SINGAPORE: Pasta, cookies and wine are comfort food to some Singaporeans. But what if the pasta and cookies are made of crickets, and the wine actually made from tofu “waste water”? Would that be hard to swallow?
At a time when tastes are changing, with global trends such as the rise in plant-based meat substitutes, some local food start-ups are looking to come up with breakthroughs like these.
They are part of a new food technology wave about to sweep against climate change and food insecurity as the world population and global food demand shoots up.
Even plant-based meat is no better than chicken in terms of carbon footprint, producing about five times the emissions of legumes and vegetables, scientists have said.
The newer alternatives, including foods processed in laboratories, are on the horizon and not just a distant dream, the programme Why It Matters finds. But how receptive would people be? And taste aside, how healthy is such a diet? (Watch the episode here.)
INSECT BITES OF A DIFFERENT SORT
Raavee Shanker, for one, wants to change mindsets about insects as a food source. He co-founded Asia Insect Farm Solutions, which has cricket farm tie-ups across Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, after finding that insects were better than plant-based options.
“I can claim that (insects) are more nutrient-dense than any other plant- or animal-based product,” he said.
“Plant-based options have to go through very extensive processing in terms of isolating the protein so that it’s high enough for us to consume and fulfil our nutritious needs.”
Crickets are his insect of choice because they multiply quickly, are more likely to be toxin-free and are already consumed in some parts of the world.
Farming crickets is also kinder to the environment. Their greenhouse gas emissions average 1 gramme per kilogramme of weight gain, compared with 2,850 g for cattle, 1,300 g for pigs and 300 g for chickens.
“(Crickets) are very efficient in converting the feed they eat into body and muscle mass. For example, 2 kg of feed … contributes to 1 kg of body mass,” Raavee said, adding that water sources are not needed in their enclosures.
“All the water they need is obtained from their feed diet. In terms of land space, about 1 square metre is able to produce about 10 kg of crickets.”
Once they have reached a certain size, that’s when his start-up powderises them into a flour of sorts.
“We pack them in the freezer for them to go into a state of deep sleep, and then once they’re ready … we put them through a heating process (which) dehydrates them. At the same time, it kills any bacteria,” he explained. “We then put them through a grinding process.”
The result is a flour-like texture, which he said is “naturally much more nutritious” than beef, with about twice as much protein per 100g and all the essential amino acids.
“Humans need about 20 amino acids in general. But nine of them can’t be produced naturally by our body. Crickets deliver all nine that we need,” he cited.
The idea is to create a versatile product that could work well with any flour-based recipe. And so that consumers do not “detect a very distinct difference in flavour”, his company had to get the cricket feed and processing right.
Still, there may be a yuck factor in most people’s minds, he acknowledged. “So we’re going to focus on creating tasty food products that people can get on board with,” he said.
Because we want consumers to get a higher level of nutrition, but at the same time, enjoy the taste they’re familiar with.
As far as Ethan Nava is concerned, he could not tell that the cricket-based pasta and cookies he had on the show was anything unconventional.
“Crickets aren’t so bad. If it were cockroaches, I’d feel like it may be a different story, whereas crickets are just in the grass, hopping around,” he said.
WATCH: Your pasta will be made from crickets: Future foods (4:00)
LIKE GRIME ON FISH TANKS
Another organic material that can be added to flour-based ingredients is microalgae. It is considered plant protein, and the man who created Singapore’s first microalgae food thinks that growing such an alternative protein source here is “quite logical”.
“Because we can’t rely on imported legumes or plants,” said Ricky Lin, the founder of Life3 Biotech.
The government is on a “30 by 30” drive — to have 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs produced locally by 2030, up from less than 10 per cent.
To this end, Lin’s firm is using equipment called bioreactors to grow and harvest microalgae, single-cell organisms that live in water. The controlled conditions induce photosynthesis, prompting the cells to split and multiply.
Compared with agricultural crops, microalgae production requires only a tenth of the space. They can grow up to 20 times faster. And a little could go a long way at the dining table.
