Understanding novel food in three questions

If you have ever eaten insects as an aperitif or drank noni juice to boost your immune defences, you are unknowingly a fan of novel food. Under this term is hidden all the foods little or not consumed in the European community before May 15, 1997. With globalization, the food customs of the inhabitants of distant countries arrive in our country in the luggage of travellers. Science, on the other hand, makes it possible to extract active principles from certain plants or animals unknown in our regions. These new foods can be of animal origin (insects, krill extract), vegetable origin (dehydrated baobab fruit pulp, guar gum), derived from micro-organisms (fungi, algae) or have a modified molecular structure (nanotechnology, chemistry). cultured meat in vitro (read the interview with Didier Toubia, founder of Aleph Farms page 116, editor’s note), which is not yet authorized in Europe, can be considered as a novel food.

GMOs, enzymes, additives and flavorings are subject to different regulations. Since 2018, it is the EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, which authorizes or not the marketing in each Member State of the European Union of these foods unknown on our plates until now.

“This evaluation is used to verify their safety and nutritional value” says Aymeric Dopter, Deputy Head of the Nutrition Risk Assessment Unit at ANSES (National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety).

The list is constantly evolving. Latest authorized novel food: button mushroom powder containing vitamin B2. The most publicized new food is undoubtedly insects. Mainly produced for animal food, they are beginning to find a place on our coffee tables as an aperitif. The Jimini’s, Insecteo or Micronutris brands offer crickets and locusts whole, or in powder form in protein bars, pasta, crackers, bread, etc. France is at the forefront of this new booming market with its nuggets of foodtech: Ÿnsect, leader in the sector which has raised 360 million euros since its creation ten years ago, InnovaFeed (200 million since 2016) and Agronutris (100 million in September 2021). Ÿnsect’s main market is animal feed, but the unicorn recently created a dedicated human food business unit to exploit the tenebrio molitoror mealworm, a protein-rich species of beetle.

“There is a demand, especially in sports nutrition, which is looking for effective and sustainable alternative proteins. This market, estimated at 500 million euros, should represent 10% of our turnover in a few years”, explains Guillaume Daoulas, business development director.

The start-up based in Hauts-de-France recently acquired the Dutch company Protifarm, one of the most advanced players in the use of beetles for human food, and inaugurated in May near Amiens the largest vertical farm in the world with an eventual production capacity of 200,000 tonnes of ingredients per year. “Insects are emerging as an increasingly popular category of food for humans and animals” says the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), in its recent report “Assessing edible insects from a food security perspective”. But she warns that it will take a massive increase in production for mealworms and beetles to become an equivalent source of protein to meat or vegetables.

Why eat novel food?

What can these new foods bring us in terms of nutrition and health? Mainly, a richness in proteins and fatty acids including omega-3. “Omega-3 intakes, such as EPA and DHA, which are involved in many brain functions, are rarely covered. They are mainly found in oily fish but we don’t eat enough of them” explains Aymeric Dopter. Schizochytrium oil, a microalgae, for example, is highly dosed in EPA and DHA and is suitable for vegans. The Toulouse-based start-up Kyanos Biotechnologies, specializing in the production of microalgae Aphanizomenon flos aquae (AFA), rich in nutrients and proteins, has just inaugurated its first industrial production pilot. “We are in the process of bringing together all the ingredients to successfully scale up our disruptive technology and the mass production of microalgae” says Vinh Ly, CEO of Kyanos Biotechnologies. Insects have been a source of protein for centuries in various parts of the world. Two South American researchers showed in 2003 that the Leucopela albescens (a beetle) was composed of 34.41% protein, significantly more than chicken (19.62%) or cow (17.01%). “Mealworm protein is very high in amino acids and very digestible. We have conducted several trials on our de-oiled product, including one on obese rats with the University of Giessen in Germany. By substituting casein (milk protein) with insect protein, cholesterol levels in the blood and liver of these overweight rodents can be reduced by 60%. We recently conducted human clinical trials with Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The conclusion is quite surprising: there is no difference in terms of digestibility and muscle synthesis between milk protein, which is the benchmark in human nutrition, and insect protein” describes Guillaume Daoulas. For Esther Katz, an anthropologist specializing in food, by not considering insects as edible, Europeans are an exception because in Asia, Africa, America and Oceania, many peoples are entomophagous. “In Latin America, it was originally the Amerindians who ate it, then the Métis. Today, a significant part of the population has taken to it” explains the researcher. For her, insects cannot replace other foods, unless you take huge doses of them. But they can fill some gaps: “In Mexico, for a long time, peasants ate very little meat. For them, it was an interesting protein supplement”. In addition to this contribution, the industrial production of insects is greener than intensive agriculture or breeding. For 1 kg of insect protein, you need 100 times less agricultural land than for 1 kg of animal protein and much less water (23 liters per gram against 112 liters for beef). Insects do not emit methane, and their global warming potential per kilo produced is 100 times lower than that of pigs. Tomorrow, eating crickets could help save the planet. “If we want to feed the planet by 2050, we need to produce 70% more food and that with only 5% of land available. It is time to promote alternatives that allow us to produce more and better” says Antoine Hubert, CEO of Ÿnsect.

Does novel food present any risks?

According to the FAO, the biological risks of eating insects are very low if their breeding and production respect the rules of hygiene. The bacterial risk exists, but cooking eliminates pathogens. The main danger is allergenic: it has been proven that people allergic to shellfish are also allergic to certain varieties of insects. This is why Efsa carries out extensive tests before any marketing authorization. A procedure which also serves to combat the reluctance of the public in the face of unknown foodstuffs. The very strict European regulations are a guarantee for the doubtful consumer. Indeed, even if certain foods have been eaten for a long time in other parts of the world – two billion inhabitants of 140 countries eat more than 2000 varieties of insects – this does not mean that they are harmless, especially if they have been transformed. Food supplements containing hydroalcoholic extracts of yam, a root vegetable rich in starch, have thus been withdrawn from sale because they are hepatotoxic. “In Africa, we eat this well-cooked tuber. The cold extraction process used for a well-known food made it dangerous” decrypts Aymeric Dopter. Esther Katz believes that it is necessary to do educational work to encourage the consumption of insects, considered in Europe as vermin. A requirement taken into account by Ÿnsect: “We are working on three parameters. The disgust: we offer flour and not whole insects; aversion, linked to the unknown: we associate common ingredients (nuts, thyme); the danger: we explain the manufacturing processes. We are also collaborating with the FFPIDI (interprofession of insect producers) to communicate with politicians and ensure that everyone informs the public in a rigorous manner” explains Guillaume Daoulas. La Fontaine was far from suspecting that his ant and his cicada would one day end up in our stomachs.

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Article from T La Revue n°8 – “From the field to the plate – Better produce to eat well?” Currently on newsstands

An issue devoted to agriculture and food, available from newsagents and at kiosk.latribune.fr/t-la-revue