlog of 156 food safety assessments, including 14 applications that relate to different types of insects. The insect farmers have done the heavy lifting, now it’s time for the regulators to flex those muscles.