With protein-rich products top of mind for food and beverage manufacturers and shoppers, I asked Meghan McCullough to join the blog to discuss the potential for non-traditional protein to make its way into the American diet.
In the near future, the world is expected to experience population growth in emerging markets, a growing middle class, and continued urbanization. The world’s population is anticipated to grow from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion people by 2050 resulting in more demand for food and protein resources. As a result of this growth, income levels will increase and become multiples of what they are now. This larger, more urban, and richer population will put immense pressure on food and agricultural businesses to increase food production. The rapidly growing middle class in emerging economies will increase the food demand in new patterns, shifting from starch-based diets to diets rich in animal protein and higher quality ingredients.
In addition to the pressures of a growing population, meat and grain commodity prices are at historically high levels and are expected to continue to rise. In the past 2 years there have been a number of power plays for dominance in the animal protein manufacturing segment, notably the bid war over Pinnacle Foods and Hillshire Brands with Tyson Foods finally striking a deal with Hillshire, and last September’s sale of pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc., to the largest shareholder of China’s biggest meat processor. Even if a business is not one of the leaders in the animal protein segment, the rising protein demand is creating plenty of space for other manufacturers to compete in innovative ways. Consumer demand in recent years has been adding more high protein foods, animal and plant, to the competitive landscape. High protein foods are one of the most sought after items in US supermarkets and research shows that 50% of US consumers are still looking to add more protein to their diets. Products that can make a protein claim are seeing growth, from those that have always been protein-rich to disruptive new products like nutrition bars with cricket flour.
Insects in food may turn up American noses at first sight, but the recent trend of protein-enriched diets and their sustainability benefits are helping these small critters make a scene in the food industry. Research shows insects have various sustainable food traits: high nutritional value, environmentally safe, and economically attractive. Insects are high in protein, calcium, fat, and amino acids and have about half the protein of chicken and beef. According to a 2013 report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, insects are easy to raise, as they are farmed on less land and they emit fewer greenhouse gases than traditional livestock. Insects generally produce less methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia both per unit of body mass and per unit of mass gained than pigs or cattle. Insects are also very efficient at converting feed into protein because they are cold-blooded: crickets need 12x less feed than cattle and 6x less feed than chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Lastly, the upkeep and feeding for about 1000 crickets costs $50/year compared to $350/year to raise one cow. Manufacturers and regulatory groups have a chance to use these positive factors to overcome the ick factor of eating an insect; can they do it? Insects are popular in other parts of the world; what lessons can manufacturers take away and apply to position insect protein as a viable option in the U.S.?
Those in the industry seizing this opportunity create cricket flour by roasting the crickets and then mixing them into regular flour, which results in finished products with just 6% crickets. Some startups include Bitty Foods, who make cricket-flour cookies, and Exo, who have created chocolate and peanut butter and jelly protein bars with cricket powder. Six Foods are popular for their baked chips with cricket flour, and Big Cricket Farms produces “Chirps” which are baked snack chips made from cricket flour, beans, and rice.
How will these startup companies market and convince consumers that smashed crickets are the next superfood protein? Will insect and other nontraditional protein sources break their way into mainstream meals, or will they be left on the shelf hearing crickets?