What’s ahead for plant-based foods?

November 27, 2019

Over the past year, there has been quite a bit of talk about alternative proteins and in particularly the so-called plant-based products. Let’s face it; the hype (which I already mentioned in my previous article about cow farts) has been very well organized to inflate what has been going on in the markets. Probably, it is part of the culture of “disruptive” tech start-ups. They are quite good at using social media, making the wildest claims about how they are all going to change the world. When it comes to food, what will happen before you know it is that there will be no need for farms anymore. Just take a look at Sci-Fi movies and it is there! Yeah, right. The problem, well one of the problems, I have with this is that I have heard it before. Actually, I heard similar things before today’s disruptors were even born. In the 1970s, after the Apollo programs, we would not eat traditional foods anymore. No, our meals were going to be contained in pills. Yeah, right. It did not happen. Around the turn of the century, we had the new economy, not just a new economy, but the new economy thanks to dotcoms and internet. The old economy was history, for ever. Yeah, remind me how the dotcom bubble burst and how a few years later the old economy demonstrated it was still alive and kicking through its Great Recession. More recently, we all heard that Amazon was going to “disrupt” retail so much that brick and mortar retailers were going to go down. Yes, Wal-Mart was finished. Not. Actually, Wal-Mart is doing quite fine and for a simple reason. Solid businesses follow what is happening in their markets and they make the proper changes. And that is exactly what happened with most retailers around the world. They went digital and they started to sell online and deliver to customers. Similarly, e-books were going to kill paper books and online diplomas were to mean the end of universities. Well, paper books and bookstores certainly have had difficult times but they did a nice comeback. And universities are still very much alive, while the MOOCs are the ones that seem to have left the building. There is more to life than digital versions of the original products and services. Silicon Valley and co suffer of a good dose of hubris. Maybe, they should attend to that before it might become their demise some day.

The thing with so-called disruption is that the only businesses that actually get disrupted (in the true sense of the word, not the trendy sense) are the ones that are asleep and not paying attention. They would have died anyway. The businesses that are awake adapt. That is pretty basic business stuff. Since I got started about disruption, I would just say that I do not like that term because as I mentioned earlier, it is taken in its new trendy meaning, which really means nothing else than innovation and change, but those words are too mundane. I will agree that disruption sounds more dangerous. It makes you feel like a rebel and a threat. Yeah, isn’t it something that we all fantasize over when we are kids, being a tough rebel?

Let me be clear, I am all for innovation and for having implemented changes in a number of businesses; I know that it is a constant of life, but I am interested in change that is a natural evolution toward real improvement. I am much less interested in gadgets and made-up hypes that have as primary goal to fill the pockets of a few. I guess I am not easily impressed and it is not because something is the flavor of the month that I forget about my good old well rooted-in critical mind.

So let’s go back to the plant-based protein products. First, they are nothing new, even if the current business owners want to make us believe that their products are jewels of high-tech. If so, how come that so many companies are going in the very same market on such short notice? The answer is simple, those products are not difficult to replicate. Plant-based alternatives are not new and they have been around for a couple of millennia for some of them such as tofu, koftas and falafel. Soy burgers have been around since the 1930s, really becoming mainstream in the 1980s.

What makes the current ones so different? Honestly, not that much at all. So why the hype? For two reasons mostly. One is the use of social media which are great tools to inflate whatever message you have and that so many people are willing to relay for you without even knowing what they are talking about. But it makes them feel part of the tribe for as long as it lasts. The other one is that this time big money has been invested in those companies and wants to cash in big, so they are putting their resources and their relationships at work to reach that goal. When your product is the talk of the day every day in every media outlets, it sounds like it has taken over the world. It’s just good old-fashioned smoke and mirror tactics. Just find out which billionaires and venture capitalists have put money in these companies and you will realize that it is a beautiful exercise in investor-driven social-media-led push marketing for a production-driven commodity business. Here in Canada, we have seen the exact same pattern with cannabis stocks after the country legalized cannabis sales a year ago. A lot of hype was aimed at having money buying stocks so that the founders could make great capital gains. It almost sounded that because of the new legislation, every Canadian would splurge on pot, either breathing it or eating and drinking it. Yeah right. As if making something legal would inevitably turn people into addicts. Pot users could already find all they needed before the legalization, as is the case everywhere in the world. So, the market was already well defined. Nonetheless, cannabis stocks shoot up like rockets because when greed kicks in people get gullible. Actually, I suspect greed is as addictive as drugs. Early investors sold on time with big fat capital gains and one year later, the share price of cannabis stocks are stagnating to low levels again. I expect something similar to happen with plant-based protein stocks. It is already kind of happening already, especially with Mr. Big Bucks-who-blames-cows-for-farting-for personal-gain having sold his Beyond Meat stocks quite conveniently before they started to stumble.

