According to Bugsolutely Founder Massimo Reverberi, the project is now in development together with its partners Asia Insect Farm Solutions (AIFS) and supported by the government-based Food Innovation and Resource Centre (FIRC) in Singapore.
“Production cost is one of the main challenges faced by the insect-based foods sector today, mainly because no standards are in place to control any part of the production chain. Artisanal production prices still apply, which leads to higher end-product price-points,” Reverberi told FoodNavigator-Asia.
This is where plants could come in, as these are ‘a great protein source, potentially cheaper than insects, although nutritionally less rich’.
“Because of this, we think that this mix [of insect and plant proteins] will be valuable, both in terms of nutritional profile and price point – using the rich nutritional profile of insects, which are a superfood, with 50% to 70% of protein content, Omega-3, -6, -9 fatty acids, a variety of minerals, vitamins and more, and supplementing with plants, [which are more cost-effective],” Reverberi added.
Part of the development revolves around selecting vegetables that require as little processing as possible to extract the desired proteins, as Reverberi believes that overprocessing defeats the purpose of a plant-based or insect-based food product in the first place.
“Some plant-based foods choose to obtain their protein from cheaper vegetables - but if they need to get rid of most of the actual vegetable, this creates more food waste,” he said.
“It also means that a lot of energy is needed to extract the proteins, so environmental benefits get lost on the way. We want to avoid that.”
At present, the list of candidates for the plant portion of the snack includes mung beans, seeds and flours whereas cricket flour is the current frontrunner for the insect portion.
“For the insect portion, we use only powder (flour), and now globally there are only two available: mealworm powder and cricket powder. We will focus on cricket flour initially and consider mealworm flour at a second stage,” Reverberi added.
“Food-grade mealworm powder is produced mostly in Europe and it is expensive now, but there are some Asian companies working on it and we expect the price to become acceptable in the future, when we will take a closer look at it.
“Silkworm powder is also a possibility, but at the moment the disruption of the silk industry to obtain a safe, human grade powder may require a lot of resources.”
The new snack will be marketed under the brand name Plento (‘Plant’ + ‘Ento’), but although the exact type of snack is still being developed, Reverberi said that it will not be a deep-fried one.
“We’re thinking it will probably be a baked snack, although vacuum frying is a possibility too,” he said.
Format and messaging
Reverberi also believes that the best way to boost consumer acceptance and interest in the sector is by creating products in innovative formats such as pasta and snacks and playing up its premium superfood benefits.
For instance, its main product at the moment is a cricket pasta, which he said is a ‘simple and good application’ for cricket powder.
“It’s clean, it’s easy to apply, and it’s a soft approach which is easier for consumers to accept – it’s a lot easier to convince people to consume crickets in powder form as opposed to having them see the insect itself,” he said.
Bugsolutely’s cricket pasta uses 20% cricket powder and 80% wheat flour, which Reverberi believes is current the right balance to gain favour with consumers.
“Below 20%, it will be difficult to bring out the nutritional value of the insects, but if the percentage is too high, the taste might be too strong and the price also will start to get very high,” he said.
In terms of growing the sector in Asia, he added that two promotional factors that are currently in short stock are very much needed in the region to fill the gap.
“The first is media coverage: This has helped tremendously in growing the sector in Europe and the United States, where there are hundreds of articles covering insect consumption as a possible new alternative protein source – we need more of this in Asia,” he said.
“The second is distribution. A lot of insect-based food start-ups are selling products online due to budgeting concerns and not so much in physical retail stores, but this sort of promotion is tricky for insects as consumers have a trust problem with such a new type of food.
No matter how beneficial insects may be in terms of nutrient content, he stressed that without proper support and distribution, consumers will not be able to see this.
“They need to see the actual product and taste it – there will be no trust or confidence to be had by just selling online, and credibility for the sector will only come if supermarkets start stocking these products,” he said.
“The messaging also must be right: Insects are a superfood, and need to be marketed properly as such.
“It should be considered a delicacy for its benefits and be marketed as such – merely communicating its functional benefits such as ‘high protein’ is hard to convince consumers who have never tried it, especially those with preconceptions that it will taste bad.”