March 29, 2022

Mastering nutritional quality, taste, stability and mouthfeel 

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.

What’s the deal with insect-based proteins?

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."

"Especially for refined powders used in liquid applications, the type of insect makes a difference and requires essentially different formulations and processing methods.”

A bug in the system – Choosing the right insect as a base

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. 

A fine balance – How to maintain high levels of purity 

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. 

A recipe for success – Finding the right formulation 

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."

"High shear mixing and homogenization technology, for example, can help overcome this challenge and achieve a better balance of stability and mouthfeel.”

From niche and on-trend products to industrial scales

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.   

Learn more about the three most common edible insect groups

  • Crickets are a common choice for conversion into protein powders and high-energy products. The so-called “cricket flour” can be used for a variety of tasty products, including cricket burgers or pancakes.
  • Mealworms are known for their commercial use as fishing and reptile feed. In the past years, however, they’ve increasingly gained traction. As they are native in mainland Europe, they don't require much heat, space or water, which makes them extremely easy to cultivate and a great option for satisfying consumers’ rising demand for high-protein beverages.  
  • Black soldier flies are known for their high turnover of raw material to finished product and can be fed with organic waste materials from other agricultural production. They are extremely efficient, extracting up to 70% of proteins from such waste.

Read more about how Tetra Pak is looking towards alternative protein-based food applications

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