Proteins of the future


Crickets, algae, worms, locusts. Finding any of the above inside a food product would normally be grounds for pitching it into the garbage. Not for much longer.

Crickets – in the form of flour – are already being incorporated into protein bars and are even starting to crop up on grocery store shelves; fresh algae has made its debut in a sports drink. Worms are having their moment in the form of 3D-printed cookies. And locusts? Along with grasshoppers, they rank right up there with beef as one of the best protein sources to be had if we could just open our minds – er, mouths – to them.

The country’s top global food experts predict that with the impending population boom, we will have no choice but to come around.

Towards an insatiable global appetite

The world’s population will swell beyond nine billion people at the halfway mark of this century, estimates the United Nations. That growth – and the need to feed it – combined with climate change and water scarcity is already putting pressure on global food systems. More people are going to need more food. Specifically, they are going to need more protein. But all those grain-fed steaks, slabs of slow-cooked pork and chicken breasts we’re accustomed to come with hefty price tags.

“Animal products require more water, they generate more climate change emissions, they need more energy to create,” says Evan Fraser, Canada Research Chair in global food security and a professor in the department of geography at the University of Guelph.

They also eat up 80 per cent of antibiotics used in North America, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and are being blamed for the escalating problem of antibiotic resistance in humans. Pair those facts with the fragility of livestock producers – low margins and volatile costs mean they are highly vulnerable to price changes or taxes – and what you have, Fraser argues, is a prime market opportunity for food scientists.

Not just test-tube food

The mention of “food scientists” conjures images of bubbling beakers and smoky test tubes filled with viscous slurries of mysterious lab-grown meat. Dutch scientists have, in fact, been toiling for years in an effort to produce food-quality pork from the lab in hopes of a more sustainable way of producing meat for a global population. But that’s only a small part of the story.

“When we start talking about the possibilities of food science and of using alternative protein supplies in processed food, then the discussion blows right out and we’re talking about quite innovative things,” Fraser says.

‘Fiberger’ instead of breadcrumbs

Armed with a kitchen blender, University of Guelph students Caileigh Smith and Evelyn Helps set out to come up with something that would add nutrition to a home-cooked dish without requiring much complexity. The result was a meat extender called Fiberger, a dry, flour-like mix of spices and pulses (think lentils, green peas and chickpeas). In much the same way that home cooks rely on breadcrumbs to bulk up a meatloaf, Fiberger can replace up to 50 per cent of the ground meat in a burger without compromising its nutritional value. Adding Fiberger actually makes it healthier by reducing the burger’s fat and cholesterol while increasing iron and, of course, protein. Plus, they ended up with an easy means of reducing meat consumption without forcing eaters to make a dramatic diet sacrifice.

“We were aiming for people who want to eat their regular North American meatball … people who are resistant to changing their burgers,” Smith says. “The problem with pulses is that a lot of people just don’t know how to use them. This is a great way for people to incorporate them into their regular meals.”

Fiberger is not yet available commercially, but it has won numerous awards, including first place at the 2016 Mission: ImPULSEible student food development competition at the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST). It will compete for further honours in July at the International Food Technology Expo in Chicago.

Transforming the repulsive into … cookies?

The future of protein, Fraser argues, is likely to be full of Fiberger-like alternatives, many of which will contain ingredients that are not only unfamiliar, but repulsive – at first blush. That’s where the power of food science comes into play. “If I’m a food scientist and I’m producing a patty or a nugget or a bar, I don’t really care where the molecules of nutrition and protein come from,” Fraser says. “I care about whether they taste good, whether I can bind them with flavour, texture and fat.”

In a future where cricket protein – or caterpillar, turtle or algae – is cheaper and easier to access than beef, protein, particularly in processed foods, is more likely to come from non-traditional sources. The big question is, how? The easy way, Fraser says, is to first transform the diets of farm animals or farmed fish so our protein is reliant on, say, insects and algae rather than high-input soy and corn.

On the high-tech side, the entry of 3D printing to the food arena holds promise for transforming the repulsive into the edible. The process involves creating a food by printing its ingredients layer by layer from cartridges of powders, oils and other elements until a nutritionally complex recipe is realized. In this manner, high-protein insect pastes are being printed into experimental cookies and other foods. More are sure to follow; a world with more than nine billion people will need to make space for all of them.

“For those of us who keep being skeptical about this, I just have to say, ‘sushi, sushi, sushi,’ ” Fraser says. “When I was a kid my introduction to sushi was on a mock commercial on Saturday Night Live. At that point in North America … the idea of eating raw fish … was disgusting. Now we’re all eating raw fish,” he says. “There are all sorts of examples of what one generation considers disgusting the next considers elite. Then elite becomes mainstream,” he adds.

“Tastes are not as fixed as we maybe think they are.”