What is food -and implications for the future?

September 21, 2018

I recently realized that in the almost 10 years that I have been active with the topic of the future of food, one question has never been asked. I never brought it up, either -until now. Yet it is an important one, especially in a time where food start-ups are popping up like we were living in the dotcom era all over again, presenting all sorts of new foods with huge investments to back them up. The question is: what is food?

The question may sound simple, but the answer might not be as obvious as you might think. Food covers many dimensions, the importance of which varies greatly, depending on whom you are asking. The most essential dimension of food is nutrition. Living organisms need nutrients to live. Without food, they die. Food is what provides the nutrients. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Considering the high percentage of overweight people, nutrition clearly is not a discipline that many really master. One of the reasons for this health disaster lies in the psychological dimension of food. Let’s face it, how many of you ever build a meal solely on good rational nutritional logic? No, we eat what we like and we do not eat what we do not like. The reasons for our taste preferences are plenty. They have to do with the way our parents have taught us about food, with cultural preferences, with experiences in early life, with religious beliefs and with all sorts of beliefs that have nothing to do with religion just as well. We all have our own particular systems of reference when it comes to food.

To illustrate my point, here are a few anecdotes. Being French from birth, I will start with frogs and snails. As most people know, the French have a reputation for their cuisine, although some ingredients have shocked some of their neighbours for ages. Snails and frogs legs are among the typical clichés of French food, to the great disgust of the Brits who, besides snails and frogs, are not too keen on rabbit and, even more shocking, on horse meat. In turn, the French have quite the low appreciation about typical British cuisine. Tastes differ. If snails have been a disgusting thought, they seem to turn into a desirable delicacy as soon as they are served as “escargots” (the French translation of “snails”). Yes, food is a lot about psychology. Another example of the psychological aspect of food that has always baffled me is why vegetarian products have to mimic meat. It sounds contradictory, but that is the way it is.

When I moved to the Netherlands, where I spent 13 wonderful years, one of my first visits to a grocery store included buying eggs. It might sound like the simplest thing in the world. Think again! I walked around and around in the store looking for eggs and I could not see any. I finally spotted someone from the store and asked if they had eggs. He pointed right behind me and said: there they are! I turned around and it took me a couple of seconds to finally see them, and there they were indeed: an entire stack about as tall as I am. I passed by the stack of eggs several time during my search and did not “see” them. There was a simple reason for that: the eggs were white and all I had seen in my life were brown eggs, although I knew about white eggs. My brain simply did not make the connection. All I could see was a huge stack of what I genuinely thought were ping-pong balls, because the packaging was also different from what I was used to.

When it comes to food, taste is important but many other physical qualities influence what we like or don’t like such as colours, smells, texture, how it feels when touching. Food is really something that involves our senses, except maybe for sound, which is more useful when hunting, I suppose. It is not just about number of calories, grams of protein or fat. It is how we experience it from the moment we see it and inspect it with our noses, mouths and hands.

Our senses, and how they have been trained, decide what we perceive as desirable or as repugnant. This part is not in the realm of rationality, yet it is not about being irrational, either. The irrational part is more in the domain of our system of reference and beliefs. For how irrational they may seem to those who do not share these beliefs, they are quite logical and true beliefs for those who adhere to them. In the always controversial conversation about food and agriculture, it is quite important to acknowledge these beliefs and accept that different people have different views about food. Without this acknowledgement, there cannot be much of a constructive conversation, which then always evolves into a fight.

The question “What is food?” is only part of the equation when looking forward. The other –often neglected- question is: Do people know what food is? The answer to this one is really simple: it is a resounding NO!!! I can see that every day around me, and it is appalling. With urbanization comes the detachment from agriculture and Nature. Often what is left is some vague recollection or stories from previous generations that have been gradually altered and turn into beliefs of all sorts. The result is a lot of misconceptions, prejudices and dogmas, and this on all sides regardless of people are pro this or anti that. Every tribe now has its own mythology when it comes to food and agriculture, picking half-truths and only the facts that conveniently support those half-truths. Nonetheless and regardless of what beliefs they follow, most people have only a skewed knowledge of food at best, and most have none whatsoever. One of a side effects is the old adage that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king. Problem is that the one-eyed is not always ruling with integrity and truth in mind but more from a power and money point of view.

