Imagine a day when you could go to a restaurant and cricket tacos and mealworm frittatas were among your entrée choices on the menu. Or, imagine being able to order a dessert containing the cannabis plant instead of an alcoholic beverage to help you relax and feel good after a long day. Or, what would you think about having the option to custom order a meal that didn’t contain any ingredients you were allergic to using a 3D printer?
These days may actually not be that far away. In fact, in some parts of the world, a few of these food options already exist. Using insects and cannabis as food ingredients, as well as printing out foods three dimensionally, are among some of today’s biggest emerging food trends. Here’s a closer look at each of these trends, why they’re gaining popularity, as well as safety and manufacturing concerns—and possible solutions to these worries.
Many cultures around the world have been eating insects for generations. In fact, 2,100 species have been recognized as edible and forming some part of a diet in a particular culture, says Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Little Herds, an educational non-profit organization in Austin, Texas, and co-founder of North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture, which educates the public and works to increase the capacity of insect industries. But until recently, there were few examples in western or Euro-centric foods that contained purposeful insect ingredients.
But now there’s a rising interest in insect ingredients due to their numerous health and wellness benefits and environmentally beneficial resource efficiency in the western hemisphere. “They are viewed as an alternative protein that can address nutrient deficiencies and food insecurities in a variety of ways,” Allen says.
Among the most common insects used in North American and western Europe foods are crickets, mealworms, grasshoppers, and silkworms. In other cultures, termites, ants, and beetle larvae are also common choices.
In the last five years, a new wave of insect product-maker startups have begun using ingredients such as cricket powder (dried and ground crickets that were farmed specifically for food purposes) or textured insect protein (think insect-based tofu) to make insect-based chips, crackers, protein shakes, pastas, energy bars, cookies, granolas, crisps, breads, hotdogs, meatballs, and burger patties.
Bug Benefits Abound
Insects are very nutritious and are an excellent source of protein but have a much smaller environmental footprint than other sources of animal protein, such as pork or beef, says Mareike Janiak, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the anthropology department at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. The exact nutritional value of insects varies widely across different species and different life stages of the same insect.
Allen says consuming insects is a more humane and ethical way to obtain animal proteins than traditional livestock. Most insects contain more protein than beef, more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, plus vitamins like B12, minerals like zinc, copper, and niacin, great amino acids, poly and mono unsaturated fats, and fiber, Allen says. They have a long shelf life and research is pending on whether they have prebiotic properties. Insects don’t require hormones, antibiotics, or steroids either.
Raising insects requires much smaller areas of land, less water, and less food than raising other livestock, and they emit much less methane than cattle. “With the world’s growing population and the dangers of global warming, we will need to consider alternative protein sources—edible insects may be a good option,” Janiak says.
Insects can be raised organically and don’t need to be genetically modified, and insect ingredients are gluten-free and work well for paleo and ketogenic diets. Some insects are even considered Halal and Kosher, Allen adds.
More People Jumping on Bug Bandwagon
While many people once viewed eating insects as disgusting, people in North American and western Europe are slowly changing their opinions, Janiak says.
“Conscious consumers, millennials, green parents, and many other consumer categories are seeking out sustainable, natural, nutritious, and ethical options, especially alternative proteins,” Allen explains. “In the past few years, many athletes, musicians, trendsetters, celebrities, celebrity chefs, and business and thought leaders have promoted them. They can play a big role in opening people up to new ideas and normalizing them.”
Celebrities may have been exposed to the idea when traveling to other cultures where eating insects is commonplace, and experienced it in a positive and receptive environment. Athletes may be early adopters because of the foods’ nutritional density. Some folks want organic or locally sourced or free-ranged food that they view as being more humane and ethical. Foodies are looking for new, interesting foods. “When people have the opportunity to try something and it tastes good, then it’s easy to eat it again,” Allen says. “But it has to be delicious.”
Edible Insect Issues
Because most insects have a chemical composition that resembles that of shellfish, people who are allergic to shellfish may be allergic to consuming products containing insects. Given this, the U.S. FDA requires a product’s label to state a warning against this potential allergy.
The FDA has given clear guidance on steps a company must take to market and use insects in products. “Insects must be farmed for food purposes and must adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices during processing, packaging, marketing, and transporting,” Allen says. For example, they must be cooked in the same way as other food products to prevent microbial growth.
