Proteins of Tomorrow? Soy, Peas, Crickets, and Mealworms

Xconomy San Francisco — 

More than half of the protein in the American diet comes from meat. So where do the animals we dine upon get their protein? Mostly, they make it from corn and grasses—but they’re not very good at it. A cow needs 20,000 kilocalories of corn to make just 2,000 kilocalories of beef. It would short-circuit this inefficient cycle—and vastly reduce water usage and greenhouse gas emissions—if we simply decided to get more of our protein directly from plant and insect sources.

So say a growing number of food entrepreneurs working to bring alternative sources of protein to your local supermarket. At a gathering last week in San Francisco’s startup-soaked South of Market district, participants could sample a range of high-protein foods made from plants and insects, including mealworm brittle from Tiny Farms, cricket-flour protein bars from Exo, and chocolate-chip cookies made using a plant-based egg substitute from Hampton Creek Foods. (They were all delicious.)

After the tasting session, the founders of all three companies took part in a panel discussion moderated by Xconomy. We recorded the event, and you can watch the full video below.

The entrepreneurs on the panel were joined by representatives of two Bay Area venture firms—Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers—that are actively investing in alternative-protein companies. Founders Fund is one of Hampton Creek’s backers, and Kleiner Perkins has invested in Beyond Meat, maker of a meat substitute made mostly from soybeans, peas, and carrot fiber.

The panel was part of The Future of Protein, an evening event organized by San Francisco-based Food Startups and Cosemble and hosted by coworking facility SOMA Central. The panelists, from left to right, were Gabi Lewis, co-founder of Exo; Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, co-founder of Tiny Farms; Scott Nolan, principal at the Founders Fund; Amol Deshpande, partner at Kleiner Perkins; and Josh Tetrick, founder and CEO of Hampton Creek Foods.

One big takeaway from the discussion: consumers care as much about the price and functionality of their protein as they do about its origin. Tetrick says Hampton Creek can produce its pea-, sorghum-, and canola-based egg substitute, Beyond Eggs, for about 20 percent less than the cost of making eggs the old-fashioned way (in cramped battery cages housing grain-fed hens).

The product is designed to have many of the same coagulating, emulsifying, and foaming properties as real eggs, meaning it can be used in place of eggs in baked goods, dressings and sauces, pasta, omelettes and quiches, and other products. If muffins, cookies, and other products made with Beyond Eggs taste the same and cost less, people are going to buy them, Tetrick argued.

But when it comes to insect protein, cost may not be the only consideration.

For most Westerners, there’s still a big psychological “ick” factor to overcome when the discussion turns to edible insects. The same American who’s happy to wolf down a ballpark hot dog (a mash of pork trimmings, chicken slurry, powdered preservatives, and food coloring) still panics at the thought of eating a grasshopper or a grub, even though insects are about 12 times more efficient than cows at producing edible weight.

Lewis says that’s exactly why Exo isn’t starting off by selling whole crickets. Instead, it makes a protein-bar mix that combines familiar ingredients like dates, almond butter, and coconut with cricket flour. The flour comes from crickets that have been thoroughly roasted and milled, meaning it’s several steps removed from anything creepy-crawly.

The effort to make insects a mainstream food source in the U.S. is a little bit like the campaign to introduce Americans to sushi in the 1960s, Lewis says. It wasn’t until the invention of sushi varieties like the California roll, with its combination of fish roe and more familiar ingredients like crab, cucumber, and avocado, that folks in the U.S. got used to the idea of eating raw seafood. “We’re taking cricket flour, combining it with natural, ‘normal’ ingredients, and basically trying to create the California roll of insects,” Lewis said during the panel.

“A lot of it is encouraging Americans to experience this stuff and change their mindsets, but it’s going to happen slowly,” predicted Imrie-Situnayake. “If you look across the planet, more people eat insects than don’t.”

And in the end, as climate change, dwindling water supplies, and the rising cost of feed put increasing pressure on old-fashioned livestock farming, our food choices may be driven by necessity, not choice.

“There’s no way, with a seven-billion-human population, that you can feed the world if we keep using animals as the source of protein,” said Deshpande. “They require too much land, and the cost is too high. Today, it may seem like it isn’t, but in the future, that will all change.”