"Insect Proteins" as a Food Additive? EU Invests in Eating Bugs

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It was recently announced that McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Burger King will stop adding "pink slime" to burgers. Pink slime is an ammonia-sterilized beef byproduct that has gotten bad press for passing as "100% beef" in ads.

You can be certain that the news means that food scientists have developed a new way to recycle beef byproducts back into hamburgers under the 100% beef banner, so that the chains can continue to offer cheap, fast food to the masses.

But, more to the point, pink slime demonstrates that modern food science has no "yuck" limits. It is therefore not hard to imagine the development of an insect-based food additive that enriches burger and nugget protein levels. Burgers with processed insect meal could be sold by chains under claims such as "higher in protein", "healthier fats", and "eco-burger".

Europe Puts Millions into Edible Insect Protein Research

The development of insect proteins as a viable food source will get a boost in 2012. With an eye towards food science jobs, the future of food safety, and commitment to progress, the EU has offered 3 million euros (about 4 million US dollars) for a research project with the objective to "exploit the potential of insects as alternative sources of protein."

The project is intended to contribute to the Millennium Development Goals, according to the UK Food Standards Agency (PDF, see point 4.11, which also suggests that only 1.5 million of the 3 million funding stems from the EU. The remainder probably derives from international funds such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization).

How Long Until Insect Food Additives Reach Consumers?

Developing sustainable industrial-scale farming of insects would be immediately useful for people in countries where bugs already occupy a respected niche in the local diet. But it is difficult to imagine companies like McDonald's adding insect proteins to McMeals unless either (1) widespread public acceptance has been gained or (2) they can get away with it by giving the insect-derived food additive a benign name that the public does not associate with creepy crawlies.

Public acceptance in countries not accustomed to insects on the menu may take much longer than the science required to develop food additives from insects. Additionally, scientific questions related to food safety -- such as the allergic risks related to plant residuals in insect digestive tracts, for example -- will also require years (maybe decades) of research.

But tomatoes, the foundational element of so many modern Italian dishes, were brought to the European continent from South America. Eating sushi was unheard of outside of Japan only a few decades ago. And foods featuring insects already show early signs of being a growing trend, from the worm-taco food truck Don Bugito to the insect cooking Vlog by Daniella Martin of Girl Meets Bug.

If public acceptance grows, look for "bug-boost" insect protein additive on a store shelf near you soon.

Tags: Carbon Footprint | European Union | Food Safety | Insects

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