What is ahead for plant-based meat alternatives?

The first thing to think about is what those products are. What do they mimic? They mimic beef burgers mostly and sausages to some extent. They do not look as much like fresh beef burgers as they do the basic sad frozen ones. My point here is that they look like cheap commodities. And the thing about looking like a commodity is that it makes your product a commodity. The fact that so many other companies can replicate similar product in such a short period of time just confirms that it is a commodity and certainly not a niche specialty. The first rule for a niche to resist competition is that the product/service is quite difficult to replicate and match. Clearly, that basic first rule does not apply here. The only product that escapes the commoditization risk is the plant-based shrimp. Shrimps are a commodity but there is such a shortage of seafood compared with demand, shrimp prices are high and should remain high for a while. Imitation shrimp profit margins should be more resilient.

The second thing that comes to mind is the price of plant-based protein products. I can give here only what I can see in the stores around where I live in Canada. The regular price for a half-pound package of plant-based burger is CAD7.99 (that’s CAD15.98 per lbs). That is about twice the regular price of a pound of ground beef, but I can buy ground beef on ad for CAD3.99 and even from time to time CAD2.99. The price gap is quite big, and that will have to change if the plant-based burgers want to gain substantial market share. I believe this is starting to happen with a Canadian brand of plant-based burgers advertising last week at CAD4.99 for half a pound (that’s down 40% from the regular price) and this week the American brand was for sale at CAD5.99 for half a pound (25% down from regular price). Price drop has to be compensated by additional volumes to achieve profit margin goals. Here a word of advice to the CEO of that American company who expressed not being interested in hearing about his competitors (weird statement but what the heck, who can you fear when you think you are God): pay attention to your competitors because they want to take a slice of the pie and possibly your entire pie with it; their growth will not be your growth. Prices start to show some action and the big meat companies who are about to enter have not made their mark yet. That is going to be fun, because the hype created this idea that the market potential is huge and they are ramping up to produce large volumes. The meat and poultry industry has a long history of overcapacity, oversupply and profit margin destruction. I suspect that they will bring some of that experience in the plant-based imitation meat. I think things are going to be interesting. Prices are going to go down and raw materials (soybeans and peas) probably will increase in price to match demand. Prices down plus costs up is the perfect equation for squeezed margins, both for plant-based and animal protein by the way. The ones who will benefit the most are the crop farmers to some extent, but mostly the producers of protein isolates (the raw material used to produce the imitation burgers), the highest margin will be in the health and wellness protein supplement sector, basic low-cost plant-based burgers should well because of attractive pricing, and perhaps the consumers to some extent.

But for consumers, a couple of other things will play a role. One of them is perception. Do they like the product? And with perception comes value. Will the perceived value be higher than the price gap between the imitation product and the original beef? Perception is not just about the product but also about the company. So far, producers are perceived as small start-ups, which is often translated by consumers as small, brave and pure. If they knew actually how much big money and Big Agriculture is behind, I wonder how that would affect perception, and this time will come because, after all, are we not in a transparent food system by now as all food corporation like to claim?

Plant-based burgers producers brag about the many places where they have their products offered to consumers, but being on the menu of a restaurant is not the same as having consumers actually buying it, but they present it as it were, and stock markets react accordingly. There has been a lot of buying out of curiosity because of the hefty social-media hype but the perception is a different story. I have read many reviews and I cannot see any significant trend one way or another. There are those who praise the product and there those who trash it. Online reviews are notorious for the amount of fake reviews and I am sure there are plenty of those on both sides for obvious hidden agenda reasons. Fact is however that only after a few weeks in the trial, the Canadian restaurant chain Tim Hortons removed the plant-based burgers from its locations except in British Columbia and Ontario. Plant-based burgers “opponents” mention a number of characteristics they do not like: high price, highly processed products, high sodium content, long list of ingredients and some ingredients they can hardly read and have no idea what they are. I will make a mention of sodium content here. In the stores around my place, I can find only one Canadian brand and one American brand. I compared the sodium content of their products with regular potato chips. Here are the numbers: potato chips 230 mg sodium for 50 g product, Canadian brand imitation burger 540 mg sodium for 113 g (that’s 239 mg Na per 50 g of product – slightly more than the potato chips!!); and American imitation burger 340 mg sodium for 113 g product (that’s 150 mg Na per 50 g of product – that’s two thirds of the potato chips sodium content). Why don’t they add sodium and let people decide how much salt they want to put on their burger? I know the answer to that question but I will let you figure it out. I rarely buy potato chips but when I do, I buy the half sodium ones, which are lower in sodium than even the American imitation burger. You can make the same comparison with what you find in your stores and draw your own conclusions.