“If we’re able to formulate food using maybe 30 per cent of microalgae (dried into a powder) as a raw ingredient, then … about 30 g is good enough for a portion (size),” Lin reckoned.
He acknowledged that “the grime you see in your fish tank” comes to mind when thinking about food made from microalgae. But he added that humans have been eating algal products for a “few thousand years”.
He compared seaweeds, which are macroalgae, to their micro-organic cousins. “At the cellular level, (living things) are pretty much the same. We eat animals caught in the wild, for example fish. And the fish feed on this microorganism,” he said.
“So why don’t we go directly to the food chain itself at the base level?”
As for the taste test, Why It Matters host Joshua Lim tried microalgal noodles, and they reminded him of noodles with soya bean paste or even green tea soba. “Very tasty noodles,” he said in between mouthfuls. “Very light.”
Singapore’s reliance on imported food could be reduced also if food waste is turned into desirable food, considering that 640,000 tonnes were thrown away in 2018. And that is what makes the brainchild of Chua Jian Yong special.
The PhD student at the National University of Singapore has created an alcoholic beverage whose base ingredient comes from soya bean. It tastes somewhat like white wine but is made from a liquid whey that is otherwise discarded.
The production of tofu generates two by-products: Okara, the soya bean pulp; and the whey. Both are commonly thrown away by tofu manufacturers, but Chua has been taking the whey and converting it into what he calls Sachi.
“Soy whey itself contains nutrients. So if you dispose of soy whey into the drainage without processing, it can result in water pollution in the long run,” he said.
So rather than spend energy and resources to process the whey, “why not convert this by-product into a consumer beverage”, he figured.
Sugar and fruit acid, which is commonly found in beverages, are added to the whey and mixed well before the fermentation process starts. They provide nutrients and an optimum condition for yeast to grow as part of the alcohol production.
After fermentation, the yeast is centrifuged out, leaving behind a clear beverage. “The alcohol (content) for this drink is about 7 per cent, which is similar to moscato,” added Chua, the chief technology officer of NUS spin-off SinFooTech.
Lim enjoyed the Sachi “maybe a bit too much”, while it also fared well among the bar patrons he approached to give it a go. And it is sold in a nice-looking bottle, he noted.
Any novel food product to be launched in Singapore must first go through an approval process, so that should allay any consumer concern about “having Frankenstein food being fed to us”, said food scientist Christiani Jeyakumar Henry.
But there is still the question of the effects of the latest sustainable foods on human health in the long run. There is lack of research evidence, he pointed out — even though products like cricket flour can be tested.
The professor’s tests, for example, found that the flour was made of 49 per cent protein and 19 per cent fat, whereas wheat flour has about 11 per cent protein and 2 per cent fat.
While the product’s nutritional content was “pretty impressive”, he pointed out that “it’s a bit of an oxymoron” to call it cricket “flour”, because “in our vocabulary, flour normally comes from a cereal”.
“The point made was that cricket has got more protein than a beef steak, and I think that’s true,” said the director of the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
When it comes to “regular and prolonged consumption”, however, there is no “hard and fast data on … the long-term consequence”. But his prediction for the future is that these food technologies will be “unstoppable”.
“In 20 years’ time, we’ll need to look at alternative sources of protein to match what we currently have,” he said. “(And) there’s an incredible amount of venture capital coming into food technology.”
Agri-food start-up companies raised about US$17 billion (S$23 billion) globally in 2018, up by 43 per cent from 2017 and by up to sixfold since 2012.
“These are exciting times, incredible times — no parallel in human history. But at the same time, we’re trying to ask the question: What are they health benefits? If they’re good, bravo!” said Henry.
“If you’re a venture capitalist, you want — in the long term — to be a surviving capitalist. And to do that, you have to tell the consumer what’s the added value … I’m arguing that it’s nutrition that will win the day.”
Watch this season finale of Why It Matters here.