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August 7, 2019

Chirps in the Cleanroom

Are Cultured Crickets the Future of Cellular Agriculture?

Bug Burger

Recently one of our team members, eschewing her usual dinner salad (dressing on the side), opted for a well-deserved treat of the vegan Impossible Burger (yes, with all the fixings) and a giant side of crispy, salty fries. After a long week, a burger was the perfect way to usher in some weekend R&R. Being similarly minded, her spouse requested the exact same meal. The server smiled, the order was confirmed, and the couple awaited their food. Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record. The server returned looking pensive, his voice pitched up an octave as he explained the conundrum: due to a difficulty in product sourcing, there was only one Impossible Burger left. Could the diners, he ventured nervously, rethink the evening’s choices or perhaps even split the one remaining patty? With no other vegetarian option on the menu, they opted to share the burger between them and ordered a whole heap of extra fries, to ease the crushing disappointment…

And it is not the first time this has happened. In fact, just a few weeks prior, the same scenario played out when there were NO burgers available. But why, suddenly, is this the case? Is a secret cabal of ‘Big Ag’ beef producers choking off the supply of plant-based patties? Or is it something even more sinister: is the Monarch of the Mall scooping up all of the Impossibles? Is this, in fact, all the fault of Burger King? Lettuce unwrap this…(1)

According to an article in Time magazine (and undoubtedly to no-one’s surprise in the plant-based community) the nation’s fast food favorite, Burger King, has partnered with Impossible Foods – maker of the Impossible Burger – to roll out a plant-based option that looks, tastes, and ‘bleeds’ like its traditional animal-based counterpart.(2) Trialed in 7 select markets, the BK Impossible™ Whopper® ‘features a savory flame-grilled patty made from plants topped with juicy tomatoes, fresh lettuce, creamy mayonnaise, ketchup, crunchy pickles, and sliced white onions on a soft sesame seed bun. 100% WHOPPER®, 0% Beef.’(3)

Sounds attractive. But how does it stack up against its beef counterpart in terms of nutrition?

The BK Impossible™ Whopper® comes in at 630 calories, as opposed to the Whopper®’s 660 calories. But if customers opt to skip the mayo, the calorie load drops to 470, almost halves the fat content (34g down to 16g), blows away the cholesterol (10mg to 0mg) – all without impacting the 25g of protein. And in comparison to the traditional Whopper®’s 40g of fat (including trans fat and saturated fat) and 90mg of cholesterol, the Impossible option looks – dare we say it? -really rather probable as a choice.(4)

And this impression is indeed born out by trials conducted by BK in 59 outlets in St. Louis, MO. According to data provided by inMarket inSights, the stores with the plant-based option ‘experienced 16.5% higher foot traffic than the March average. Across the US, there was an average increase of 18.5% in foot traffic at these locations compared to other Burger King restaurants.’(5) All of which means that, for Impossible Foods, customer acceptance is very good news indeed.

And also very bad.

But let’s go for the good news first…

As we’ve discussed in our previous articles, it’s clear from market data that consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from. Moreover, it’s also clear that we are experiencing a general uptick in concern for issues around food production: environmental questions regarding land and water use or greenhouse gas emissions now play a significant role in consumer choice. As do ethical issues of intensive confinement and the treatment of animals raised to become part of the food chain. And, of course, there is always the overarching worry about the potential for contamination or spoilage of animal-based foodstuffs that can so easily result in sickness or even death. In fact, according to a report by the Hartman Group, most consumers will climb aboard the plant-based or cell-cultured train if they believe these alternative products offer significant ‘benefits for me.’(6) In ‘Food & Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown’ the group confronts the tension between a consumer’s ‘desire to retain some of the experience of eating meat and dairy and their desire to eat foods that are as close to their natural form as possible.’(7)

…Impossible Foods has an answer: their leghemoglobin is now generated from a strain of yeast fed from plant sugar which allows the company to produce the ingredient at ‘a fraction of the environment footprint of field-grown soy.’

