Commentary: Could edible insects and bugs be a key part of F&B menus in Singapore soon?
As people become more aware of the climate impact of meat consumption, one source of protein is a good alternative. The trouble is getting over the ick factor, says a consultant.
SINGAPORE: After chickening out from a dare by my father to try a fried cockroach during a family trip in Cambodia, I finally mustered up the courage to sample brownies made with cricket flour during a corporate event in London.
It was also the first time I heard insect farming can be more sustainable than traditional animal agriculture in terms of land, water and energy use.
Since then, I’ve committed to minimising my meat and seafood consumption, mainly to reduce my carbon footprint. But I’ve felt conflicted about eating plant-based foods that are equally resource-intensive to produce such as avocado, almond or cashew.
As a regular runner, I have also struggled with getting sufficient protein intake from soy-based meat substitutes such as tempeh or tofu.
A MORE NUTRITIOUS AND SUSTAINABLE PROTEIN SOURCE
Most people associate alternative protein with cell- or plant-based meat substitutes such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, overlooking the health and environmental benefits of eating insects.
Over 2,100 species of insects are consumed in 140 different countries across the Asia-Pacific, the Americas and Africa, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Some of the most popular edible insects include beetles, caterpillars, ants, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets.
Insects are a high-fibre, high-protein food source which are low in salt and rich in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, although their nutritional value varies depending on the species.
Crickets for instance are complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids which is not always the case with plant-based meat alternatives. 100g of crickets contains approximately 60g to 70g of protein – two to three times more compared to the equivalent amount of beef or chicken.
Insects require less feed, grow and reproduce quickly, are more efficient in turning their food into protein, produce less waste and emit fewer greenhouse gases compared to conventional livestock.
In land-scarce places such as Singapore, insect cultivation could help improve food security and advance the city-state’s 30 by 30 goal – increasing the proportion of locally produced food from 10 to 30 per cent by 2030.
Even though more than 2 billion people globally consume insects based on the latest FAO data, the idea of bugs as food or feed is still met with disgust and reluctance around the world.
For example, feeding farmed seafood insects, rather than fish, could help reverse overfishing and create more sustainable and cost-effective aquacultural practices.
Yet a survey conducted in January 2021 by Professor Shirley Ho at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) revealed mixed opinions on the use of insects as fish feed.
92 per cent of Singaporeans and permanent residents interviewed were open to using okara meal, a by-product from tofu and soy milk production, while only 46 per cent would endorse plastic-eating mealworm larvae as aquafeed, likely because of food safety concerns.
ADDRESSING FOOD SAFETY CONCERNS
Unlike other Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam or Thailand, insects have never been part of Singaporean cuisine, but providing transparency over how insects are raised and what they are being fed could help dispel worries over food safety.
Singapore’s two edible insect start-ups Asia Insect Farms Solution (AIFS) and Altimate Nutrition currently partner with farms in Southeast Asia where insects are reared in a controlled, hygienic environment and live on a vegetable-based diet without any hormones, antibiotics or other chemicals.
Both companies aim to eventually set up their own production facility in Singapore.
In addition, upcycling food waste, agricultural by-products or manure from livestock agriculture offers a low-cost, high-nutrition feed for insects whilst creating a circular farming operation.
But rigorous and regular testing is required to mitigate potential food safety risks.
“General food waste tends to be more heterogenous in composition. It may contain toxic substances and be prone to microbial contamination, which could pass on to the animals and eventually consumers if we use general waste to feed insects”, warns Professor William Chen, Director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology Programme.
One solution is to feed insects more homogenous and cleaner pre-consumer food waste such as okara or spent grains, a by-product of the brewing industry, adds Chen.
CRICKET CHIPS ANYONE?
The import or sale of insects for human consumption is not currently authorised by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), although AIFS and Altimate Nutrition expect to receive regulatory approval to commercialise their products in the fourth quarter of 2021.
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To overcome the “ick factor” typically associated with insects, instead of whole insects, the two companies use cricket flour in functional foods that consumers are already familiar with. Crickets are often considered “edible insects for beginners” because of their earthy, nutty flavour with little after-taste.
“During our sensory evaluation, not one participant complained about the taste being different because the protein bar was made with insect flour and most were open to buying it as a snack”, says Gavriel Tan, co-founder of Altimate Nutrition.
Tan plans to charge S$5 at launch and eventually reach a price point which is 10 to 20 per cent cheaper compared to an average protein bar.
INSECTS ON THE MENU
Forward-looking restaurateurs are also embracing insects as an ingredient for more innovative menus. With the aim of promoting more sustainable sources of protein whilst preserving local food heritage, social entrepreneur Aaron Yeoh partnered with AIFS to trial cricket flour in some of the dishes for his soon-to-be-launched cafe.
His team replaced plain flour with 20 per cent cricket flour in their blondie recipe, which has allowed the cake to maintain its moisture while increasing its protein content.
They have also experimented with blending black soldier flies (BSF), primarily used as animal feed, into chili paste.
Although it was never marketed commercially, Insectta, Singapore’s first BSF farm and biotech company, had also tried making edible insect dishes including slider patties, pasta, cookies and sambal, and was even approached by brewery Red Dot to collaborate on an insect-infused beer.
BSF has a faint taste of pork lard and smells like roasted peanuts, and is easy to eat when seasoned with familiar spices such as salted egg yolk, mala or pink salt, shares Insectta co-founder Kai-Ning Chua.
CHILDREN ARE MORE OPEN TO TRYING
Perhaps the key to unlocking this entirely new area of food lies in the younger generation and customised workshops for children are already part of the plan in Chua’s case.
“The younger generation will be the fastest adopters of edible insects”, says Yuvanesh Tamil Selvan, co-founder of AIFS who found children to be the most receptive to trying insects during his outreach work with schools.
Alternative protein including insects could offer a viable solution to counter unsustainable agricultural practices, as well as excessive consumption and food waste in certain countries and continued hunger in others.
But as a novel food that wasn’t traditionally part of Singapore’s culinary history, it might take an entire generation to make the cultural shift of adopting insects as part of their everyday diet.
Trang Chu Minh is a consultant on international development projects. This commentary was written in the author’s personal capacity. Any views expressed do not reflect the opinions of the author’s current or past employers.