With all these points in mind, the question that needs to come next is what will food be about in the future? What will be the future beliefs, because they will play at least as important a role to define future foods as rational nutrition will? In fact, I believe that the psychology of food will largely prevail over rationality in what will be on our plates in the future, just like today. There are currently many popular topics.

One of them is insects. Insects are common foods in Asia and Africa, the two continents with the largest population growth for the future, unlike Western countries where insects are not really part of the food culture. So, is it a good idea to try to push insects into westerners’ mouths or would it be better to focus on markets where insects have a much more positive image? Insects remind me of the snails story. Originally, the French were not eating snails because it was fancy. Snails were a seasonal source of protein in times when protein was not abundant. The French simply used their cooking skills to make something rather unappealing to a delicacy. Another food that can be used as an example about insects is lobster. Lobster was not always a delicacy, on the contrary. Times change and so did the lobster’s image. If you like lobster and feel repulsed by insects, just think about what a lobster really looks like: a giant insect!

Another popular topic is plant-based protein. In my opinion, that is really not a novelty in the sense that people used to not eat that much meat and most of their protein used to come from plants: beans, peas, lentils and the entire family of legumes have always been a great source of protein. Also, textured soy burgers have been around for decades. In the future will such products made from these ingredients but processed and transformed into meat-like products really take over meat? I do not have the answer. Just with any new trend, the question is what will be short term and what will be long term. In times when processed industrial products have a poor image and are blamed for a number of nutrition-related health issues, one contradiction that I see, but food consumers are full of contradictions, is whether processed industrial products will be an appealing solution for the future.

Speaking of processed foods, a number of food start-ups that claim to re-invent food, are working on developing foods that sound more like synthetic foods. Perhaps some science-fiction writers from the 1950s and 60s had an amazing sense of foresight, or perhaps they are just a source of inspiration for producers who want to bring new products on the market. How will these foods of the future compare with our current system of reference? It is difficult to say. While currently, consumers long for authentic and natural, how do manufactured and synthetic answer their desire? And how will consumers’ desires evolve in a couple of decades from now? I have my views on it. The future will tell.

Another currently popular topic regarding the future of food is lab meat or clean meat or incubator meat. Although the claims that such products will be competitive with meat coming from an animal that has been slaughtered, the dollar numbers still are quite far from being so. When I wrote Future Harvests, the Dutch company that was at the front end of lab meat claimed it would be competitive and on the market in five years. That has clearly not materialized, yet. The same thing is true about the price at point of sale for incubator blue fin tuna flesh, which a start-up is developing. But maybe those products are only aimed at the 1% richest people. Regardless of those considerations, the big issue with these innovative protein products is the name. There is already a growing debate about the names “meat” and “milk”. Of course, it is convenient to use those names because it creates enough a confusion to lure meat and dairy eaters to alternative products. Of course, the producers of the “real thing” will argue that the alternative products are not meat or milk. After all, soy or almonds do not indeed have udders and nipples… Here, too, similar question as “What is food?” need to be asked:  What is meat? What is milk? In an environment where most people could not answer what food is, it is easy to imagine the confusion between traditional century old ways of looking at food and new concepts. Let’s face it, the debate will not be over any time soon and many clashes are on the way, not so much because the outcome is complicated to reach. It will be difficult because, both sides will want to win the debate instead of looking at it as just more alternatives in the market. All sides of the debates will want to win because they will be so afraid that losing the debate could mean their end as food businesses. That is the price to pay when truth matters less than perception.

However, it is also important to not forget that unlike food innovation, human physiology, human metabolism and human biochemistry have barely changed over the past few dozens of thousands of years. The needs for nutrients and the mechanics of food inside the body will still have to meet the same physical specific requirements. Food is a unique connector between humans and Nature, even though many seem to have lost the awareness of this connection, often to their detriment. Like it or not, we come from Nature and Nature rules over us. The foods of the future must not ignore our biological nature if they want to be beneficial. They must not ignore all the psychological, culture and social roles that food fulfils and are a source of happiness and mental health as well.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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How can insects be a part of future food security?

July 31, 2015

Since the FAO published a report in May 2013 presenting insects as a possible source of food to meet future protein demand, the topic has become quite popular in the mainstream media. I wrote an article about this (Insects on the menu) in May 2010, in which I was giving some of my thoughts. I still think along the same lines.

In the last few weeks, I bumped into the insect story several times, purely by coincidence. I believe insects can play a role but I am getting a bit frustrated by the lack of specifics in all the talk about insects and worms.

