- Scientists at Tufts University said insect cells could be ideal candidates for inclusion in cultured meat and other innovative food products. The study was published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
- Sustainable food production needs to grow to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the water and space requirements of industrial livestock farming, the researchers said. Cellular agriculture could be more efficient, they noted, but there are several challenges to scaling up in a more cost-effective way.
- To address these obstacles, the researchers summarized previous work involving insect cell cultures. The goal is to overcome challenges from existing alternatives and "continue identifying and pursuing new food system innovations with potential for transformative impact."
The Tufts University researchers were assessing the current state of cellular agriculture and, along with a status report, trying to come up with some recommendations to move things along more quickly.
"Due to the environmental, public health and animal welfare concerns associated with our current livestock system, it is vital to develop more sustainable food production methods," the study said.
Since lab-grown meat, poultry and seafood are still in development, there may be opportunities to add other sources into the mix — potentially including insect cells. Despite research indicating 40% of U.S. consumers would be willing to try lab-grown meat, perhaps even fewer people might be willing to try it if they found out insect cells were part of the ingredient list.
The Tufts study acknowledged the common ick factor, which researchers called "food neophobia," meaning an extreme or irrational fear or dislike of anything new or unfamiliar. They also noted cricket flour has been somewhat accepted in the U.S. due to sustainability and nutritional reasons. Chirps, Bitty Foods and Exo Protein are among those using it in various food products such as chips and protein bars.
Despite the Western aversion to eating insects, about two billion people elsewhere regularly do so for the fat, protein, vitamin, mineral and fiber content — and because insects are readily available, cheap and sustainable. However, research from Wageningen University in 2017 found about half of respondents didn't want to consume insects in any form, regardless of whether they were an incorporated ingredient or served whole.
It may be difficult to incorporate insect cells into lab-grown meat, poultry, seafood or other products — never mind growing the insect cells by themselves — but the Tufts researchers said it could be a good way to get around the challenges of growing mammal cells. Those taken from cows or chickens must be carefully handled, and the pH, temperature and nutrient levels all need to be closely regulated, they said.
"The cells need a lot to drive their metabolism — they don’t want variations in the growth conditions or they won’t do well or they’ll die. Insects are completely the opposite," David Kaplan, a biomedical engineering professor and one of the study's authors, told Fast Company.
It's hard to tell how long it will be before manufacturers take the plunge and incorporate insect cells in lab-grown meat, poultry or seafood products. They already have a lot of consumer education ahead. Still, the sustainability factor could pull in adventurous people who like to try new things and don't suffer from food neophobia.
In the end, it may simply come down to taste. However, as Rubio told ScienceDaily, nobody knows at this point what cultured insect meat will taste like.
"Despite this immense potential, cultured insect meat isn't ready for consumption," she said. "Research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling development of insect cells into muscle and fat, and combining these in 3D cultures with a meat-like texture."
Meanwhile, the global edible insect market seems to be thriving, at least on other continents. According to Global Market Insights, it could exceed $522 million by 2023, with beetles, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets making up the greatest potential growth areas. There are still a lot of obstacles that will determine what, if any, role insects will play in lab-grown meat, but as the world population grows and consumers look for sustainable food sources, researchers are likely to keep exploring ways to make it a viable option.