In order to ensure a product’s safety, Allen recommends standard safety testing, supply chain verification, chain of provenance authentication, and good consumer education on intended use and best practices for cooking and storing. The FDA requires laboratory testing.
Cannabis Food Products
As marijuana and hemp, two plants that are part of the cannabis family, are being de-criminalized and more regulated, they along with their extracts are finding their way into scores of consumer products.
The cannabis plant contains many constituent ingredients, the most obvious being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The widely known psychoactive ingredient is primarily responsible for making people high when smoked or in other forms, says Chris Bunka, chief executive officer, Lexaria Bioscience Corp., Phoenix, Ariz., and Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. But both cannabis and hemp strains are rich in non-psychoactive cannabinoids that are very different and mostly overlooked in comparison to their better-known and often vilified cousin ingredient, THC.
Non-psychoactive cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) have found their way into products such as tea, coffee, hot chocolate, candies, chocolates, soft drinks, cookies, baked goods, sauces, spices, fruit drinks, and entrées. Hemp seed and hemp protein are sold widely across North America and Europe as nutritious protein supplements with healthful omega oil profiles, Bunka says.
Infused versions of products are an increasing trend in the cannabis market. Long-term users of cannabis prefer this form of product delivery because the effect seems to be greater and longer lasting than traditional cannabis when smoked. “Many people develop a tolerance to cannabis when smoked, and no longer experience an effect, whereas edible cannabis seems to always provide an effect that consumers enjoy,” says Stuart W. Titus, PhD, president and CEO, Medical Marijuana Inc., San Diego, Calif. “Generally, it creates exuberance, laughter, and joy while relaxing the body.”
Reasons for Cannabis Popularity
Some people report that ingesting cannabinoids has helped them mitigate seizures or battle cancer, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, or dementia. “The trend is growing in popularity because a sufficient number of people believe they have experienced profound health benefits,” Bunka says.
According to Dr. Titus, science shows that the digestive tract can potentially convert delta-9 THC into delta-11 THC, a slightly different chemical structure that may be responsible for creating a magnified, longer-lasting effect for some regular cannabis users.
Technology now exists to ensure that the better tolerated THC delta-9 can be delivered consistently in edible product formats.
Ironically, the biggest health and safety concerns around cannabinoid delivery are interwoven with the most common former delivery of those ingredients—which was combustion or smoking. “Lungs are for breathing; ingesting anything via combustion and inhalation into the pulmonary system appears to be unhealthy,” Bunka comments. “The gastrointestinal system, on the other hand, is for delivering nutrition from food into the bloodstream.
“Regulation in states such as Colorado and California are the best things to have happened to the cannabis industry in 100 years,” Bunka continues. “Older, poor practices such as lack of cleanliness in food production areas are being replaced by modern food manufacturing processes. Now that cannabinoid ingredients can be properly analyzed at laboratories without fear of black helicopters and SWAT teams on the roof, companies can reliably check that cannabinoid ingredients are free of pesticides and herbicides. This simple evolution of good practices is revolutionizing the industry and raising standards.”
Another manufacturing concern stems from the fact that a large amount of cannabis is grown indoors, which generally requires pesticide usage. “This can allow for residual toxicity to be in the end product,” Dr. Titus says.
Solutions to Ensure Safe Edibles
Edible products are one of the best ways to deliver consistent and reliable cannabis experiences because of the nature of plant-based ingredients. “Every plant produces slightly different levels of strength of active ingredients, even when plants are cloned,” Bunka says. This inconsistency from plant to plant and batch to batch can best be dealt with by processing large amounts of plant matter in a single manufacturing operation—once turned into a liquid oil, any number of tiny samples taken from a large vessel of oil will have effectively identical composition. This allows food manufacturers to predictably deliver a consistent product. Small scale production prior to legalization rarely achieved this.
For the same reasons, these samples can be analyzed at the laboratory for unwanted herbicides or heavy metals and rejected prior to use in a food product. “It was previously impossible to take samples from each of hundreds or thousands of different plants to ensure they were all safe,” Bunka says. But contamination issues can be a thing of the past in the cannabis industry with proper regulation and monitoring with standard operating procedures.
