Eating insects is still a question

(MENAFN-Swissinfo)

  • Deutsch (de) Insekten essen – idi für ein Ausführt!
  • Italiano (it) Mangiare insetti, che fatica! (original)
  • Anyone switching to a plant-based diet like me will start by paying attention to how much protein they eat. I still do sometimes. Proteins, along with the glucose in carbohydrates, are thought to help the human brain develop rapidly, making our species the smartest on Earth. That’s why they’re so important to a healthy diet: our bodies use the amino acids that make up proteins, for example, to build and repair muscles and bones.

    In Europe, we are spoiled for choice with abundant sources of protein. But as I’ve explained in previous parts of this series, Europeans’ overconsumption of meat and dairy, the main sources of protein, is a major environmental problem, as it’s the third largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, proteins in Africa are not easily available or affordable for many people. There, the search for sustainable, yet natural and inexpensive sources of protein is relentless.

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    Sara Ibrahim How have your eating habits changed?

    More and more people in Switzerland have chosen a vegetarian or vegan diet for various reasons. What are your experiences?

    I was struck by the story of Esnath Divasoni, a Zimbabwean businesswoman who tackled malnutrition in her village by raising edible insects. Divasoni, who studies agricultural science, raises crickets that provide high-quality protein for his community. Her example is followed by other local women.

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOExternal link), insects can help end world hunger and reduce the dependence of a growing world population on intensive agriculture. Although they are foreign to Western culinary culture, about two billion people around the world use insects. That is why some believe that one day it will become a daily currency even in the West. But in Switzerland, an insect-eating pioneer, that prospect still seems remote.

    Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch
    Insects in a warm room

    Insects are highly nutritious, low in fat and contain all nine essential amino acids. They also contain fiber that meat doesn’t have and vitamin B12 that isn’t naturally found in plant-based foods. Research conducted by Diego Moretti in collaboration with the ETH Zurich federal institute of technology shows that insects are also an acceptable source of iron, although they contain less iron than meat.

    “In this respect, they are more similar to plant-based products,” says Moretti, a human nutrition expert at the Swiss Distance Learning University of Applied Sciences (FFHS) in Zurich. But he explains that insect proteins are more digestible and more complete in amino acid profile than, say, legumes.

    In 2018, Benjamin Steiner set up his own insect farm on the family farm in Endingen, Canton of Aargau.

    On an aesthetic level, insects are no more ugly than shrimp or snails. They also emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock and are easy to breed.

    I saw this firsthand in 2017 in Switzerland, the first foreign contact country in Europe to allow the marketing of three types of insects – crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms – for human consumption. All you need is a small room, some plastic boxes (similar to the fruit crates you see in the supermarket), a substrate of grain and seed powder.

    “Bugs need very little food, and they need very little space, water and energy,” said Benjamin Steiner, a veterinarian who now raises mealworms. For example, crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein, according to a 2013 FAO report.

    “Fantastic Beasts”

    In 2018, Steiner founded Ensectable on his family’s farm in the small town of Endingen in northern Switzerland. Forget huge barns and acres of land with animals, pungent smells and grass everywhere: this farm consists of three small rooms where insects mate and grow larvae before Steiner and his lone worker collect them.

    Steiner has a kind of fascination with insects. He speaks of their qualities with a good-natured smile. “Mealworms are truly fantastic animals. When they have nothing to eat, they just wait for better times to come.”

    Insects need little space, food, water and energy to grow. Just set up a small room with plastic boxes and fill them with a substrate of grain and seed dust.

    Mealworms need heat to grow faster – the ideal temperature is 25-27°C, which Steiner can control remotely. When the weather gets cold, the larvae eat less and their metabolism slows down. “If I want to go on vacation, all I have to do is turn the temperature down and the larvae will shut up until I get back,” he says. This is a luxury that farmers of cows, pigs and other farm animals cannot afford.

    The riskiest moment comes when mealworms are harvested, as they must be removed before they turn into pupae, the pre-adult stage. This happens at about ten weeks. After that, they are passed through a machine that separates them from the floury substrate, killed in boiling water and frozen at -20 ° C. These steps must be followed by law to ensure that all larvae are dead and pathogens are free.

