The new, the weird and the wacky
The annual IFT Conference is always a showcase of the new and innovative, and this year was no different. Around 16,000 food industry folk wandered through the doors of the convention centre in New Orleans to be impressed, intimidated, or inspired. The Expo stretched for what seemed like miles – around 1,000 exhibitors touting all sorts of wares – new flavors, ingredients, testing and monitoring equipment, packaging and more. It was obvious that the IFT was the place to see what may be on the horizon for supermarket shelves. Absent from the event was the fresh fruit and vegetables, meat or fish exhibitors (or, arguably, the clean foods). There were a couple of notable exceptions to this though – CBD providers and insect-based products. Undoubtedly though, this was an event for the food industry geeks, and it was fascinating.
Sitting alongside the Expo was a conference series of back-to-back lectures. As with the Expo, the depth and breadth of subjects was overwhelming. Selecting which sessions to attend was akin to having a small plate at the buffet – only so much could be piled on and you had to hope that you weren’t missing out on something tasty.
Tarantulas are a good source of zinc
Continuing with the theme of what is tasty, the session on food safety and the safe consumption of insect-based food was enlightening. It started with the assumption that insect food was desirable and available. Insect-based food safety did not include the potential for receiving a tarantula bite while coating said insect in chocolate (actually, a portion of the proceedings focused on the ethics and philosophy behind eating insect protein and the humane ‘dispatching’ of our furry arachnid friends).
While insects are high in protein, their production does not require large tracts of land, nor volumes of water; furthermore, they do not produce greenhouse gas emissions. These facts, coupled with the idea that anyone, anywhere, can be a ‘farmer’ of insects would make it seem that the enthusiastic speakers are ‘onto something’. George Burdock from the Burdock Group (a US-based group of food safety specialists) pointed out that every year millions are spent protecting crops from insects that, ironically, could have greater nutritional value than the crops themselves. As an aside, tarantulas are, apparently, a good source of zinc.
Jakub Dzamba of Third Millennium Farming is a passionate and enthusiastic insect advocate who has developed a method for farming crickets that takes the hard work and uncertainty out of the process. Dzamba and his team ship cricket eggs globally (apparently insect husbandry is the hardest part of being a successful bug farmer) and he maintains that success depends upon a decentralized system, with many smaller producers. Artificial intelligence backs Dzamba’s support offering for farmers with automated, real-time information about how ‘happy’ the insects are.
Food safety concerns
It is easy to get caught up in the hype – the benefits of bugs seem obvious, but the reality is that they pose just as many potential food safety issues as most other foods. As a new and emerging food, the issue of food allergens is not fully understood; and, while there have been some examples of anaphylaxis from bug consumption, as the number of species, different production methods, different storage, and various preparation methods evolve, it is likely that we will become aware of more potential dangers. Additionally, the presence of pathogens, parasites and spoilage organisms mean that care and attention needs to be applied to food from bugs, as much as food not-from-bugs.
Food preferences change: tripe used to be a big thing
Repulsion at the thought of cricket flour or mealworm pasta is possibly similar to the revulsion that modern ‘foodies’ ascribe to favourites of yesteryear such as ox tongue or tripe, and this reminds us that food preferences and acceptability of food ingredients change. These changes can be driven by availability or fashion (seriously, what is food foam); but, increasingly, changes to available food are driven by a sustainability imperative, or, in the words of Dzamba, “six legs and a shipping container could eliminate hunger”.
Foodnote: image shows sampling new food color and flavor