As insects are often associated with either repulsiveness or fear, many people might not consider them to be an ideal source of protein. However, with growing awareness about environmental concerns about meat-based food and the aggressive use of antibiotics in the farming industry, there is more exploration around insect-based food, initially for its novelty, and gradually as an alternative, especially for pets for whom plant-based protein might not be sufficient.
Understanding this shift in attitude early, agribiotechnology startup, Loopworm ventured early into the field in 2019 to create an insect-based protein that can be used in pet foods. “Insect-based food is unconventional but also highly nutritious. Insects have huge quantities of protein, fats, and amino acids. Consequently, the extracted protein is superior to other protein sources and has high digestibility. Especially for dogs and cats,” Ankit Alok Bagaria, co-founder of Loopworm tells Lounge. Loopworm has recently developed Loop-Grubs, an insect-based pet food ingredient that comes with whole dried insects.
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According to the 2021 Future Market Insights (FMI) report, the global insect-based pet food market value is expected to reach $17.29 billion by 2031. Although there is more awareness about the availability of insect-based food as the need for sustainable food options emerged, this is not necessarily converting into acceptability.
Currently, there are 43 brands selling pet products using insect-based ingredients globally, with 35 of them operating in Europe, according to a 2023 study. In India, there is barely a range of options available for pet parents to consider insect-based pet food. “The insect-based food space has just started picking up. There are hardly any companies that deal with the manufacturing of insect protein or fat. This is still a niche concept. Moreover, their acceptability is higher in regions such as US and Europe compared to India, as here there is still a lack of awareness about their consumption benefits,” Bagaria explains.
Eating insects or entomophagy is not new for humans. In India, there is a rich tradition of eating insects for their nutritional, economic, and environmental benefits. In many sub-regional cuisines, insects are an important source of nutrition for marginalised communities, according to a story reported in Lounge in 2021. From roasted bee larvae from Nagaland, water beetles in Assam to date palm worms in Odisha, there are many examples of insect-based food delicacies in India. Moreover, they are an eco-friendlier way of sourcing and supporting sustainability. As the food security concerns, driven by global crises make it important to look into it alternative sources of protein, insects have been considered the future of food, in some ways.
“To make insect protein, compared to plants, we need 200 times lesser land and water. Hence, there are even more sustainable than plant-based proteins,” Bagaria says. Although insect-based food is often questioned for their quality because of preconceived notions, Bagaria emphasises that along with proteins and fats, insects are a rich source of bio-active peptides which can have anti-microbial, anti-oxidative, and anti-inflammatory properties to pet foods. Moreover, insect-based protein offers higher protein digestibility compared to most other alternatives.
Currently, black soldier flies larvae and mealworms are the two most frequently used insect species. A 2019 study published in the European Food Research and Technology indicated that BSFL comprises, on average, 40 to 44% crude protein. Moreover, according to a 2022 study published in Animals, the percentage of amino acids, an essential nutrient for pets, is about 55% and 31% in BSF and mealworms. Insects are also known to be a very good source of fats. BSF can be considered an “energy” insect, rich in proteins and lipids, according to the study. Furthermore, insect-based pet foods are also known to have hypoallergenic properties, which can be useful to provide nutrients for pets with allergies.
Reiterating the main driver of insect-based pet food is proteins, Dr Shahid Vaseem, director of The TrustiVet Pet Hospital, Bengaluru, who had more than 18 years of experience in the field says, “As a protein source, insect-based pet food has a more purified form of protein among other nutrients. Insect-based pet food will definitely see a boom in the near future.” However, he emphasises that without awareness, the acceptability among pet parents is questionable. “Unless there is focus on evidence-based education that shows benefits of insect-based pet food, there will be hesitation.”
It's also important to understand that what is good for humans, might not always be good for animals. “Often, pet parents who are strict vegetarians, feed the same diet to their pets, which might not have sufficient nutrients for them. It’s necessary to keep an open mind about that and understand the nutrients that your pet needs, which is usually a mix of plant-based food and animal-based proteins. For instance, a bowl of simple curd rice can be turned into a protein-rich meal with insect-based meals such as Loop-Grubs,” Bagaria says.
However, as Dr Vaseem pointed out, with the lack of awareness about benefits of insect-based pet food, its acceptability among pet parents will be an uphill task.
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