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Can a carnivorous culture make room on the plate for new proteins?

The benefits of insect-based diets are clear, but researchers and entrepreneurs in Argentina are fighting against prejudice and legal barriers.

If you ask an Argentinean about their fondest memories, a common answer might be sitting  around a table with friends or family, with music playing in the background while the fire keeps a parrilla alive. 

It has led the world ranking in per capita consumption of red meat. However, during the last few years, this has been changing, due to the current  economic crisis the country has been facing since 2018, the period during which President Mauricio Macri was in charge. 

This scenario takes place in times when it has become evident that the current agricultural production is unsustainable for the planet.

According to the organization Our World in Data, “the expansion of agriculture has been one of the greatest impacts that the human race has left on the Earth (…) If we combine pastures used for grazing with land used to grow crops for animal feed, livestock accounts for 77% of global farming land. While livestock takes up most of the world’s agricultural land it only produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein”.

Of the 28,000 species assessed as being threatened with extinction by the International Union of for Conservation of Nature, agriculture appears as a threat to 24,000 of them. An alternative can be generated through a change in diet, the main one being a supplement to meat consumption. 

In addition to a plant-based diet, however, is there another option to counteract the negative impact of animal meat consumption?

A man on a prairie is bent over a fire cooking dinner, but instead of meat he has insects on the barbecue
Illustration by Neha Vaddadi

Unconventional Proteins

Gabriela Gallardo and Désirée Lenz, two food development researchers at the Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI), believe that insect protein can be a good supplement to the human diet. 

In 2018, they began research into unconventional protein basins in response to the growing demand for food production globally. According to the UN, by 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion people; meaning that the world’s food supply will have to feed another 2 billion people despite the fact that there is only 4% of arable land available on the surface of the planet.

In line with this, Gabriela and Désirée decided to turn to entomophagy and conduct research on insect producers in the country. It was then that they found Daniel Caporaletti’s Grillos Capos biotherium and got in touch with him to carry out a joint collaboration from which they were able to extract a cricket powder and observe its nutritional characteristics. The obtained results are surprising.

Out of 100 grams extracted from a dried cricket, 60% is protein and 37% contains the nine  essential amino acids that can be found in beef, chicken, pork and fish. 

“We started some trials, which we have not yet completed, with the intention of trying to concentrate the protein to extract part of the fat and thus try to extend the shelf life of the product and its organoleptic characteristics”, adds Désiree. These results are preliminary and just were published this past October during the National Congress of Engineering (CADI).

 

Argentines would be willing to eat insects.
20%
Argentines open to trying foods with processed insects.
60%
Argentines that are not interested at all
40%

Fighting phobia against insects

On the other hand, there are also actors interested in introducing entomophagy as a way of consumption.  Rodrigo Llauradó, from Buenos Aires, is the founder of Chepulines: Comida Ento, a venture that offers two products based on the Jamaican cricket species. Since 2018, the 27-year-old Rodrigo has been dedicated to producing cricket salts of various flavors and also selling the whole animal, roasted and seasoned for consumption. 

When recalling how it all began, Rodrigo tells me: “This idea started in 2015 when I was doing my first year of gastronomy. For a class I had to choose an innovative gastronomy and what made me carry out the project was the question, why  are we not eating insects in Argentina? (…) In the end I did not graduate from the career, but years of research were carried out until in 2018 a cousin shared with me a call for a competition on gastronomic projects and I said to myself let’s sign up.”

After becoming a finalist and participating in other contests, Rodrigo continued studying and researching on the subject, he then embarked on  entrepreneurship, but what he still needed to crystallize the idea more. He had to understand who his consumer was. That’s when he decided to test his potential clients:

“I first did a mini market study. I went to parks and plazas and took nachos with cricket flour and nachos with larva flour and gave them to people to see which flavor was more palatable. But people were less impressed with the larvae, they have an idea that they are less hygienic, so the crickets ended up winning.”

Aware of its responsible consumption for the ecosystem, the young Argentinean is also interested in providing a sensory and gastronomic experience through the ingestion of crickets; and with this demystify the phobia that Western culture has created  towards insects. His goal is to eliminate prejudices about the entomophagous diet by providing information through his products.

We have the idea that insects are a pest, that they are something bad. What I want is to be able to relocate that category into food, into something tasty. And how can this be achieved? With information. Information is fundamental to remove doubts and to erase prejudices.

Rodrigo Llauradó, founder of Chepulines: Comida Ento

Although he also highlights  that even though entomophagy might not be the revolution, it’s a positive supplement and change for today’s human diet: “We do not come to say: “we are the revolution,” insects in no way compete against meat. They do not come to be a replacement, they come to be a good complement to the diet of those who want to add it.”

Legal Barriers

However, there is now an obstacle that does not allow the incorporation of this type of food in the local market, which is related to the legal framework in the country. Currently, in Argentina there is no legislation that enables the commercial trade and consumption of products based on insect proteins. To be able to offer them to Argentine palates, it is necessary to have the legal endorsement of the National Service of Health and Agrifood Quality (SENASA). Such endorsement seeks to guarantee the safety of these products to the public .

Although they work independently, Gabriela, Désirée and Rodrigo’s passion to spread knowledge about entomophagy in the country unites them. Their current struggle is to integrate these products in the country’s food code, but due to Argentine bureaucracy and strict research requirements, they have not been able to consolidate this step. Another problem is the lack of financing to advance the ongoing studies, since their work is self-managed and solely depends on their own pockets. 

So far the furthest stage they have reached is to obtain the registration of entomophagous food for future animal consumption, now the next step is to fight for its approval to be included in  the human diet. For this purpose, the INTI researchers, together with other institutions, are carrying out a risk analysis on the production of these foods with the aim of certifying their nutritional and food safety. 

For the moment, people like Rodrigo are constrained to carry out their work on a small scale. The impossibility to offer their products in stores and the lack of different options to obtain their raw material limits the development potential of their businesses. Crickets must be bred in captivity and in Buenos Aires there is only one reliable biotherium that serves as a supplier for those interested in this matter. 

The entomophagous actors in Argentina are a small group, and their effort to incorporate insect-based foods in a culturally carnivorous country is not easy. Despite this, Gabriela, Désirée and Rodrigo agree that although it is a slow and painstaking process, the outlook for the authorization of entomophagous products is closer than ever: 

“I think it's a matter of time. To be able to implement the strategy of being able to develop foods that contain insects (...) is an alternative with these new diets, these new fashions. There are more and more people who want to consume meat that does not come from conventional animals and hopefully in the future there may be more legal frameworks worldwide.” Gabriela adds.

Their projects not only demonstrate the important role of an insect-based diet and its benefits to the environment, but also that there are adequate ways to produce entomophagous food and spread its consumption in Argentina, the land of asados.

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