What will we eat tomorrow? Faced with the growing demand for proteins on a global scale, industrialists are investing in the field of insects and microalgae. But they find themselves confronted with legislative and cultural obstacles.

In the coming decades, the increase in world population and the nutritional transitions underway in emerging countries suggest a very strong increase in the demand for protein, predicts the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Insects are seen as an ideal alternative to meat to meet this demand. In fact, two billion people eat it every day, but not Westerners.

Microalgae, which are still marginally present on the market, are another good solution from the point of view of industrialists. But before seeing the small six-legged animals and seaweed invade our plates, legislative and cultural brakes must be overcome, explained food tech specialists at a conference organised by the French Food and Health Fund (FFAS) on 15 September 2017 in Paris, and attended by Sciences et Avenir.

Human consumption of insects is prohibited in France

If you don’t see insects invading supermarket shelves, it’s for a simple reason:”to date, the human consumption of insects in any form whatsoever is prohibited in France, even though consumers can obtain their supplies through various distribution channels,”explains Jean-Michel Chardigny, director of research at INRA.

As novel food, insects must be assessed as novel food by the European Food Safety Authority. Nevertheless, some countries, such as Belgium, already tolerate some species, but to consume entirely (which is not the most appetizing…). There is a lack of solid data on digestibility, digestion speed, allergic risk and safety,”says Dr. Henderson. Individuals allergic to crustaceans may have to avoid insects, as cross allergies are considered “very likely”.

If the French cannot consume insects, their pets, if: insect oil in food for dogs and cats is already allowed. Since 1 July 2017, the use of insect meal has been permitted for fish farms. Insects to feed trout, a funny idea? Well, not really. “In the wild, insects are the main source of protein in fish. Trout consume about 40% of the fish,”explains Guillaume Daoulas, an engineer with Ynsect, a company that produces insect proteins. “Traditionally, farmed fish are fed from fishmeal and fish oil derived from fishing (anchovies, sardines, mackerel, herring, etc.), adds the engineer. But it takes about 1.5 kg of fish caught at sea to produce 1 kg of farmed fish.

However, fish stocks are shrinking drastically while the demand for protein is constantly increasing. With its high-tech vertical insect farm inaugurated in February 2017, Ynsect focuses on the breeding of the Ténébrion meunier (a beetle) and hopes to soon target the poultry and pig nutrition markets before it can reach humans. “It must be borne in mind that the consumption of insects does not necessarily mean eating adult individuals, larvae, caterpillars or worms being candidates to arrive on our plates, whole or in the form of ingredients,”concludes Jean-Michel Chardigny.

Chocolate and orange juice made with microalgae

Microalgae are microscopic organisms capable of surviving in extreme environments and are already on our plates. Two species, Spirulina or Chlorella, are authorised and produced on an industrial scale and incorporated into various foods (salad sauces, pastries) or sold as food supplements. They have a serious advantage: they can accumulate up to 70% protein, and produce 50 to 100 times more proteins per unit of surface area than animal sources!

The potential is great, there are still 30,000 species of microalgae left untapped“explains Cécile Gladine, a researcher at INRA. French companies, such as Algae Natural Food, already produce microalgae on a semi-industrial scale (60 kilograms per month). Chocolates and orange juice based on spirulina, a microalgae pasta recipe to replace the traditional egg pasta… Algae Natural Food is full of ideas and hopes to produce one ton per month of microalgae by the end of 2017.

The innovations of the “food tech” are therefore within our reach… But will we agree to eat them? Even if they tend to be suspicious of innovations and look for tradition and naturalness, the French are not insensitive to innovative products and services from food tech,”explains Eric Birlouez, sociologist. Although contradictory a priori, the two attitudes can coexist harmoniously.

On one condition, however: that the proposed innovations be perceived as compatible with their representations, needs and expectations.” Eric Birlouez promises a bright future for “retro-innovation”, bringing together products with a vintage look inspired by old recipes, and eating it “better” (healthier, more ethical), while keeping serenity and pleasure.

Two essential values for the French at the time of going to the table. This is why the sociologist is more reserved about the generalization of insects and microalgae in our plates. “In our French food culture, they are not “traditional”. Same problem with future “synthetic” meat from muscular stem cell cultures, even if some see it as a means of resolving the ethical and environmental issues raised by animal husbandry.”

Insects on every plate by 2030? It’s not planned.

Manufacturers agree: in a survey carried out by AlimAvenir in 2017, they rank insect and algae products among the trends on which there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding their generalisation on the French market by 2030.

Experts believe more in the generalisation of organic or vegetable protein-based products and flexitarism (but not veganism, which concerns 0.1 to 0.5% of the French population). Nutrition applications and digitalisation of the kitchen are expected to develop further in the coming years, but remain limited to certain categories of population (e. g. suffering from health problems).

As for the 3D printed pizza,”there have been a lot of announcement effects to raise funds in recent years, but the technology is far from perfect for the moment“says Céline Laisney, director of AlimAvenir. Finally, as far as food is concerned, nothing very “futuristic” and sensational on the horizon.