So in myriad separate spheres, these kinds of questions add fuel to the fire grilling plant-based versions of tried and true foods and heat up the market when it comes to the demand for meatless meals. As does a move by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported by Food Navigator last month. According to the snappily titled article, ‘FDA approves color additive petition for Impossible Foods’ soy leghemoglobin as it gears up for Sept retail launch,’ the FDA has recognized leghemoglobin as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) much to the delight of Impossible Foods. In a statement by Dana Wagner, the company’s Chief Legal Officer, Impossible Foods noted that it has been ‘engaging with the FDA for half a decade to ensure [compliance] with all food-safety regulations – for the Impossible Burger and for future products and sales channels.’(8) The leghemoglobin, a protein derived from the nodules at the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants such as soy, is the ‘secret sauce’ that carries the iron-containing molecule heme and makes the plant-based patty taste like animal flesh. And for those who are concerned at the amount of land given over to soy production, Impossible Foods has an answer: their leghemoglobin is now generated from a strain of yeast fed from plant sugar which allows the company to produce the ingredient at ‘a fraction of the environment footprint of field-grown soy.’(9)

All good so far: in terms of nutrition, this plant-based analog stacks up favorably against its traditional animal-based counterpart, and the concomitant decrease in environmental strain is a big motivating factor in user acceptance. But the problem we outlined, albeit anecdotally, at the top of this article remains: the question of supply in the supply and demand equation.

According to an OpEd written by Jeff Robards, a ‘global head of consumer foods at investment bank Alantra,’ in Food Dive, the ‘first mover advantage’ held by Impossible Foods is threatened when the company is unable to ramp up production sufficiently to meet demand: ‘Clearly it is important to honor and deliver on contracts. Even a company creating and distributing a great product will be susceptible to stock price fluctuations and negative attention if it is unable to meet vendor and consumer demand. Turning away customers is never a good marketing strategy.’(10)

Yes, our co-worker nibbling at her shared burger knows that all too well.

And not only is Impossible Foods partnering with Burger King, it also has existing contracts with the Red Robin and White Castle chains, along with supplying  a whole host of restaurants, stores, colleges, and theme parks.

With that said, the FDA’s green lighting of soy leghemoglobin comes at the same time as Impossible Foods announced a partnership with the OSI Group that will, it is hoped, increase production capacity by a factor of four by the end of this year. OSI is a ‘global food provider’ that partners with brands to establish a trusted supply chain, develop custom food products, and safeguard the manufacturing processes via ‘unsurpassed food safety and quality assurance practices.’(11) Operating 65 facilities in 17 countries, OSI has a workforce in excess of 20,000 employees, some of whom – it is to be assumed – are now working feverishly in Oakland, California. Impossible Foods’ Senior Vice President of Product and Operations, Sheetel Shah, pointed out that recent demand has already forced a tripling of production rates ahead even of OSI coming onboard. ‘OSI,’ says Shah, ‘has already installed equipment to make the Impossible Burger, and we’ll start seeing new capacity every week.’(12)

Take a moment: have you ever considered the potential of lab-raised insects?

But what if, despite this partnership and its drive for expansion, the growing demand for Impossible Burgers remains a problem? Where does the admirer of that gentle creature – the cow – go for their burger fix? Well, depending on your hunger, there just might be a third option. Take a moment: have you ever considered the potential of lab-raised insects? Yes, we’ve discussed the pros and cons of eating insects in a previous article but they were farmed critters, with all of the ‘Eeewwww’ factor that goes with witnessing rooms crawling with crickets or cockroaches and contemplating them dry-roasted for lunch… But if news from Tufts University is anything to go by, new developments in cellular agriculture are about to take the idea one step further. With an estimated 40% of American consumers interested in at least sampling lab-grown protein, the Tufts team is keen to broaden the research field from its existing focus on avian and mammalian proteins to encompass additional alternatives. And one of the options on the table is that of insect-derived proteins.

Working on the basis that current agricultural practices are unlikely to be sustainable in the face of a growing world population with finite and in some areas threatened natural resources, the research team views cellular agriculture as a path forward and the specific focus on insect protein is important in several ways.

In a paper published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, lead author Natalie R. Rubio notes that in order to fully realize the potential of ‘insect-based tissue engineering for food purposes, it is necessary to develop methods to regulate the differentiation of insect cells into relevant cell types, characterize cell interactions with biomaterials with an eye toward 3D culture, design supportive bioreactor systems and quantify nutritional profiles of cultured biomass.’(13) All of which sounds intimidating. But the truth is that deriving cell cultures from invertebrates is much simpler and less resource-intensive than deriving the same from mammalian or avian sources. Why? As anyone who has tried to ‘neutralize’ a cockroach will attest, they are singularly resilient creatures. Surviving environmental conditions that few self-respecting bovines would voluntarily tolerate, insects thrive in a variety of inhospitable temperatures, pH levels, and osmolarity (solution concentration) conditions. Basically: there is little accommodation needed to make them happy. And the same is true of their cell cultures.

