Dozens of startups have launched over the past few years trying to convince people that chowing down on cricket flour protein bars and meal worm cookies is both nutritious and tasty. Fast Company estimated the industry’s worth at US$20 million in 2014. Insects are indeed highly nutritious, efficiently convert feed into protein and require far less land to raise than traditional livestock. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization devoted a 200-page paper to the benefits of insect consumption for food security in 2013. The main hurdle, of course, is a cultural one: Most of us in the Western world have been raised to think bugs are gross.
Protein makes up 50 to 60 per cent of microalgae, a type of single-celled organism that is a promising alternative source. Companies such as Energybits are turning algae into nutritional supplements for athletes, while health-food companies have been using spirulina, or blue-green algae, as a superfood ingredient for years. But more research needs to be done in order to produce algae at a large enough scale to reach the mainstream consumer.
The ultimate efficient food source is one you don’t have to prepare or eat at all. The meal replacement powder Soylent has already gained a loyal following, promising to “provide all the protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients that a body needs to thrive” without the inconvenience of chewing. There’s even a powder called Sani that can be personalized and then mixed with water or baked into cookies and breads.
Legumes and pulses
It’s no secret that chickpeas, kidney beans and other legumes and pulses are great sources of animal-free protein. But entrepreneurs are going far beyond lentil soup to dish up some protein. For example, two University of Guelph students in the spring won a national competition at the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology conference with a product called Fiberger that mixes pulse flour into ground beef, reducing the amount of meat without compromising on protein. Pea protein is also a common ingredient in technologically enhanced meat alternatives such as the Beyond Burger, a competitor to the Impossible Burger.
It’s possible to make food with a 3D printer today, but only if you puree it and squeeze it through a tube first. That process works great for German company Biozoon Food Innovations, which makes a product called Smoothfood that is served at senior’s homes, but is unlikely to satisfy the mainstream consumer. Researchers are working on prototypes that could one day make protein-dense food from plant-based sources. It’s even possible to print the actual proteins found in dairy.