More than two billion people worldwide eat insects on a regular basis. A Swiss start-up has made it their business to convince us of the potential of these small six-legged friends. Marius Wenk from Essento told me what their peculiar idea is all about, and why he prefers to eat roasted crickets in front of the television instead of a bag of chips. Yes, he really does this, and after reading this text, maybe you will, too.
How did you come up with this idea? Have you eaten insects before and enjoyed the taste or was it something else that inspired you?
During our linguistic studies in Colombia and Africa, we came in contact with insects as food for the first time. There, we had the opportunity to try insects and we discovered that they don’t taste bad at all. The publication of the 2013 FAO report through an sub-organization of the UN played an essential role in wider acceptance of this idea. On at least 200 pages of the report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN describes the huge potential of edible insects. After the report was published, many enterprises in the western world started to show interest in Entomophagie, the human consumption of insects. We asked ourselves, why shouldn’t this also happen in Switzerland? That was when we started examining the legal issues associated with it.
And then you approached Swiss politicians, right?
Exactly. We won a few environmental competitions and because of this, made contact with WWF. Through this connection, we gained access to politicians in Bern and have even organised an insect-apéro for the members of parliament. We must have made a convincing case, because a parliamentary initiative was launched to include insects in the Swiss Foodstuff act.
In pre-industrialization times, Swiss people ate insects. Why aren’t they declared or recognized as food in our laws?
In the Foodstuff Act, everything listed are foods that we may eat. That means, all items catalogued in the law are recognized as food. Items that are not listed within the law are not necessarily forbidden, per se. For example, insect consumption is allowed in private, but it is illegal to offer insects as “food” in a restaurant or to sell them as food in a store. You may sell it as “feed,” but not “food.” When this law was initially written, they simply forgot to list insects, because it was drafted just after industrialization when the Swiss had stopped eating insects.
Why should we start to eat insects again?
First, they bring a wide range of new flavors to our cuisine. There is a gigantic palette of more than 2000 edible insects. Second, insects are very healthy for us, because they are high in protein and contain important minerals like iron, zinc and calcium. They are rich in unsaturated fatty acids and provide valuable vitamins like B12, making them an ideal food. The third argument is that entomophagie makes ecological sense. Insects are very efficient breeders and conventional sources of meat are an ecological dead end. A change in thinking must take place, because meat breeding creates a lot of waste and requires a great deal of natural resources that insect breeding does not require. We need alternatives now and we believe insects are one of them.
Three kinds of insects are going to be included in the Swiss food law: the grasshopper, the meal-worm and the cricket. Can you compare them in taste to something familiar?
Well, they are all new and unique tastes, but you can compare the meal-worm in taste to peanuts. Most insects have rather a nutty flavor. This is why one can use it in the kitchen for salty as well as for sweet dishes. Crickets taste like popcorn and grasshoppers are comparable to chicken.
Are there also more interesting insects in terms of taste?
There are 2000 different edible insects, some with very interesting flavors. Ants possess a very delicious citrus-like taste. Then there is the honeypot-ant, who, like her name suggests, tastes like honey. There are so many potential new tastes. However, we know the most about the three kinds of insects I mentioned, and they are the ones that are going to be included in the Foodstuff Act. It makes sense that we have chosen the meal-worm, the cricket and the grasshopper.
Are you discussing adding other insects to the law in the future?
It is certainly the long term aim to include more insects. We see this first phase as an important step, and are convinced that more will follow. Nevertheless, there is a lot we can start doing at this stage. No new insects are being considered for licensing, because it takes a lot of effort until a new food is admitted into the law. But it is possible that two to three new insects could be added in the coming years.
Does a person ever completely overcome the aversion to eating insects or are there still moments where one might still feel some disgust?
You get used to what you eat regularly. For me, eating insects has become part of my everyday life. I eat roasted insects like someone else might eat chips.
So, sitting in front of the television, you eat roasted crickets instead of a bag of chips?
Yes, for me this is just normal. And it’s much healthier. There are a lot of exotic insects that I myself haven’t yet tried and I think that there I also own more inhibition threshold.
Can you already tell us something about what the products are going to look like that you launch with Coop? Are there whole insects in the foods or rather meals where the insects are processed such that you can’t see them? What is the plan?
If it were just up to us and not also our partners from Coop, we would like to have both in it. That is, we would like to sell products where the insects are processed and products where you see what you eat. We still want to show a little of what we’re doing. But the main approach now at the beginning of our efforts is to include processed insects. It will go into this direction, but what exactly comes out in the end I can’t say yet.
But you’re not going to sell whole, raw insects that people can prepare by themselves, using for instance, your cookbook?
This would probably not work with Coop. We completed some surveys where 40% of the Swiss consumers we spoke to would be willing to eat processed-insect products. Only 10% said that they would try whole insects. Based on this outcome, it makes sense to sell processed products.
Insects ordered on the internet are still relatively expensive, keeping insects from being a viable alternative to meat. Will this change?
At the moment, insects can’t compete in price with meat, because quantity in the food branch greatly influences the price. With insects, demand is not very high yet, so large amounts are not being produced. It’s still a niche market, so the prices are correspondingly high. However, there is strong potential for the prices to fall. And, our target group are consumers who are very deliberate eaters, people who don’t focus solely on price. But I do expect that insects will remain expensive in the first few years. Just like a good piece of meat.
What should one pay attention to when purchasing insects to eat?
At the moment, you can only buy insects as feed. But having said that, there are already insects that were bred under food-standard hygienic conditions, and are being sold as feed.
That means I can’t go to the pet shop and buy some grasshoppers for myself?
Yes, you could do that, but there is a flavour difference between pet shop grasshoppers, and those bred for human consumption. But you could certainly eat them.
What about risks and allergies?
There is the possibility of a cross-allergy originating. If you are already allergic to crustaceans, there is a chance that you might also develop an allergy to insects.
Are there already people on board to begin with insect breeding?
Insect breeding is very interesting for farmers in particular, as a good source of supplementary income. At this point, I don’t know of anything currently being bred in Switzerland. At the beginning, we will have to import the insects from Belgium and Holland also for our products. However, our aim is to have Swiss-bred insects as soon as possible.