Finally! An insect protein that doesn’t taste like insects
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
I still remember when the first insect products came to Finland. The Finnish Food Authority had just approved growing insects and selling them as food. There were all kinds of cricket foods being sold on the shelves. I always love trying new types of food and was trying to eat more sustainable food alternatives. My Asian heritage also means that the idea of eating insects doesn’t really bother me as long as they taste good.
I started to change my mind pretty quickly, however, as soon as I bit into my first cricket burger. Not only did it taste like grass, but the texture was completely off. And as I bit into the weird mealy mush that was the so-called “burger,” I would occasionally get a feel for a hard shell-shard here and there, just to remind me that I was eating a dead cricket body. As I forced myself to eat the rest of the burger, and eventually the rest of the burgers in the package (I don’t believe in wasting food), I said to myself, “Excellent, I have now found the perfect way to punish my future children (should I choose to have any)”
Suffice it to say, the cricket burger did not last long on the shelves. Perhaps my imaginary future children travelled back in time to ensure its ultimate destruction, or maybe it was just that disgusting… who knows? Nevertheless, embracing alternative proteins such as insect protein are one of the keys to creating a sustainable food future. The FAO has long been promoting the “potential of insect gathering and rearing for improving food security worldwide.” You can check out the wealth of links and videos on their website making the case for consuming more insect protein here. Around 2.5 billion people in the world (mainly from Asia, Latin America, and Africa) eat insects not only as a means of survival, but for pleasure as well.
Not only is insect protein nutritious, it also can be produced quite cheaply and in some cases even for free. They can easily be farmed by small-scale farmers therefore creating new opportunities for rural families to generate income, especially in Asian countries such as Thailand. They use significantly less land, water, and resources to rear than their mammal and fish counterparts, resulting in a much lower carbon footprint. In addition to that, insects are already mass-produced for animal feed at very large scales. This gives insect production a significant advantage over new novel foods and innovations, which often require heavy upfront investment and time to set up, design, and scale for mass-production. So how do we get reluctant Westerners to embrace insect protein the way they have embraced other new food alternatives, such as plant-based protein?
COO Bertrand Giorgi showing off their two products: a high quality insect protein powder and Frass, a high quality organic fertilizer
Enter Tebrito, a foodtech startup that has been working hard to create an innovative lineup of insect protein products. They understood Western society’s reluctance to embrace insect consumption. Therefore, after 2 years of research and development at the Swedish University of Agriculture in Sweden, the founders of Tebrito managed to create an insect powder that is completely odorless and tasteless. This allows the protein-rich powder to be added or combined with any other products, such as a meat burger, without altering the taste or texture as much as, for example, the poorly shredded crickets that were added to mine.
The majority of insect-rearing businesses work primarily in creating products to be used in animal feed. The EU imports 70% of its animal feed, and they often use feeds with a high carbon footprint, such as soy protein. Selling Tebrito’s high quality insect protein to the animal market alone would already have a significant climate reduction impact while still being profitable. However, Tebrito wants to take it a step further by not only offering their insect products to the animal feed market, but for direct human consumption as well. “If we eat the insect protein ourselves, we jump the “animal stage” in the food value chain, and have an even bigger climate saving because, of course, to farm animals, you need energy, land, water, and all that. Insect protein is a high quality protein product. It has the same amino acid profile as beef. So it's almost a waste to give that to an animal and then eat the animal in turn. If we can eat it directly, then we [further reduce our] climate impact.” Bertrand Giorgi, COO of Tebrito explains.
That’s not the end to Tebrito’s solution though. They don’t just want to reduce the carbon footprint of their food production, they want to make the biggest climate reduction impact possible. To do this, they have made their production process fully circular, resulting in what they believe to be a fully carbon neutral, if not carbon negative, food production process.
How have they done this? First of all, they managed to take a by-product of their patented protein extraction process (i.e. - mealworm poo), and repurpose it as fertilizer for farming. This by-product (or as Bertrand likes to call it, “induced benefit”) is already being sold under the brand name Frodas as an organic fertilizer for home gardeners. Frass is also sold to agriculture professionals for its bio-stimulating properties.
The Tebrito mealworms munching away.
The second thing they have done is take in the waste produced by other industries and upcycle it into their own processes. Biosludge, for example, is a by-product of the pulp and paper industry which industrials would have to pay to dispose of . In a project with SCA (the leading pulp and paper manufacturer in Sweden), Tebrito has been testing biosludge and using it as feed for the mealworms in their insect rearing process. The result is a fully circular solution on both ends of the supply chain.
Often when it comes to other novel food solutions, such as cell-based meat or plant-based proteins, it takes time to bring the products to market. After all, either the technology is quite new or hasn’t yet been produced on a large scale, and so heavy investment is needed in developing the manufacturing process and facilities. This is not an issue for Tebrito. The beauty of their business model is that they are using established insect-rearing technology. This means that they will be able to scale all of their processes quite quickly. They completed a pilot in the fall of 2020 and are currently working to mechanize all of their processes.
The Tebrito Pilot Factory. Each tray is full of mealworms munching away as shown earlier.
And while they haven’t done a life-cycle assessment yet, Bertrand is confident that they will be able to achieve a carbon negative footprint as long as the supply chain is well planned.
“We're not going to do gigantic farms, we are betting on middle-size units, so that the capital demand should be reasonable. And the benefit is that if it's middle-sized, then it can be placed at the right location to minimize transport,” Bertrand explains to me.
Thanks to a recent EU court ruling positively interpreted by Sweden, Tebrito’s insects can now be used in consumer food products instead of just animal feed. However, you may not “see” their product in stores the way you might think: sitting on a shelf labelled as “insect protein powder.” This is because Tebrito will be selling their product B2B rather than B2C. In addition, because the insect protein powder is completely water soluble, odourless, and has a completely neutral flavour palette, it can be used in almost any food application for food manufacturers without the consumer really noticing any difference in taste or texture. “If you want to do egg-free mayonnaise, if you want to use it in ice cream for the antifreeze properties, you can do whatever you like, this is completely versatile,” Bertrand explains to me excitedly, adding that food manufacturers don’t have to label the product as an insect product just because they use their powder. Instead, it can simply be labelled as a high quality protein.
Tebrito was also one of the top 10 startups selected for the EIT FAN Helsinki accelerator program in 2020, which ended up being a great program for not only helping further develop their business, but also for making great connections and meeting new investors. They completed their most recent financing round in November 2020, and are looking forward to scaling up their operations.
For more information on Tebrito, please visit https://tebrito.se
EIT FAN will be accepting applications soon for their 2021 accelerator program. For more information on the EIT FAN Helsinki program, please visit https://www.eitfan.eu/helsinki