The third thing to expect is the push back from the animal protein producers, and that has already started. There are many fights about definition of meat and dairy. Let’s face it, the producers of plant-based products know very well that if they advertise to carnivores with an herbivore undertone, it will not work very well, so they try to make their products look more carnivore-like. There are also fights about environmental claims about benefits of plant-based vs. animal protein, many of them unsubstantiated. Altogether, plant-based products keep many lawyers busy. The fact that there many legal battles does not bode well. In France, there is an old saying: “better a poor agreement than a good lawsuit”. It will be interesting to see how that will translate for the future of plant-based. Of course, bold statements such as the plant-based sector bring the US meat and dairy sectors to complete collapse by 2030 is not a great way to make friends. Plus, please refer to the beginning of my article for why existing businesses are much more resilient that newcomers tend to think, but hey they have to attract investors’ money after all so no claim is bold enough.

Regardless of all the fights and arguments, the market will decide and as usual markets will decide on price and value. The value will be about money but also about health and environmental aspects as well. The question, though, will be whether the price differential will be worth it. I indicated prices earlier. In terms of potential market share, from reliable sources I have found it sounds like plant-based might represent 2% of the protein market in 2020 and perhaps reach 10% in 2030 in the USA. To gain more market share, plant-based imitation meat products would probably need to be offered at half the price they are now at least, everything remaining equal, further. If they don’t adjust their pricing, they will be happy to amount to 5%. Also and because the market could be crowded, plant-based protein producers will have to differentiate themselves from the competition and the characteristics that I mentioned earlier will weigh more, and so will the use of GMO ingredients or not play a role. Of course, there is a good chance that, as usual with the food industry, they all will try to differentiate themselves the same way, thus shifting their universe a bit to the right but all offering more or less the same.

If going plant-based protein is more efficient than meat, and it is because it removes one layer in the food chain, then it would only be logical that plant-based be cheaper both in price and in cost, but it’s not because unfortunately most “future of food” products are not meant to cater the hungry poor. So, here is another price to keep in mind: the price for a pound of cooked beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils is around CAD0.99 per pound. If you wish to switch to vegetarian, using the wholesome grain in the first place without industrial processing is quite a financially attractive proposition and I believe that they will be winners for the future from a global perspective, not just the US market with its First World solutions for First World problems. The thing is that the First World does not seem to know about cooking anymore, in spite of trendy flashy kitchens. The market will also decide which businesses succeed and which ones fail. Start-ups little gods or not, the percentage of failure remains the same as ever: about 75% of businesses do not make it longer than 3 years. Often, the reason is ignoring competition and not understanding that it takes much more than production methods to win over customers. As for the animal protein sector, what will be the consequences? I have written a few articles about the subject (do a search on meat and protein in the search bar on the right hand side of this page to get the list of articles). I will simply finish with a chart that show past consumption and estimates of animal protein consumption for the future based on UN FAO data and you will see that animal protein are really not expected to suffer from competition of alternative protein sources.

There will be plenty of room for everybody: animal protein, plant protein, processed or wholesome, as well as traditional products and all sorts of innovative alternatives. There is no need for cockiness, belligerent statements and inexact claims. The markets and future economics will sort out the winners. In the end, we all have to work together and the key will be about producing and consuming sustainably. Production systems will change. That is normal. And it is going to take the efforts of all 10 billion people and their food choices, not just from food producers.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


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.


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.


Some basics about nutrition and metabolism that can improve your life

August 12, 2010

With obesity on the rise in more and more countries and legions of diets with little results, if any, I had been thinking about writing something about proper nutrition and some of the key physiological mechanisms involved in human metabolism. It is a bit away from envisioning the future, although the fight against obesity will gain momentum in the years to come.

There are many misconceptions out there. For instance, we all have heard that carbohydrates are not good, fat is not good or meat is not good. This is total non-sense. Carbohydrates, fat and protein are good. Actually, they are indispensable to our health. What is bad is too much, especially too much of the nutritionally poor quality carbohydrates, fats and protein sources.

