Eating insects: These 20-year-old S’porean students created protein bars made out of crickets

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Gavriel Tan and John Lee are both final-year students at Republic Polytechnic (RP). They were looking forward to securing overseas internships, but Covid-19 had unfortunately dampened their plans.

When they found out that they could replace their internship with their school’s Incubation Accelerator Programme, they decided to apply for that instead.

At the same time, they had chanced upon a book by the United Nations titled “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Security”. It ignited their interest to convert insects into functional food products and came up with the idea of protein bars made out of cricket-based flour.

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This very novel idea awarded them with a S$10,000 prototype grant to kickstart their business venture. Called Altimate Nutrition (Altimate is a wordplay on ‘alternative’ and ‘ultimate), it claims to be Singapore’s first company to create insect food products for humans.

Crickets are rich in protein

Altimate Nutrition essentially converts extracted cricket flour into food products that are nutritious and sustainable.

“We chose protein bars because it is a familiar food product often consumed by sportsmen and people who lead an active lifestyle, who are our initial target segments,” said Gavriel.

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Now, their target audience have shifted to focus more on health-conscious as well as environmentally-conscious youths and working adults.

Moreover, they felt that the existing protein bars in the market are unsustainable (in terms of protein source) and are not as nutritious as insect-protein bars.

Altimate Nutrition protein bars / Image Credit: Altimate Nutrition

When asked why they chose to make protein bars out of cricket-based flour, Gavriel explained that crickets are actually a complete protein source (more than 70 per cent protein content) with all nine essential amino acids. They are also rich in essential micronutrients like vitamin B12 and iron.

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Besides its nutritional attributes, they also chose to use cricket protein flour because of its resource efficiency. These factors aside, it is undoubtedly a challenge for them to get consumers to overcome the ‘ick’ factor.

“People always have this stigma that associates insects with negative connotations like poverty and dirt. However, our products have all undergone successful microbial tests and nutritional testing to prove that it meets food standards safe for consumption,” assured Gavriel.

He added that instead of focusing too much on its origin, they play up their products as an all-in-one nutritious supplement.

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“We highlight the nutritious properties of insects like crickets, and how they can possibly help to strengthen our food and nutrition security.”

Although they faced constant criticism that nobody will be convinced to consume insects, they took it as constructive feedback and went ahead with the product development.

“When it was time to do our sensory evaluation, our panellists were impressed (that) our products fared better than other commercial protein bars we benchmarked against.”

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They spent six months creating their first products

Altimate Nutrition started out during the circuit breaker period, which severely handicapped their progress.

Due to the lockdown of their school and the food research lab, they weren’t able to have access to the necessary equipment, which led them to second-guessing their ability to create food products with flavours that everyone will enjoy.

altimate nutrition cricket protein bar
Altimate Protein Bars in double chocolate and peanut butter cinnamon / Image Credit: Altimate Nutrition

The two of them tweaked their formulations multiple times and spent almost six months to arrive at their first two flavours: double chocolate, and peanut butter cinnamon.

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“There weren’t any recipes we could easily find online relating to insect-based food products, thus we had to do lots of extensive research and trials and errors for our proposed formulations,” lamented Gavriel.

Due to the novelty of their insect-based food product, it was not easy for them to find people who are well-informed in this area and they had to do a lot of self-learning by reading academic papers, books and the likes.

“Thankfully, with the help of our school, we got acquainted with industry partners in the food industry which helped us accelerate our product development. Initially, the responses were quite skeptical and people were not very receptive towards the idea when we invited them for product tasting.”

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“However, once they tried our products, they were mostly impressed by the taste and how ‘normal’ it felt to consume insect-based products. Most of them also expressed interest to consume them again or even purchase them once we get them out on the market.”

Entering the alternative protein field

Both of them are biotech students but Gavriel specialises in food science (with a Diploma Plus in business innovation and entrepreneurship), while John specialises in research.

With these skill sets, they were confident to venture into the alternative protein field despite it being their first-ever business venture.

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cricket flour
Cricket flour / Image Credit: Dr. Axe

When asked about the reactions of their family and friends when they first broke the news about Altimate Nutrition, Gavriel revealed that many initially doubted their abilities to develop and market such a novel product, especially one with such an unorthodox ingredient — insect flour.

“There were also many uncertainties, which we wouldn’t call criticism as we usually take them as constructive feedback to help improve our ideas,” said Gavriel.

“Being young to go into entrepreneurship surprisingly did not come with as many negative responses as we expected. Instead, the community around us were very supportive of our idea and even offered to help us at every point of the journey till now,” he said, adding that they also received plenty of support from RP’s Office of Entrepreneurship Development.

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A matter of time before insects become a form of staple food

Altimate Nutrition is currently pending approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). Once approved, they are looking to secure partnerships to distribute their products.

“Currently, we are speaking to a few distributors, gyms, lifestyle shops and sustainable ‘green’ shops,” said Gavriel, adding that they are targeting a retail price of S$5.

As they move nearer towards the commercialisation stage, they are also looking to fundraise and apply for other grants.

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Commenting on the food tech industry, Gavriel feels that one of the biggest sectors for growth is alternative proteins, which can be derived from plants, cultured meat, and insects.

“The food tech industry is definitely a booming industry, especially in Singapore where a lot of focus is placed on food security.”

“Globally, there is a need for new food innovations to curb our current unsustainable meat production. As the world’s population continues to grow, new food innovations will allow us to fight rising problems like climate change, inhumane treatment of animals associated with the current food ecosystem.”

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Moving forward, Gavriel said that Altimate Nutrition plans to have control over their products from farm-to-fork and build an automated cricket farm in Singapore by the end of next year.

He shared further that they are now working on a few new flavours and does not rule out the possibility of launching other cricket products in the future like pasta, chips, muffins and shakes.

“The world is slowly, but surely, finding a way to incorporate insects as a form of staple food. It will happen whether we like it or not because our finite resources will eventually drive humanity to seek an alternative source to supplement the growing demand for food.”

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Featured Image Credit: Altimate Nutrition

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