Alternative proteins: Insect and hemp foods

Can alternative proteins save the planet?

Plate of insects as alternative protein.

There’s no shortage of reports telling us we need to cut back on our meat and dairy to help tackle climate change. From corn chips and wraps topped up with cricket flour, to chocolate hemp protein cookies, there’s a swarm of foods claiming they offer a better alternative.

These products don’t come cheap – you’ll be stung $11.99 for a 50g packet of cricket flour or a 250g bag of pasta made with the stuff. So how do their nutrition and sustainability claims stack up?

Insect foods

Eating insects – or entomophagy – is nothing new. Globally, approximately two billion people eat insects and various wriggly “delicacies” are a mainstay on menus at wild food festivals. Now you can add insects to your shopping basket in more palatable guises such as wraps, corn chips and pasta.

Insects are used in these products as flour. However, the amount of the flour they contain may not be that high.

Primal Future Cricket Corn Chips contains 5.8% cricket powder – hailed on the packaging as “the future of protein”.

Adding the cricket flour (as well as pea protein) bumps up the chips’ protein content. The 120g packet claims to contain the same amount of protein “as two-and-a-half eggs”. But if you eat a packet of these chips, you’ll be chomping through 2484 kilojoules and 26.5g of fat - more than double the fat and three times the kilojoules you’d get from eating the eggs.

Compared with other corn chips you’d find at the supermarket, these are a better choice with less saturated fat and sodium.

Tomorrow Foods Protein Pasta Powered by Crickets is 10% cricket flour. It boasts 19% protein (regular pasta is about 11%). But the cricket hit doesn’t come cheap. We paid $11.99 for a 250g packet – the same quantity of regular pasta costs less than $1.

The cricket flour in Rebel Bakehouse Cricket Flour Wraps is “milled from loads of sustainably farmed crickets”. But don’t expect your wraps to be loaded up – there’s only 3.1% cricket flour and the main ingredient is wheat flour. Each 70g wrap provides 8.3g of protein (11.8g per 100g). In comparison, Farrah’s Premium White Wraps, which are also made from wheat flour have 7.4g per 100g.

If you want more cricket for your cash, you might want to try Eat Crawlers Honey Roasted Crickets or Lightly Salted Insect Mixture (crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms). Both are high in protein – the crickets are 45.7% and insects 52.4% – but the 15g single serving costs a whopping $11.99. The crickets have added honey, sugar and salt, so are high in sodium and are more than 40% sugar. The insect mixture is also high in sodium (978mg/100g).

Eat Crawlers also sells cricket flour. It’s 68% protein, and the packaging suggests substituting 10% to 20% of the standard flour in your baking recipes with cricket flour or adding it to smoothies or protein shakes. Like the other insect products, it will sting your wallet ($24 per 100g – regular flour costs less than 20¢).

Are insects safe to consume?

For the most part, but people with shellfish allergies may be allergic to the chitin (insect’s exoskeleton), because it’s similar to the chitin in shellfish. The 2019 EAT-Lancet report on sustainable diets said the long-term health effects of eating insects haven’t been studied.

Why insects?

In 2013, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a report looking at how edible insects could contribute to food security.

Insects have a lower environmental footprint compared with poultry, beef and lamb. Crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein.

The main reason: insects are cold-blooded so can convert feed more efficiently than livestock. Plus insects can be fed on food and human waste, compost and animal slurry. They also produce less greenhouse gases than conventional livestock and require less land and water.

How are they farmed? John Hart, Rebel Bakehouse Future Food manager, said its crickets are farmed in an indoor vertical farm, which can grow up instead of growing out. A local mill produces their feed. Once the crickets are mature, some are kept to lay eggs and the rest are humanely killed with gas before processing.

“All our environmental data is logged in real-time and we have traceability from egg to the finished batch of processed crickets. In other countries, insect-farming practices vary a lot so traceability and quality control can be harder to ensure,” Mr Hart said.

Eat Crawlers sources its crickets from Asia but the company didn’t provide us with any further information about how they are farmed.

Nutritionally, insects are high in protein and other nutrients such as iron, selenium and zinc. This varies between species, life-stage and the insect’s diet. For example, crickets are 65% to 70% protein, compared with beetles, which can be up to 40%. That’s a lot more protein per 100g than chicken breast (25%), beef sirloin (28.6%) or fish (20.9%).

