Caitlin Hyde says her interest in New Zealanders’ attitudes to eating insects was piqued after learning more about the small boom in the “insects for food” niche that surged in the country in the mid-2010s.
“We saw products come to the market like cricket flour that gained some attention but did not really last long. Many of the products you cannot buy anymore. It interested me how a sector that showed so much promise did not last very well.”
A recent report produced by FoodHQ identified four types of emerging proteins NZ could be a leader in producing, none which were insects, but back then the surge accompanied globally increased interest in alt-proteins that included everything from lab-grown meat to fungi and insects.
Hyde says options for alternative proteins are driven as much by the unique interactions we all have with food on a physical and psychological level, as by the practicalities of growing and processing the product.
She says the pointy headed aspect of her work included trying to understand how edibility is defined and the multiple physical and human elements that can determine that.
She cites Dutch insect company Insecta as an example of an operator that achieved an alignment of marketing, breeding, retailing and legal requirements to successfully market meal worms in a country where insect-eating has gained momentum in recent years.
This has also been attributed to work done by Wageningen University that specialises in agricultural and food research.
But she notes in Western cultures the concept of eating insects cuts across many peoples’ best efforts to keep them out of their kitchens, making them even more of an anathema to becoming part of one’s diet.
This is despite finding that a significant majority (two-thirds) of consumers claim they would try eating insects.
“But the problem is twofold there. When surveyed people will make such claims, even if they don’t actually do it, and secondly there is a difference between trying and actually building them into your dietary regime.”
NZ has a reasonably strong market for insects as a novelty food item, such as candied crickets for example, where taste is not necessarily the key focus.
A self-confessed arachnophobe, Hyde says she has experimented with a variety of insects in her own cooking.
These include locusts, which produced a disconcerting “pop” when bitten down on, meal worms that crisped nicely when baked in a slice with cranberries and chocolate, and huhu grubs, which she was not a fan of.
In understanding peoples’ definition of “edible”, Hyde’s work has highlighted how that means different things to different people.
“Insects may well be a good source of protein. But people also want something that tastes good, is easy to cook and socially fits well with them, and we need to try and capture all that when we are considering insects, which is hard to do right now.”
With 2 billion people in the world regularly dining out on any of 2000 edible insect types, it is tempting to consider a market must exist within, and beyond, NZ’s palates.
“The problem is NZ is already a very small market, and insects as food are another smaller niche within that. If we were to do it at any scale, we would have to look at exporting, and that is another whole problem area around the regulations for exporting insects.”
NZ does have the benefit of being a pure source for base breeding stock, with a proven record of good phytosanitary standards. Hyde says there could also prove to be opportunities there to add additional value.
AgResearch and Lincoln University work is looking at the impact that feeding rongoā rākau or Māori medicinal herbs to native insects could have when consumed by humans.
Meantime the industry is stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation, where volumes remain small. There is only one major supplier, based in Otago, meaning often supply is to top-end food outlets capable of getting a premium on them.
Medium term, Hyde has concluded that the market for insects as food is likely to remain a niche one, even as the food cost crisis prompts people to reconsider their conventional protein sources.
“But the good thing is they don’t need a lot of land to be produced upon, and could possibly offer an additional stream of income to an existing food-producing business.”