3D Printed Foods
Simply put, 3D printing involves creating a 3D item from a graphic rendering by printing on X, Y, and Z axis instead of just X and Y like traditional computer printers, resulting in a three-dimensional object, explains Darryl L. Holliday, PhD, CRC, assistant professor of food science, director of the food science program, and department chair for biological and physical sciences, University of Holy Cross, New Orleans.
All 3D printers use some type of material for building the 3D printed item’s shape and structure. The most common material is a plastic filament, but food companies work with food staples such as sugar, chocolate, pasta dough, cheese, and peanut butter.
Dr. Holliday’s research laboratory uses ground beef as its printing medium because of its universal appeal. “My research has shown that not only can firm objects be produced, but that by using the right medium and printing capabilities, we can print foods that are more traditional such as hamburgers,” he says.
3D Loaded with Advantages
The main benefit of 3D printing is customization, Dr. Holliday says. Currently, manufacturers and food professionals can use 3D printing to create shapes and textures that traditional manufacturing methods cannot duplicate. Additionally, switching from printing one piece of item A to one piece of item B is much faster with 3D printing than traditional manufacturing. However, traditional manufacturing is much more efficient at mass producing the same item. Furthermore, 3D printing is an efficient method for mock-up items such as parts, packaging, and food concepts because molds don’t have to be made and lines shut down for research and development.
A goal of Dr. Holliday’s research is to develop fully autonomous kitchens to deploy in disaster areas. “An autonomous kitchen could be easily adapted to create familiar flavor profiles of a devastated area by simply changing the printing medium and its flavors,” he says. For example, a simply seasoned beef hamburger could be prepared in one place and a spicy chicken patty prepared in another to meet different populations’ tastes and dietary requirements.
As technology and speed improve, Dr. Holliday foresees this technology affecting food service operations such as large fast food chains. “By bringing in one beef mixture, they limit the amount of stock keeping units they have to stock and use a 3D printer to make patties of various sizes based on what menu item is ordered,” he says.
Hod Lipson, PhD, professor, mechanical engineering and data science, Columbia University, New York, N.Y., says the main advantage of printing foods is transparency. “You can see a food being made and the ingredients being used,” he says. “Food printers could combine the convenience of prepared food, and the transparency of homemade food. It’s almost like having a personal chef.”
In addition, printed foods’ nutritional content can be tailored based on personal biometrics, such as glucose levels, metabolic activities, allergies, personal genome, and taste preferences.
Gaining Steam, Three Dimensionally
Food printers are a marriage of software and cooking—two big aspects of life that have not yet intersected, comments Dr. Lipson. “People are excited about the possibilities of bringing software into the kitchen,” he says.
Providing the capability for complete customization also makes it a popular trend. “New shapes and textures are just the beginning,” Dr. Holliday says. Traditional color printing uses four different ink cartridges. 3D printing has theoretically unlimited variables. Because different food mediums can be printed at the same time, or one right after another, most attributes of a food can be customized in any given system.
“As more research establishes nutrigenomics as a fundamental part of nutrition, nutritional customization will begin to play a greater role in the benefits of 3D printing and its impact on the food industry,” Dr. Holliday says.
3D Printing Problems
Most of the same safety concerns regarding any manufactured food apply to 3D printed items. “You have to watch and track chemical and biological hazards,” Dr. Holliday says.
Due to slower printer speeds than normal production speeds, it may be necessary to closely monitor a printing medium’s temperature so that it does not stay in the temperature danger zone too long or be exposed to conditions where an FDA or USDA inspector could find it adulterated.
Food safety issues also stem from food handling and cleaning complex machines, Dr. Lipson says. The potential risk of making unhealthy foods through software errors also exists.
Giving customers the ability to customize foods can lead to serious safety concerns such as cross-contamination of allergens or at minimum, cross-contamination of food mediums affecting dietary requirements, Dr. Holliday says. Additionally, if customers have the ability to add unique nutritional supplementation to a food, based on need or lifestyle patterns, then there will need to be a safety check to ensure that overdosing is prevented.
Automation is the future of faster food preparation, reduced labor costs, and improved consistency, Dr. Holliday concludes. Consumers are also driving the demand for creative control of foods they eat. Companies such as Frito Lays with its “Do us a Flavor” campaign and restaurants like Chipotle and Smoothie King offering consumers the ability to see and choose toppings or ingredients have already recognized this.