Apparently insects would present many performance advantages compared with traditional meat productions. Aaron Dossey did a presentation at the IFT15 symposium organized by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here are the advantages of insects he mentioned as reported in the article from Science Daily of July 14 2015:

  1. Efficiency. They use less land, water, feed, energy and other resources than livestock.
  2. Environmentally friendly/clean. Insects create fewer greenhouse gases and are not contaminated with pesticides. They also do not have any hormones in their bodies.
  3. Prolific. They reproduce quickly so they can replace depleted resources.
  4. Biodiverse. There are millions of insect species, so it is easy to find a match to a location’s need.
  5. Nutritious. They have protein and Omega 3s, a class of essential fatty acids that help lower cholesterol.

All of this is nice but…

  1. How efficient? How much less land, water, feed and energy and other resources?
  2. Environmentally friendly as long as they do not massively invade it. How many fewer greenhouse gases? No hormones at all, really? Of course insects contain hormones. They are necessary for their physiology and development. So which hormones was he referring to?
  3. Yes they are prolific, which raises the issue of what would happen if insects escape from farms in large numbers. They are prolific but they are tiny, so it takes huge numbers to match the weight of a cow or pig or even a chicken. The real question to answer is how many tonnes of insect protein can a farm produce compared with other animal productions? What should be the size of an insect farm and how many farms should there be to meet future demand. Also what feed will the bugs eat to grow?
  4. Biodiversity may be nice, but what species would be production worthy when it comes to the mass production of volumes that would be comparable with other productions?
  5. They are not the only food sources of omega-3

Unless someone can quantify the above, the story remains rhetoric. If insects are to become a large-scale production along the lines of other animal proteins, it is necessary to single out the species that will be the most efficient, technically and economically. It is also necessary to sketch the design and the magnitude of farms. There are a number of companies that have been venturing in the insect business but most of them are tiny, in the grand scheme of world food security. Aaron Dossey’s company produces 25,000 lbs of insect powder per year. That is 12 tonnes, and he does not sell them to the hungry of Asia and Africa. Compared with the world average meat consumption per capita per year, 12 tonnes of meat represents the yearly consumption of 250 to 300 people. If insects represented 1% of the world average meat consumption per person, his production would feed only 25,000 to 30,000 people, or less than 0.0005%! Clearly, even to cover 1% of the average animal protein need as it is on average per today, the magnitude of the challenge to set up a significant production is huge. The other challenge to overcome is to make insect production economically competitive, be it for human consumption of for animal feed purposes. Most businesses offering insect products today are operating in a small niche, just because there is little industrial production. The dominant part of the insects and worms consumed are picked in nature by those who eat them, as those animals are usually consumed when there is a seasonal shortage of other protein sources. The niche businesses sell their insect products at prices that even many people in wealthy country could not afford on a frequent basis. The insect products are offered to consumers at prices reaching several hundreds of dollars per pound.  Presenting such foods as helping the world feeding itself, which means mostly helping the world’s poorest to be able to afford nutritious food is at best delusional if not even plain cynical. Insects and worms can be contributors to future food security only if they are affordable and competitive against the other meat sorts. That cannot happen if they are limited to the treat sector.

Another aspect of insects as food is their attractiveness, or lack of it. Insects and worms are much more common in Asia and Africa, where the largest part of the world population is and will be in the future. In Western countries, insects and worms are perceived as repugnant by most people. In terms of marketing, it would make more sense to focus on the Asian and African markets instead of trying to convince Westerners to eat lots of insects, just because of the respective levels of acceptance.

However, there is communication to do and lessons to learn from the past. I would name two. First, escargots, which are so popular under their French name, are an expensive item on menus. Escargots are never sold as “snails” because that sounds gross for most people. Everything sounds tastier in French. Try presenting insects under a French names and the Anglo-Saxon population might be more tempted. Snails used to be, just like insects and worms in Africa and Asia today, food that the French were going to pick on walls after a rain in times of food shortages. My second example is lobster. Lobster used to be considered a bottom feeder that was only for the poor, and so it was. Clearly, the image of lobster has changed a lot. The other lesson about lobster, and I would add shrimp, langoustine and many other ugly crustaceans, is that there are expensive delicacies that actually look a lot like insects, and they are actually rather close to insects in their body structures.

