Cordon bleugh? Worms and crickets could soon be tickling French palates

<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

In a box-like building on an out-of-town industrial estate in Burgundy, trays of Alphitobius diaperinus – otherwise known as the lesser mealworm – are being fattened up by robots then cooked, dried and turned into protein-rich powder and oil.

This is the headquarters of Ÿnsect a French company that is building the world’s largest insect farm, to open at the end of the year in preparation for what the French company believes will be a large increase in demand for a healthy alternative to meat.

Today, most of the oil and protein powder it produces outside the town of Dole in the Jura is used in pet and fish food. However, since the European food agency (EUFA) gave its provisional approval for mealworm-based protein for human consumption earlier this year, some is being turned into “insect burgers” or used in cereal bars, protein shakes, pasta, granola and other nutrient-rich foods.

“It can be made to look like minced beef and even turned into sausages,” says Antoine Hubert, the co-founder of Ÿnsect. “It’s ethically good, it’s good for the planet and it also tastes good.” Ÿnsect – the dots over the Ÿ are meant to represent insect antennae – says its new 480,000 sq ft, 120ft-tall farm outside Amiens in northern France will begin production early next year and will turn out more than 200,000 tonnes of insect-based ingredients a year.

The start-up company, founded in 2011, is expecting to have 1,000 staff and a £450m turnover by 2025. It is looking for partners in the UK with the aim of building an insect farm across the Channel.

Gourmet fried mealworm burger with salad trimmings.
Gourmet fried mealworm burger with salad trimmings. Photograph: Panther Media GmbH/Alamy

Walking through the Ÿnsect farm, picking up handfuls of wriggling worms, Hubert says that pioneering and entrepreneurial thinking is needed to tackle the problem of feeding the world’s growing population, which the United Nations predicts will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, without destroying the planet or exhausting its resources.

The mealworms – fed, watered and cooked at the precise moment before the larvae metamorphose into beetles – are disease-resistant, rich in protein and low in fat. They do not require a lot of space. Unlike crickets and flies, both possible insect food alternatives, they do not hop or fly.

Hubert called in philosophers from the Sorbonne to consider the ethics of their production and welfare. The student thinkers concluded that cultivating mealworms had more in common with mushroom-growing and hothousing vegetables than with raising cattle and poultry.

“They have no brain in the strict sense of the word, said Hubert. “We know they have a reflex reaction and they communicate and build intelligent structures, but nobody has shown they feel anything. However, what is important is to respect them as living organisms, which we do.”

The market for insect protein in the production of food for human consumption is small, but Hubert expects demand to rocket in the next 10 years.

Scientists agree that insects are the ecological and economic future of food production. A 2013 United Nations report concluded that edible insects are a “promising alternative for the conventional production of meat”.It added: “The case needs to be made to consumers that eating insects is not only good for their health, it is good for the planet.”

A more recent study by South Korean scientists looked at ways of overcoming European and North American diners’ squeamishness about eating mealworms and crickets.

Related: Catching the bug: are farmed insects about to take off in Africa?

Hee Cho, a researcher at Wonkwang University, who led the research, said the image problem of these nutritional “superfoods” could be overcome by turning them into meat-like products. Cho’s team found that steamed mealworms developed sweetcorn-like aromas, whereas roasted and deep-fried versions had shrimp-like attributes.

“Insects are a nutritious and healthy food source with high amounts of fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, fibre and high-quality protein, which is like that of meat,” Cho said. She added: “Insect-farming requires just a fraction of the land, water and feed in comparison to traditional livestock farming.”

A definitive decision by EUFA on the use of proteins from certain insects is expected next year.

“People are worried about climate change and ask what they can do. Well, they can eat less and they can eat insect-based protein,” Hubert says. He waves away concerns about the “yuk” factor of eating insects.

“A lot of it is in our head,” he says. “Of course, the idea of eating a whole insect doesn’t sound appetising, but we can replace existing foods with what we are producing from the insects and hope this will encourage people to change their eating habits. It’ll happen little by little.”