    “In theory, this is not necessary because the bacteria in the guts of insects are not harmful to humans,” says Steiner.

    >>> This video shows how technology is changing the food we eat:

    Insects in the market

    Steiner manages to produce about 200 kilograms of insects per month, which does not allow for cost savings. Ensectable’s main customer, Swiss start-up Essento, sells a 170-gram pack of mealworm burgers for CHF 6.95 ($7) — more than most meat and veggie burgers.

    Admittedly, insects are not a vegan food, and at least not to the taste of meat lovers in Europe. But Christian Bärtsch, the founder of Essento, believes that they will be in our future.

    Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

    The somewhat shy young entrepreneur has a background in economics and a passion for food. He confidently tells me that the winning diet model does not completely exclude animal protein, and that insects are the link between plant-based and carnivorous diets.

    “Who am I to say that one food should be completely eliminated and not another? A healthy diet has been proven to include a variety of protein sources,” he says. “We can provide a sustainable, high-quality alternative that can be easily integrated into the diet.”

    His Zurich-based company has been selling insect snacks, energy bars and burgers in shops and restaurants in Switzerland, Germany and Austria since 2017. Bärtsch is also directly investing in Ensectable as a co-founder because he wants to monitor the entire production chain.

    From left: Christian Bärtsch, Benjamin Steiner and Mina Gloor, co-founders of Ensectable. Bärtsch is also the founder of Essento, a Zurich-based company that makes insect-based snacks, bars and burgers. Put it to the taste test

    But the truth is, for most of us, the thought of eating bugs is repulsive. A market survey in 2018 showed that only 9% of the Swiss population liked eating insects. But Bärtsch says it again and again: it’s all in our heads; it’s a matter of mentality.

    “It’s all in my head,” I whispered as I opened the package of insect snacks I had just bought. I had to go to three supermarkets to find them. Even the store clerk was confused when he asked about edible insects. He laughed nervously, as if candidly caught on camera. “Insects?”

    When she realized I was serious, she went to her manager, who told me that I would only find a reduced appetizer selection and that they no longer stocked the flour moth burgers because no one was buying them. As expected, the bill was steep: CHF 17.50 for three 15-gram packs of crickets and grasshoppers in various flavors and two energy bars of 35 grams each.

    Snacks made from fragrant grasshoppers and crickets available in some Swiss supermarkets. Tom Harrison

    As I was paying, I thought about the FAO report and Divasoni’s story and wondered how it was possible to end world hunger at these prices. But I remembered that Bärtsch had told me on the phone a few months ago that production processes were becoming more efficient and prices were falling.

    “It will take time to catch up with the meat sector, but we are making progress,” he said.

    So I decided to try the “Thai flavored” cricket from Essento, involving my husband in a culinary experiment. It doesn’t look too bad. Crickets squish between your teeth like any other salty snack. The taste of the insect is completely masked by a long list of natural spices and sugars. Moving on to the alpine grass-scented grasshoppers, the ingredients don’t change much, but the words on the packaging to “remove hind legs before consuming” make my stomach do something. I muster up the courage to open the package, but the red eyes of the locusts make me cringe.

    “You ate worse! No more prejudice!” I jump to conclusions as I go over all the junk food I tried before going vegan: tripe, tongues, various animal brains, and fried frogs.

    Not many flour moth burgers end up in Swiss fry pans. Keystone / Walter Biery

    I can feel the grasshopper’s wings rip and tear apart as I bite into it, and I try to focus on my fantastic protein intake, pretending I’m eating a crisp while my husband entertains me. He then puts a handful of dwarves in his mouth and swallows them without much thought.

    On the other hand, energy bars are really good: the crickets are ground into a powder and there is no added sugar. “Okay,” I shout, wondering how to get rid of the remaining tasty insects.

    I understand that there is still a long way to go to an insect cuisine this side of the Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea. But given the potato’s history, it’s not entirely hopeless: In the 1500s, most people thought potatoes were disgusting and fed them to pigs.

    “My grandfather’s generation never ate pizza or sushi. It takes a long time to convince consumers,” says nutrition expert Moretti. For some reason, my heart hurts. But the bugs are still there.

    You can email me to contact me or comment on this article.

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    Edited by Veronica DeVore

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