When it comes to human consumption, I wonder whether people will still be tempted to eat bugs if the economic situation keeps on improving in Asia and Africa. Not that long ago, China was in situation of near famine. Anything that contained protein was food. They were roasted rats for sell. In France, during the privations of World War II, rats – and cats- were used to replace pork in many deli specialties. There is a big difference between having to and wanting to. Has rat meat consumption increased in China since the economic boom? Do the French since WWII ended have been asking their butcher for rat pâté? I may be wrong, but I really think that when people, wherever in the world, have the choice, they will go for a juicy steak or some chicken before looking for bugs.

Then, there is the possibility of using insects and worms for animal feed. The advantage of animals compared with humans is that they eat to satisfy their hunger, but there is no psychological side to what is in animal feed, at least from the animal perspective. A trial to feed live insects to chickens just started in The Netherlands. It will be interesting to see the results. What I am wondering about this trial is why use live insects instead of dead ones. When I worked in animal husbandry, one of the things farmers worked on preventing was the possible invasion of insects in the houses, in particular because of the damage to insulation material. Further, I hope they make sure the insects will not escape, and that at least, should that happen, they are not using species that could cause damage in the neighbourhood. Also, I hope that the insects chosen have been screened on the health safety in terms of passing on diseases. Especially, after all the problems caused over the past years by avian flu and contamination by migratory birds, one can never be too cautious.

So what will be a good production system for large-scale production? I do not know yet, and I cannot find much information on how insect husbandry of the future may look like. However, I remember a TV program I saw some 25-30 years ago on the Dutch channel VPRO. I am not sure about the title of the program, but here is what it was about. The documentary was presenting an old fellow living as a hermit somewhere in the wild. He was using meat offal from his farm animals to attract flies, by storing them in a large tank. The flies were colonising the offal and bones and used them to lay their eggs. Later, the maggots hatched and when he found they were large and ripe enough, the hermit harvested the maggots and boiled them in a large caldron. He used that mass of cooked maggots as feed for his pigs and so he recycled the carcasses leftovers of the previous batch of pigs to produce the next one. I found that it was a pretty smart feeding and recycling system. Perhaps, it could be a solution for the future. In his system there was no waste. Of course, it sounds a bit like a porcine version of the movie Soylent Green.

For as much as I can see potential for insects and worms, I also see a huge lack of number crunching and comparative trials to figure out which species to produce and in which productions systems to provide an abundant and affordable of safe insect and worm food for both consumers and environment worldwide. The generality talk about bugs is cheap and does not help me envision how insects would play a prominent role in feeding the future.


Insects on the menu

May 31, 2010

I came across a very interesting article from the French newspaper Le Monde, titled “Insects, the steak of the future”.

Photo: AFP/Mario Tama

The article reviews the potential of using insects as a food source to complement the traditional food production in order to meet the needs of the increasing world population.

Here are the main points.The nutritional quality of insects is high. They are a source of protein, fats, minerals (especially iron and zinc) and vitamins.

The production performance of insects out performs the one of traditional livestock, with a feed conversion ratio (number of kg of food to produce 1 kg of insect) ranging between 1 and 2.

There are already 1,400 species of insects consumed regularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Among the favorites, they name beetle larvae, ants, caterpillars, locusts, crickets, silkworm chrysalis, scorpions and spiders (although the two latter ones technically are not insects).

In most cases, insect consumption is the consequence of food shortage, but there is also a festive consumption of the bugs. The author mentions that in the old Roman Empire, caterpillars were a delicacy. Of course, in some Western countries, some restaurants offer insects at a premium price for a certain self-proclaimed sophisticated elite… After all, a lobster looks very much like a large aquatic bug.

However, trying to convince Western consumers to switch to insects and other bugs for their protein will be a tough call, especially when served in their original form. An possible alternative would be to process them into sausages and ground patties. There also could be the possibility to texture the protein in similar ways as it happens with soy.

Another interesting potential for insect is to use them as a raw material for animal feed. Bugs and worms can also be a good source of protein for poultry and pigs. After all, in nature, this was a regular part of their diet. Similarly, for many fish species, insects are a natural source of food. Currently, fish feed is made of increasingly expensive raw materials, such as fish meal, fish oil and vegetable oils, for which they compete with human consumption, or are used for feed destined to other farm animals.

There are talks about organizing the first congress on insect as a food source as early as 2012.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.