Student - January 18, 2007

Meat substitutes from insect cells

Meat substitute products made from insect cells grown in bioreactors: PhD researcher Marjoleine Verkerk reckons we’ll seen them in the shops in twenty years. ‘I think consumers are more likely to find these products acceptable than whole insects as food.’

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The driving force behind the growing interest among nutritionists in insect proteins is the scarcity on the meat market. Demand for meat in emerging economies such as India and China is rising, and this is leading to pressure on the market. There is not enough farmland to produce meat for all consumers. Sooner or later meat is going to become very expensive.
‘Insects are a solution,' says Verkerk. ‘To get one kilogram of beef you need an investment of ten kilograms of feed. A kilogram of high-quality insect protein requires only three kilograms of feed. If you grow insect cells in a bioreactor, the economics are probably even more attractive.’

At the Food and Bioprocess Engineering Group, Verkerk is doing experiments with insect cells that are already used for the production of industrial proteins. One of the cell lines that she works with is derived from silkworm larvae. ‘I’m looking at the nutritional value of insect cells and ways of improving this,’ explains Verkerk. ‘Insects in general have a high nutritional value, but the amino-acid composition can be improved. It would be good to increase the amount of lysine.’

In addition to using classical techniques to improve the amino acid composition of insect cells, such as finding an optimal mix of acidity, temperature and medium, Verkerk is also considering using baculoviruses to introduce new genes into the cells.

The insect research is not being financed by the food industry. ‘My work is still too innovative for the private sector,’ says the Verkerk. ‘But things might change. We’ve notice that it’s becoming a trend to use insects in dishes in smart restaurants, and more and more recipes with insects are finding their way into cookery books.’

Verkerk is not only a technologist but also a consumer scientist. She is working together with Professor Hans van Trijp of the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour Group. ‘In the end, the future of insect protein will depend on consumers,’ she says. ‘That’s why I’m also studying consumer perceptions of insect cells.’

Verkerk’s first publication will appear soon in Biotechnology Advances.

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