Unlocking the real value of insect meal

Instead of taking simplistic view which insists on the use of insect meal as a fish meal replacement and focusing on the similarity between the two materials, we should instead be looking at how insect meal differs from fish meal, and thinking of insect-based ingredients as an entirely new product category, with new value propositions and use cases.

Nick Piggott
Co-founder and Co-CEO
Nutrition Technologies

Insect meal has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion amongst nutritionists & formulators across a range of different sectors, but the uptake & utilisation of this novel material is still relatively modest. Why is that? The level of understanding of insect production systems and their outputs (insect meal & insect oil), and Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSFL) in particular has skyrocketed recently, with 80% of all insect-related papers (since 1950) being published in the last 2 years. These studies include product applications in a wide range of species, including; layers & broilers, starter & finisher pigs, shrimps & seabass, and many others.

On reviewing a lot of these papers and listening to presentations at recent feed conferences, a trend has become clear. A trend which I see as being central to the slow uptake of insect-based products in productive animals – the comparison to fish meal and the focus on ‘fish meal replacement’.

This stems largely from the insect meal manufacturers themselves (ourselves), whose messaging has focused on the potential for insect meal to be a silver bullet for food security, by promoting it as a fish meal replacement, and staking-out a Total Addressable Market of 5-6m MT per year. This immediately sets-up two issues; nutritional benchmarking and price anchoring. There are very few (if any) insect meal products which reach 65% Crude Protein, the common benchmark for fish meal. So, by comparing insect meal to fish meal on a Crude Protein basis, formulators tend to be disappointed when presented with only 50%-60% CP in insect meal. Secondly, insect meal is relatively expensive when valued primarily on the protein content, so achieving a price comparable to fish meal on a purely macro-nutrient basis is still beyond most manufacturers.

In order to ‘replace fish meal’, the new product needs to be either cheaper than, or higher in protein than fish meal. Generally speaking, insect meal is rarely either.

Instead of taking this simplistic view which insists on the use of insect meal as a fish meal replacement and focusing on the similarity between the two materials (amino acid profiles, digestibility, crude protein content), we should instead be looking at how insect meal differs from fish meal, and thinking of insect-based ingredients as an entirely new product category, with new value propositions and use cases. This may seem presumptuous when the industry is still in its infancy, with commercial products only becoming available in the last 5 years. As the sector grows and more manufacturers come online and more product diversification takes place, it’s critical to the success of the insect-sector for manufacturers to really understand and communicate the true value of insect-based products – which lie in the differences, not similarities, to fish meal.

These differences can be traced back to the evolutionary history of insects, and BSFL in particular. Being detritivores, BSFL evolved in microbially rich, decaying matter – competing with bacteria & fungi for nutrients, and they have necessarily developed a comprehensive arsenal of weapons to out-compete these microbes. This arsenal includes life history traits, such as high fecundity (600-900 offspring per female) and rapid weight gain (BSFL can gain 4000x their body weight in the first 7 days), as well as biological tools. These biological tools include anti-microbial peptides (AMPs), chitin & medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) are some of the most effective anti-microbial organic molecules in nature.

Graphic representation of the identified AMP classes from larvae & adult transcriptomes. The largest class of AMPs was Defensins (Chart from Moretta 2020).

In a 2020 study, a total of 68 AMPs in the BSFL were identified, 57 of which are active peptides with antimicrobial, antiviral, and or antifungal activity. This is more than any other known invertebrate. Because these peptides are so short, they are generally more resistant to denaturation than longer proteins, and tend to withstand the drying and milling process well, so are present in the insect meal.

In vitro testing against common pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella sp. and S. aureus, extracts of BSFL oil, meal and fresh larvae were demonstrated to have significant anti-microbial activity, as demonstrated by the bacterial inhibition zone within the petri dish.

Insects (or more broadly, invertebrates) are in the natural diets of many animals, both aquatic and land-based. We know this through both observation and scientific studies that demonstrate the chitinolytic capabilities of dogs, cats, pigs, and many fish species. We have also seen frequent demonstrations that insect meal & oil acts as both a palatant and an attractant, accelerating feed update and increasing overall feed intake.

In order, then, to optimise the use of insect-based ingredients in feed formulations, the focus should not be on drawing parallels to fish meal and the macronutrient composition, but on the contribution of those other biological molecules and their capacity to deliver improved performance on some key indicators.

Because of this, insect meal (and oil) are better suited to functional feeds than to standard feeds, or to integrators who reap the benefits of improved performance without having to pass on any changes in raw material costs to their customers. At this stage of the (insect) industry both users and suppliers are still getting to know the material and how best to work with it, but as the knowledge base grows, clear strategies and use-cases will become apparent across and between species, and application of insect-based products will become more targeted and more effective.

About Nick Piggott
Nick is a Co-founder and Co-CEO of Nutrition Technologies, an industrial-scale BSF manufacturer based in South East Asia. With a background in Life Sciences, Nick was exposed to the challenges of food security whilst working for the UN in West Africa, and the company has since developed insect-based feed-ingredients for the livestock and aquaculture industries to address this issue. Nick is the industry-side face of Nutrition Technologies, overseeing the product, regulatory & client side of the business, ensuring that the organization maintains constant awareness of the competitive & regulatory landscape, market trends, technology developments and industry standards.