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Considering algae and insects as a future source of protein

15 April 2016

Providing enough food for the world’s population is set to pose a challenge for humanity. It is expected that, by the year 2050, we will need an additional 265 million tonnes of protein to feed the growing population. In order to prevent a shortfall in supply, current production levels of protein need to be raised by 50%. 

To close the looming protein gap, Bühler and ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich) have entered into a cooperation to create a basis for the industrial utilisation of alternative sources of protein such as pulses, algae, and insects to ensure a sustainable supply of food for humans and animals and to make them attractive for consumers. 

High hopes are currently being pinned on the utilisation of pulses such as peas, lentils, or beans which offer gluten-free sources of protein. Bühler offers systems that hull, split and sort pulses but also process them in their pure form or blended with other raw materials to make pasta, baked products, snacks or meat substitutes, helping to make pulses more attractive for a wider circle of consumers.
In the medium to long term, however, the use of new raw materials is inevitable. Algae and insects especially stand out as high-grade sources of protein. Microalgae such as Chlorella or Spirulina (Arthrospira) do not compete with existing farming land, grow quickly and take up little space. Their high-quality protein can be processed into food and animal feeds. However, if algae-based products are to appeal to a broad mass of western consumers, they need to be integrated in traditional foods without significantly changing their taste and texture. In addition to proteins, algae also contain valuable polyunsaturated fatty acids and colour pigments.
Further, insects such as mealworms or the larvae of the black soldier fly hold major potential as good sources of protein. They can be fed with industrial co-products or even certain types of waste and are astonishingly efficient. From 2kg of feed, they build 1kg of insect mass. Another benefit is their low space requirement. As a protein source, insect meal has similarities with fish meal. It could, therefore, revolutionise aquaculture as a sustainable source of feed and help reduce the pressure on natural fish populations. Although the Western palette does not appreciate insects, if their distaste can be overcome by suitable processing – into protein powder, for example – and if open issues regarding food safety, the legal situation, and processing can be settled, insects could offer a good source of protein for human nutrition. Bühler is in the process of setting up a pilot facility with a partner in China for processing fly larvae and mealworms on an industrial scale. Its aim is to produce insect flour as a replacement of fishmeal plus a high-grade fat with properties similar to those of palm kernel oil.

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