March 29, 2022
The global insect-based protein market has experienced a major spike in the past years, spanning from animal feed and pharmaceuticals to the food & beverages industry.
With the latest EU approval, authorising insect protein as a source of protein for human consumption, we can also see a rising interest in edible insects among consumers, further promoted by a number of novel foods entering the food & beverage market on a regular basis.
Offering excellent protein density, insects are known for their extremely simple cultivation, requiring only a fraction of the space needed for traditional farming. Processing insects into nutritious foods and beverages, however, can be a real challenge and finding the right formulations and technology to develop a product that maintains nutritional value and is appealing to consume requires extensive hours of research and knowledge.
We spoke to our expert, Ola Strom, Food Technologist at Tetra Pak, to understand why enriching our foods and beverages with insect-based refined powders is far from a one-size-fits-all approach.
Eating insects is actually nothing new. From mealworms and crickets to caterpillars and grasshoppers, around 2,000 insect species are eaten worldwide, and scientists still record new, unexplored edible insect groups on an ongoing basis. But to many consumers, insects in their pure form are off-putting. That's why various food manufacturers are working to process edible insects into non‐recognizable forms and incorporate them as protein supplements into familiar food items.
“From food tech startups to established players, our industry is experimenting more and more with insect-based refined powders to enrich foods, such as power bars, crisps, plant-based shakes and milk,” says Ola. “But mastering taste, mouthfeel and nutritional value of insect-based powders requires a fair amount of research."
Insect-based proteins can have a variety of insects as their base and finding the right species is decisive for the final taste of the product.
“Insects differ in their intensity of flavour,” Ola explains. “In liquid applications, the type of insect can also have a huge effect on mouthfeel and purity of the powder. From previous experiments, for example, we learned that the strong taste and mouthfeel of certain cricket powder doesn’t quite work in our liquid applications. Instead, we achieved great results with highly purified mealworm-based proteins from the company Tebrito, providing the right level of purity and mouthfeel for an oat-based mocha drink we’re currently testing,” Ola continues.
But it's not only about finding the right insect base. Food manufacturers also need to find the right heat treatment, mixing technology and dosage to create a nutritious and tasty end-product.
For further processing, ensuring high quality and purity of the insect-based powder is key. The drying and milling process, for example, is vital for achieving high levels and quality of the protein during processing. Under-dried insects can cause the growth of moulds or bacteria, whereas over-drying insects can reduce the nutritional value and quality of the refined protein powder.
The right method of milling or grinding the dried material, in turn, is crucial for the final mouthfeel. That's why, the protein used as an ingredient in soluble products, such as plant-based milk or shakes, usually demands a much finer mill than insect flour used for bread or pancakes.
Finding the right formulation and dosage is one of the final steps and can take several rounds of testing. And, whereas maintaining the nutritional value is a high priority, mouthfeel and stability of the final product are always top of mind. “Stability and mouthfeel go hand in hand”, explains Ola. “If you add a powder, which does not dissolve, then you will have sedimentation in the product and a gritty feel in the mouth."
Processing insect-based proteins and producing food and beverages that are acceptable both on an industrial scale and in the daily diet of the end consumer still requires a lot of research and product testing.
That’s why, at Tetra Pak, we’re running multiple product trials together with innovative food startups and customers to make high-value protein-enriched foods an industry reality.