Alternatives to meat protein are nothing new. Rice, beans, nuts, and seeds have been around a long time, and soy began finding its way into the American diet a few decades ago. More recently, Americans have become increasingly familiar with protein from plants such as quinoa, chia, linseed, hemp, and peas.
However, with the increasing need to feed more people and the intensified desire for more sustainable food options, what's next on the protein horizon? Algae and insects.
Algae and seaweed: A vegan option
Algae are plant-like, usually aquatic, organisms that range from the microscopic (microalgae) to large seaweeds (macroalgae). Growing algae uses far fewer resources than most traditional food crops. Algae are also vegan, contain no known allergens, and can add dietary fiber, healthy fats, and micronutrients to existing foods.
Seaweed has been a staple of the Asian diet for centuries, and most Americans are familiar with it through its use for sushi. However, other seaweed uses have been limited, though companies such as SeaSnax and Annie Chun's are now offering seaweed snacks, and Ocean's Halo offers seaweed chips. Plus, Oregon State University researchers recently announced they had patented a new strain of a red seaweed called dulse that tastes like bacon.
In the development of microalgae as food, Solazyme is a leader. Last year, the company released AlgaVia™ Whole Algal Flour, which can "replace or reduce dairy fat, egg yolks and oil in recipes," and Whole Algal Protein, which can be added to food products to increase protein and nutrient content. The gold-colored algae are 65% protein and also contain fatty acids, fiber and the carotenoid lutein. Solazyme believes consumers are ready for algae protein, with just a little education.
Munching on insects
Want a protein bar where the protein comes from cricket powder? Exo Inc of Brooklyn, New York, and Chapul of Salt Lake City, Utah, both have you covered. The companies are two of about 25 U.S. and Canadian food manufacturers currently using cricket powder in food products.
Entomophagy — the fancy term for eating insects — is still a novelty in the U.S. and most Western countries, although Blueshift Research's March 2015 Trend Tracker found that one-third of respondents were likely to buy an insect-based product.
Insects are a regular part of the diet for more than two billion people around the world, according to a 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of The United Nations. The report makes the case for edible insects as a way to address issues such as "the rising cost of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes."
Crickets are considered a "gateway" bug into the world of eating insects, and four U.S. farms currently raise crickets for human consumption. However, farming these insects is a mostly manual process, with labor costs making the price of cricket powder over $25 per pound. Earlier this month, All Things Bugs received a USDA grant to research how to improve the efficiency of cricket farming and lower the costs.
One of the reasons for promoting eating crickets is the belief they thrive on almost anything, even organic waste, and don't require animal feed that contains grain, which takes massive water and energy resources to grow. However, a study published in April 2015 questioned that claim, finding that the diet of crickets made a huge difference in their survival rates, and the most successful diet was a grain-based one similar to what most chickens eat.
Of course, crickets aren't the only insect option. The adventurous eater can go online to buy chocolate-covered scorpions, superworms, silkworms, and more from Thailand Unique through U.S. distributors.
What's the future for edible algae and insects? While that remains to be seen, experts do agree that with the planet expected to have nine billion people by 2050, growing enough food to feed everyone requires that we create more efficient and sustainable ways to produce food.