11 Sep VEXo Insect Protein – giving Welsh schoolchildren the V.I.P. treatment!
Today, the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs launched VEXo – an insect and plant protein. An innovation from Welsh company Bug Farm Foods, VEXo can be used in a similar way to minced meat, whilst reducing saturated fat by 70-80%.
VEXo has been developed by husband and wife team chef Andy Holcroft and entomologist Dr Sarah Beynon, who between them have also founded the UK’s first full-time edible insect restaurant Grub Kitchen and the multi award-winning research centre and visitor attraction Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm.
Including insects in our diets
In part due to the growing human population demanding new, more sustainable sources of protein, the edible insect industry has grown at a staggering rate across Europe and North America over the past few years. “In today’s climate it has never been a more important time to innovate in food production and simultaneously tackle environmental, sustainability and social issues” says Lesley Griffiths AM.
Over a third of the population in the UK believe we will be eating insects by 2029, but it is widely accepted that getting over the ‘yuck factor’ is a major barrier to insects being incorporated in our everyday diets.
“Insects are exceptionally nutrient-dense and environmentally sustainable to produce” says VEXo co-inventor Sarah. “Many insects contain weight-for-weight a similar amount of protein to beef and they can contain all nine essential amino acids. Insects can be farmed in high-welfare farms while requiring very little feed, water and space and emitting hardly any greenhouse gases”.
“We were tasked by Welsh Government and Innovate UK under the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) project to find a way to harness the nutrients contained in insects and deliver them in a form that is acceptable to our western palettes” says Andy.
The Bug Farm Foods’ current range includes Cricket Cookies, Buffalo Biscuits, insect powders and whole insects, which have been stocked recently by Selfridges. “Up until this point, we have concentrated on the gifting sector as a great way for people to try insects for the first time.” says Sarah. “However, we feel that people are now ready to take this new food to the next level: in order to really harness the protein and other important nutrients contained in insects, they need to be included in affordable, healthy main meals.”
New research and development facility in St Davids
As part of the project, Bug Farm Foods built a research and development facility on their farm in St Davids in order to develop VEXo alongside innovating more insect-based foods. The facility, opened officially today by Lesley Griffiths AM, is the only facility of its kind in the UK dedicated solely to the innovation and development of food made from insects.
VEXo – a food for the future?
“From the beginning of the project, we wanted to combine the power of plants plus insects to deliver a tasty food that would appeal to children and adults alike. We particularly wanted to focus on children, as young people are often more open to change: we get rather set in our ways as we get older! Also, nearly one-third of 2-15 year olds are overweight or obese, with a 2011 report estimating that obesity is costing the NHS in Wales around £73 million each year.
“It was vital that we could develop a food that would provide growing children with key nutrients such as iron and iodine while reducing saturated fat compared to alternatives” says Sarah. “Andy and I worked to our strengths – me with a spreadsheet crunching the numbers to ensure the correct nutritional and environmental profile, with Andy in the kitchen making VEXo taste great! The provenance and environmental footprint of each and every ingredient was equally as important to us as its nutritional composition and taste.”
VEXo gets the thumbs-up from Welsh school children
Working alongside Cardiff Metropolitan University and Food Centre Wales, Andy and Sarah worked through fifty recipes before taking VEXo into schools. Bringing in expertise from Dr Verity Jones at the University of the West of England, they investigated children’s changing perceptions of entomophagy (eating insects).
A pilot research project with almost two hundred school pupils in schools across Pembrokeshire was followed by workshops with another three thousand children across the UK!
The research, published in Teaching Geography’s Summer 2019 edition and presented at the Local Authority Caterers Association Main Event 2019, showed that 100% of children liked the VEXo bolognaise, with 71% of students saying it looked tastier than meat bolognaise: “It’s the best food I have ever had!” commented one student, while another said “I liked it – it just tasted normal!”.
Before tasting VEXo, only 27% of participants said that they would choose it for school lunch, while after tasting VEXo, 56% of participants said they would choose it for school lunch. When VEXo bolognaise was put on the school lunch menu at a secondary school, 60% of the pupils having hot lunches chose it, suggesting that VEXo could also help to increase school lunch uptake.
But it’s not just about insects: Sarah and Andy’s in-school workshops tackled sustainability throughout the farming and food systems and, as a result, 80% of students agreed that they would like to learn more about sustainability in lessons. The team have now developed a teaching resource to help to embed edible insects and sustainable food production and consumption onto school curriculums.
Head teacher Kevin Phelps commented “The pupils at both Templeton and Tavernspite Schools in Pembrokeshire thoroughly enjoyed their experience of trying out Bug Farm Foods’ VEXo. The VEXo was extremely popular with all the pupils, without exception. The children were unable to see or feel any insect parts in the bolognaise and everyone agreed that it was very tasty, had a lovely texture and a felt like completely normal food. I was very impressed that the children were so open to trying out the insect food products and did so without hesitation. The pupils showed a very good understanding of the importance of the sustainability aspect of these products and were very keen to support and promote the environment issues around them. They considered VEXo a very positive, and extremely tasty, step forward in helping to secure all our futures”.
VEXo will now appear on school menus in Pembrokeshire for theme days this term while Sarah and Andy work alongside Pembrokeshire County Council and individual schools to phase VEXo onto the main school lunchtime menus after Christmas”. The couple are also working with other local authorities across the UK to get VEXo on school menus more widely.