Beer with a Side of Crickets: Surprising Product Innovations at the Heart of ESG

When we think about environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) goals, big topics like carbon footprint, water consumption, environmental impact and social sustainability tend to dominate headlines. But underlying all of those important, higher-level themes is the capacity for rigorous research and product innovation. As organizations move toward major goals like carbon reduction, many will likely find that optimizing supply lines around existing materials may not be enough. Products themselves may need to change, enabling brands to shift to more sustainable ingredients that can be sourced and processed at a lower cost in net carbon outputs. This can pose a complex challenge, requiring research teams to think not just about viable materials, but about how those materials fit into the big picture of the global ecosystem, from agricultural inputs to waste management strategies. In many ways, this trend has already started. In this blog, we’ll look at some fascinating ways in which new product innovation is paving the way toward a more sustainable food and beverage industry, sometimes in surprising ways.

Waste not, want not

Whether or not you enjoy a cold beer at the end of the working week, you probably know that beer production involves grain as a primary input, and lots of it. The brewing process extracts flavor and carbohydrates from grains and uses fermentation to produce an endless variety of bubbly beverages at varying alcohol levels. But once that process is complete, a massive amount of solid grain waste is left over, accounting for approximately 85% of all waste material produced by breweries and creating an estimated 39 million tons of material annually. Historically, some brewing waste has found its way into animal feed, but quite a bit has gone straight to the landfill.

Brewing waste, however, has a couple of interesting characteristics, one being that it’s relatively high in protein compared to other forms of agricultural waste. That’s not news in and of itself; food scientists have been aware of the potential for brewing waste as a protein source for a long time. What’s been lacking has been an extraction process efficient enough to make the economics compelling. However, recent research has led to more efficient “wet extraction” methods that make it considerably easier and more viable to create usable protein concentrates from the waste grains produced by brewers. The result is a new option for food manufacturers looking for alternatives to animal proteins, which in turn is becoming an increasingly crucial part of many brands’ long-term carbon reduction strategies. With global carbon emissions from animal agriculture continuing to rise, R&D teams increasingly have alternative protein sources on their minds, a topic that they can now safely ponder over a cold one.

Would you like bugs with that?

Brewers aren’t the only people within the food and beverage industry thinking about innovative approaches to upcycling waste materials. In fact, we may be painting with too broad of a brush by talking about animal agriculture too generally. After all, not all agricultural animals are created equal, and real-world research is demonstrating that the insect world may prove to be a surprisingly powerful food resource in the battle for a more sustainable industry. Insects have low water requirements; they don’t need huge amounts of space for cultivation. And they boast a remarkably efficient feed conversion rate compared to more traditional animal sources of protein, meaning that they require far less feed per pound of edible output than chicken, pigs or cattle.

But it’s the nature of that feed that may be the key to driving real sustainability impacts through insect agriculture. In addition to being efficient feed converters, insect farming makes it possible for one person’s garbage to become a bug’s feast. Studies have shown that multiple forms of biowaste, from catering leftovers to agricultural biproducts, can be used as feed sources for insect farming. This means that six-legged farm animals can produce significant, high-quality protein while simultaneously consuming waste products that would otherwise have to be disposed of at a potentially significant monetary and environmental cost.

To be sure, western consumers aren’t yet lining up for bug-based protein products. But researchers point out that worldwide, more than 2 billion people regularly consume over 2000 varieties of insects. While cultural acceptance in many markets will have a long way to go, the reality is that more discreet applications, such as insect-derived protein powders that can be used as fortifying agents in other products, may prove a viable entry point with consumers sensitive to the “yuck” factor. In fact, there are precedents for this. Savvy industry veterans will be familiar with carmine, a food coloring additive made from crushed insect shells with a long history of food use.   

That last point is where it really gets interesting. Finding ways to apply novel ingredients to time-honored recipes is a perennial challenge for food scientists, one which will continue to ramp up as brands increase their focus on sustainability themes such as carbon reduction and water consumption. Fascinating examples already exist. Brewing waste has been used to create high protein pastas that are also rich in dietary fiber, while cricket-based proteins have found their way into fortified rice products, improving fat and protein profiles.

Whatever the application, innovative research and development teams need room to experiment. They need tools that allow them to tweak variables, model potential outcomes and calculate nutritionals on the fly, getting from the idea stage to commercialization quickly and with confidence. TraceGains Formula Management is built with rapid commercialization in mind, helping research teams do more with data and be ultra-efficient when it comes to developing physical product. With the addition of TraceGains Supplier Management, teams can effortlessly integrate formulas with supplier and ingredient documentation, allowing them to not only manage the items in their supply chain, but also map global intelligence data and alerts to the items they use. And because Formula Management and Supplier Management integrate seamlessly with TraceGains Gather®, the industry’s most powerful Networked Ingredients Marketplace, formulation and ingredient sourcing can now run hand in hand.

So have a beer, munch on a cricket, and request a demo to learn more.

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