There’s also interest in insects in health supplements. Last year, AgResearch published a report about insect rearing in New Zealand. Co-author Mark McNeill said overseas research indicated insect-derived products have probiotic, antihypertensive, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

“It’s reasonable to assume New Zealand species contain similar active ingredients, which could be investigated,” Mr McNeill said.

One of the main turn-offs to eating insects is the “yuck” factor. In another study, AgResearch surveyed 1322 New Zealanders and 67% said they’d be more likely to eat insects if the bugs were processed into a powder and added to foods. Fried was the next preferred option.

People said they’d rather eat crunchier bugs including crickets and locusts, followed by beetles. Huhu grubs, porina caterpillars and wax moth larvae had the least appeal.

Hemp foods

In 2018, it became legal for hemp seeds to be sold as food in New Zealand. You’ll now find hemp as the hero in milk, burgers, brownies – the list goes on.

Hemp seeds are high in protein (about 30%) and, unlike most plant-based foods, are a complete protein with all the essential amino acids we need. They are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, fibre and other nutrients such as vitamin E, magnesium, iron and zinc.

There’s no shortage of hemp products in the snack aisle. Em’s Power Cookies Hemp Protein Cookie Choc Brownie contains 16% hemp protein and Justine’s Protein Cookie Vegan Hemp Choc Fudge contains 15% hemp protein and 6% hemp seeds.

But just because a cookie is topped up with hemp doesn’t make it a healthy choice. Justine’s Cookie is high in saturated fat and Em’s Cookie is more than a third natural sugar (from its main ingredient, date syrup).

Tom & Luke’s Hemp Protein Snackaballs contain 18% hemp seeds and are high in protein (15.5%). The packaging claims there’s 10g of protein in each serve. But one serving is six balls and, although they don’t contain added sugar, still packs a sugar punch (26g) from the dates.

If you’d rather try your hemp savoury, you can snack on Macro Wholefoods Market Hemp Blue Corn Chips Lightly Salted. The packaging states “hemp is possibly one of the world’s most nutritious plants”, but these chips only contain 5% of the stuff.

In the cracker aisle you’ll find Health Discovery Superfood Nutrient Crackers Hemp & Oregano. But these crackers don’t deserve “superfood” status. Like many crackers they’re high in sodium (656mg/100g). Although high in protein, they have more than 17.8% saturated fat (the high levels are from the added coconut oil and seeds). In our 2015 survey, the average saturated fat content of crackers was 4%.

Good Hemp Creamy Seed Milk joins other plant milks such as almond, soy and coconut. However, compared with cow’s milk it’s low in protein (less than 1%) so won’t fill you up so much, and isn’t fortified with calcium unlike some other plant milks.

Why hemp?

Hemp seeds come from the Cannabis sativa plant, which is not the same strain as the marijuana plant (although they are part of the same species). This strain is low in THC (the mind-altering stuff).

There are restrictions on growing and selling hemp food products. Growers and food manufacturers must be licensed by the Ministry of Health and the only part of the plant that can be used in food is the seed – hemp flowers and leaves aren’t allowed.

The New Zealand Hemp Industry Association said hemp is more sustainable than other crops. It grows quickly in limited space, needs less water than other crops and requires few, if any, pesticides.

Taste test

On a camping trip with family and friends, I took along a bag of Eat Crawlers Lightly Salted Insects. After some initial apprehension (kids were braver than the adults) the grubs were gone.

Most were pleasantly surprised with the critters, although the mealworms were easier to eat than crickets and locusts because they were smaller and crunchier. The texture of the crickets was a bit like eating dry Weet-Bix and you needed water afterwards to make sure there was no wings left in your teeth! They also smelt a bit “fishy”, which was a bit off-putting for a few tasters.

Some said they’d prefer to eat insects as part of a dish – sprinkled on salad, for example, rather than eating them whole. When I fessed up about the $12 price for a 15g packet, there wasn’t a lot of interest in buying them.

The Rebel Bakehouse Cricket Flour Wraps got the thumbs up from campers. They tasted a bit nutty and everyone said they would definitely eat them again.

Back home, I whipped up a batch of cricket flour, banana and bran breakfast loaf (the recipe came with the cricket flour). The verdict “delicious”. No one could tell there was any cricket flour in the loaf.

A few Consumer staffers also taste-tested the Primal Future Cricket Corn Chips. The consensus was they tasted just like regular corn chips.

Protein test results

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