Now a staple of entomological research, the first mapping of insect cell lines was completed in 1962 and led to many hundreds of other lines being established across a variety of orders. And from this early work it was found that not only do invertebrate cell cultures distinguish themselves from their vertebrate counterparts in their relative robustness but also in their ease of use. Where metabolism in mammalian cell cultures involves the production of lactic acid, an insect’s metabolism side-steps this process. Why is that significant? A build-up of lactic acid affects pH levels which, in turn, can slow the rate of cell development. In effect, it impedes a process which requires rapid cellular generation in order to work. Moreover, rapid cellular proliferation occurs even while insect cultures require a lower level of glucose than their mammalian counterparts. Reduced resource demand combined with a simplified system that uses less carbon dioxide, more ambient temperatures, and the potential for enhanced scalability means that investors eying a nascent market are growing excited at the potential for profit.

But how nutritious would products created from lab-grown insect cell cultures be?

Depending on the species used, the exact specifications differ but in general terms insects offer two critical macros – protein and fat. According to Precision Nutrition, the average insect is ‘about half protein by dry weight, with some insects (such as locusts) up to about 75% protein.’(14) Lipids in invertebrates contain essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, and the body tissue also contains carbohydrates. And of course, in terms of cellular agriculture where cells are engineered on a matrix, this is perfectly clean protein and fat. Perhaps this is an option that could work…

If we put the ‘Yuck’ factor out of our minds for a moment, a dispassionate look at uses of insect-derived foods reveals a surprisingly broad spectrum of options. We’re not talking about digging worms out of the ground and sizzling them around a campfire. A casual online search will reveal recipes where powdered insects – most commonly crickets – are incorporated into dishes, as opposed to being dishes in and of themselves. Of course, there are the brave (?) outliers such as folks like David George Gordon, the ‘Bug Chef,’ whose website and The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook have whole-insect recipes such as Fried Green Tomato Hornworms, Pear Salad with Chiangbai Ants, and (wait for it) Deep Fried Tarantula – kind of a tempura-style dish…

But to show what’s possible in the future of our food in lab-grown form (and possibly to tempt your tastebuds), we’d like to invite you to attend a small dinner party. A casual soirée, if you will. Here is our menu:

Passed Hors d’oeuvres:

Basil Cricket Bocconcini Baguette

and

Mexican Mole Wax Worm Snacks

Soup Course:

Earthy Fennel Soup with Mealworm Flour

Salad Choice:

Spinach and Radicchio with an Insect Vinaigrette

or

Moroccan Wax Worm Salad with Cricket Dressing

Entrée Choice:

Black Bean Cricket Chili

or

Ricotta Cricket Pancakes

Dessert Plate:

Dulce de Leche Caramel Cricket Crunch

or

Caramel Cricket Cheesecake

or

Whole Roasted Cricket Macaroons

Cricket Powdered Iced Coffee

or

Matcha Cricket Powder Tea

Any RSVPs?(15)

And, one last word of caution. Although we’ll let you home chefs Google the Tarantula Tempura recipe, just remember: there are some things you can’t unsee…

References:

  1. Please pardon the pun
  2. https://time.com/5641475/burger-king-impossible-whopper/
  3. https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper
  4. ibid
  5. https://time.com/5641475/burger-king-impossible-whopper/
  6. https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2019/07/24/Selling-plant-based-and-cell-cultured-meat-will-be-about-benefits-for-me-says-Hartman-Group
  7. https://store.hartman-group.com/content/Food-and-Technology-Study-Overview-2019.pdf
  8. https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2019/07/31/FDA-gives-green-light-to-color-additive-petition-for-Impossible-Foods-soy-leghemoglobin
  9. ibid
  10. https://www.fooddive.com/news/beyond-meat-and-impossible-foods-first-mover-advantage-in-a-rapidly-growin/557902/
  11. https://www.osigroup.com/about-us/
  12. https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2019/07/31/FDA-gives-green-light-to-color-additive-petition-for-Impossible-Foods-soy-leghemoglobin
  13. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00024/full#h7
  14. https://www.precisionnutrition.com/eating-bugs
  15. All recipes courtesy of Entomo Farms in Ontario, Canada, https://entomofarms.com/recipes/

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