Alternative and Insect-based Protein

Alternative and Insect-based Protein

Old Traditions, New Ambitions

Many may not be aware that insect-based protein had its start in Thailand, with the country’s ‘entomophagy’ or human consumption of insects as food covering over 50 species that are edible and which can be consumed throughout the year. And it’s fitting that with climate change concerns and a renewed focus on health, this protein source is making an important comeback around the world, including its place of origin. As the ‘Kitchen of the World,’ Thailand can demonstrate how its diet has had a long tradition including insect and plant-based proteins, in recognition of an important dietary source that has often been neglected. The impact of Covid-19 and the focus on improved lifestyles and well-being have put the spotlight on these two protein sources which are gaining favour for their dual benefits for health and the environment (reduced climate impacts). While a marginal segment of the food sector, plant-based protein is becoming more mainstream with a range of products flooding grocery stores while the merits of insect protein are also being increasingly recognised, including higher protein content than conventional meats, and availability in a more edible powder form through advanced production techniques to capture health benefits and reach larger markets.

An Emerging Cricket Powerhouse

With existing use and familiarity, plant and insect-based proteins play to Thailand’s advantages as the country is already a food powerhouse, and can play an important role in shifting behaviours and attitudes towards more climate friendly and healthier options when it comes to these protein options. The urgency to resolve concerns over food security have become all the more acute with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine which has had spillover effects including increased inflation, namely through rising oil and food prices. The Thai Food Processors Association noted that edible insects and protein sourced from insects are likely to see strong export potential in the global market and that Thailand has the technical know-how while highlighting that raising insects takes a shorter period of time when compared with other sources of protein and with a far lighter environmental footprint. Thailand’s most important insect export markets include Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam and the country has over 20,000 traditional cricket farms, which are mainly located in the northeastern region with a total production capacity of more than 7,000 tons. Three Thailand-based companies that gained BOI certification and which are growing this market include Thai Ento Food Co., Ltd., Siamento Ltd. and Cricket Lab Company Ltd. each of which are producing either protein isolate or concentrate from crickets.

Increased Credibility and Interest

While tofu and tempeh are widely known in Southeast Asia, plant-based proteins are becoming ubiquitous on store shelves across a range of products, and consumer acceptance is largely being driven in Thailand through beverages such as soy, almond and oat milks, while companies are gearing up by offering additional food offerings to cater to the mass market. PTT, the oil and gas giant, sees a market opportunity having invested in a venture with NR Instant Produce Plc to make plant-based protein, including ‘meat alternatives,’ adding new businesses that aims to provide growth in the future. In addition, Betagro, a large agro-industrial player, is moving aggressively having launched its vegan-friendly ‘Meatly’ brand to address demand from flexitarians, vegans and consumers who want to lead a healthier lifestyle – and which claim to offer the same satisfying texture and flavour as pork. The investments and interest by heavyweight Thai companies brings a measure of confidence and legitimacy, which can attract a broader segment of consumers, particularly if the products are comparable in taste, texture, and feel to conventional meats, growing the market not only in Thailand but throughout the region and in valuable export markets.

Here to Stay – and Grow

Insect and plant-based proteins fall under the Thai government’s overall investment promotion policy for the food and agriculture sector, and in supporting a diverse and nutritious high-value food chain. They also incorporate technological and innovation investments in terms of their production. While it’s still early days for these two protein groups, all indicators point to very strong growth potential – largely based on shifting consumer preferences geared to improved health together with the climate focus, as well as for companies wanting to reduce their carbon footprints and being associated with greener, healthier protein alternatives. Insect-based proteins, may have some hurdles to overcome, namely the psychological barrier and potential allergy-risks. However, its use as a powder supplement in foods and beverages is one way to increase market penetration while overcoming the ‘ick’ factor. And perceptions shift notably when accounting for their powerful nutritional value as a superfood (a good source of fatty acids, rich in minerals and chitin, high in B vitamins and protein with all nine essential amino acids), and that insect farming is a form of sustainable agriculture. Both insect and plant-based proteins have long been part of the Thai diet, so it’s a priority for the BOI to support Thai companies as they introduce insect-based protein powders and foreign companies that see business opportunities given Thailand’s biodiversity, and as plant-based proteins also incorporate technological innovations bringing the market full circle ready for a new generation of consumers in the Thai and global markets.