Obesity and overweight are increasing health issues. In the world there are about as many overweight people as they are people suffering from hunger: around one billion people in each group. What causes overweight? The answer is simple. A person gains weight when he/she ingests more calories than he/she burns. The cause can be either too rich a diet and/or not enough physical activity. In most cases, it is a combination of both. The source of unburned calories are metabolized into fat and stored in the fat tissues. This is a problem, because fat tissues are poorly irrigated with blood vessels. This makes the stored fat difficult to eliminate. The body will use calories coming from the meals before it uses the fat reserves. This is why it is so difficult to get rid of extra pounds. The only way to use the fat reserves is through long intensive physical activity.

Some might wonder why our body does not tell us when to stop eating. Actually the body does, through two physiological mechanisms. One is a mechanical mechanism. When the stomach is stretched, the nervous system sends the information to the brain that the stomach is full and the brain makes us stop eating. The other mechanism is biochemical, through the blood composition, the brain sensors can detect when we have ingested enough energy, and the brain makes us stop eating. We feel “full”.

This could make you think that we should never overeat because the brain would let us know on time. Theoretically, this is true but the modern lifestyle has found a way of deceiving the brain. The biochemical mechanism takes time to react. It needs to detect a glycaemia level high enough to act. When we eat food and beverages that are highly concentrated in energy, and therefore have a relatively small volume, we ingest more calories than we would need before the stomach gets stretched, and before the glycaemia level rises in the blood to the normal level. Such foods are generally low in fibre and high in fat, such as fried foods. Soft drinks are not filling and they contain many calories. You can imagine the result of a combo bacon cheeseburger-French fries-pop package meal! The carbohydrates that they contain pass in the blood almost instantaneously. One of the advantages of fibre-rich food, such as fruit and vegetables, is that they fill the stomach and contain relatively few calories per volume unit. This activates the mechanical nervous mechanism and limits our food intake much faster than foods with little fibre. Do not fool yourself! The little leaf of lettuce in your burger is not enough to protect you.

This brings me to talk about carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: the slow ones and the fast ones. The main representative of slow carbohydrate is starch. Starch is a long molecule that does not get into the blood stream as such. When we consume starch in bread, rice, pasta or potatoes, the starch gets cuts in a smaller component, called glycogen. The glycogen is stored in the liver where it waits for instructions from the brain to be released in the blood stream. This happens through a biochemical mechanism. The brain sensors detect a state of hypoglycaemia, and it orders the liver to release the glycogen. As long as our liver still has glycogen in store, we do not feel hungry. The system regulates itself smoothly. When we run out of glycogen, which is between 2 and 4 hours after the meal, we get into a hypoglycaemic state and we feel hungry. Usually it happens around 11.00 am and noon. That is why lunch exists! Same thing happens around 5.00 pm. Starch is good and necessary for us (as mentioned before, too much, on the other hand, is not).

The second group of carbohydrates, the fast ones, follows a different process. This group consists of what we call sugars, such as saccharose, fructose or glucose. When ingested, they do not get stored for later release, unlike starch. They flow into the bloodstream almost instantaneously and there are two possible scenarios. If our activity level is high enough when we consume them, they are burned to provide us with energy. If our activity level is too low for the amount we consume, our metabolism deals with the fast carbohydrates in only one manner: it transforms the sugars into fat that then get stored in the fat tissue. This is why drinking large amounts of pop or snacking on candy bars while sitting on your couch watching TV or playing video games will make you fat. There again, the rule is enough sugar to sustain yourself is good, too much consumption is bad.

About fat, I can tell a similar story. Within the amount necessary to allow all our functions to work properly, fats are fine. As their name indicates, essential fatty acids are indispensable. Even the dreaded cholesterol is an essential element for us. What is not good is to consume too much fat, and to consume too much of the less good ones. The length of the carbon chain, the level of saturation and the configuration of the molecules also affect your health. The excess of fat in your diet will end up as fat deposit in your body. This is why potato chips while watching TV will hurt you, too.

Protein is good, but with moderation as well. As for the other elements, too much protein can cause some problems, as protein stored in the intestine before release will not ferment, unlike fibre, but will undergo a rotting process, resulting in the production of harmful amines. The kidneys have also more work to do, and a long exposure to a diet too rich in protein may cause kidney problems.

So, what is the lesson from all of this? For me, it is that food one of the enjoyable things in life, as long as it is consumed with moderation (an incidental excess once in a while is fine, too; it means that you enjoy life) and it goes together with a healthy lifestyle. A person should have 7 hours of physical activity (the kind that makes you sweat) per week. Also, remember that the best is to not gain extra pounds in the first place, because the fat tissue is remarkably persistent.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consuting Ltd.