Insect Cuisine Takes the Stage in Tokyo

With all the talk in our food and agriculture world of alternative proteins and the potential of insect protein, this month’s Insect Experience Day was not something we could miss. The event was hosted by The Finnish Institute in Japan and Nishiogi Place to highlight the intersection of science, art and food and featured the tasting and experiencing of… bugs. On display were a great mixture of locally produced and imported snacks and drinks that all had some variety of insect as a key ingredient. The event also featured panels and discussions highlighting the nutritional benefits of different insects for humans.

The value of the global edible insect market is skyrocketing and is expected to reach at least $1.3 billion by 2025. While the vast majority of this insect protein production is for the animal feed market, insect protein for human foods has garnered some buzz as a niche eco-friendly ingredient in products sold in North America, EU, South America and other countries. In Japan, however, the trend is still at an early stage.

Some of the showcased products included locally produced Cricket rice cracker snacks made from Japanese brown rice and cricket-based ingredients from Canada. Another local product was Tagame Cider – a type of soda with lethocerus (giant water bug) extract that contributed to the fruity taste of the beverage.

While insects are a popular and traditional snack in many parts of Asia and have a tradition in Japan as well,  insect products are rarely found at modern Japanese retailers. Insect Experience Day was a step towards increasing consumers’ awareness of insects as a food ingredient and encouraging curiosity about these high-protein, nutritionally-rich creatures that appeared to horrify some visitors and be palatable to others.

Other mouthwatering buggy products included cricket chocolate (delicious, our team reported), Bug Bites (a cricket protein snack from Finland) and locally produced jars of locust hornet larva.

Ever wonder what the most delicious insect to humans might be? According to expert Shoichi Uchiyama, it is the larva of the long-horned beetle, which tastes like fatty tuna. This is not to be confused with the common beetle which is not tasty at all! Can we eat cockroaches? Yes, totally fine if you are ok with the unpleasant smell…  According to Uchiyama, who has written an insect recipe book and runs the website Konchu Ryori Kenkyu (Bug-eating Recipe Studies), the taste of insects changes depending on what they have eaten.

Not your usual pepperoncino pasta: bug cuisine advocate and chef Shoichi Unchiyama demonstrated how insects, such as giant meal worms, can be used as meat substitutes in well-known dishes like spaghetti pepperoncino.

Dr. Aikawa from Japan’s scientific research center RIKEN explained why insects are considered the ideal future protein source: insect production uses fewer resources, less feed and has a lower environmental impact than other protein sources. With protein demand expected to increase 1.4 times by 2050, there is likely to be pressure on meat protein sources – insect protein may be able to help fill this demand. While insect consumption is common in many, if not most, parts of the world, many modern consumers are unwilling to eat bugs. Insect marketers still face a significant hurdle to convince consumers to put bugs on their plate. Nevertheless Insect Experience Day may have succeeded in converting some of visitors to the potential of insect cuisine and insect protein.

Meros – USDA Food Export Guides to Japan Online Now

Meros recently teamed up with the US Embassy Japan’s Agricultural Trade Office (ATO) to develop a series of export guides that detail the regulatory requirements for 24 specific products, from cheese to chocolate, herbal tea to wine. While the aim is to support American SMEs who are interested in exporting food products to Japan, the detailed guides can be of interest to food exporters of all levels of experience.

Exporting to Japan can seem daunting with numerous required forms and official resources not always available in English. In these guides, we take potential exporters step-by-step from pre-embarkation to import clearance and lay out the expected forms and preparations necessary at each stage.

For new food exporters to Japan, common challenges include differences in food additive standards which may mean a product that is allowed for food products in the home country may not always be allowed in Japan.  Japan’s strict, low tolerance standards for agrochemical residues (MRLs) also trips up some potential exporters.  These guides aim to point out some of these common pitfalls in advance, so exporters are better prepared. They are not meant as “do-it-yourself” guides but as a tool to help exporters better navigate the export process together with their Japanese importers and distributors.

We provide examples of required ingredients lists, manufacturing process charts as well as labelling for each type of product – but it is important for exporters to always keep in mind that requirements can change without notice – especially whenever sanitary or phytosanitary risks are involved.  Ultimately, a successful export business to Japan require ongoing vigilance for regulatory changes, as well as strong relationships with importers and partners in Japan.

All guides are available here: Usdajapan.org/dl

Vietnam’s Specialty Coffee Entrepreneurs are Tasting Success

Vietnam has a rich tradition of coffee drinking and coffee cultivation and in the past decades the country has grown into a global coffee exporting powerhouse and world’s largest producer of robusta coffee. However, much of Vietnam’s coffee exports are commodity coffee; robusta beans are often used as a base in coffee blends or coffee drinks like Japan’s ubiquitous canned coffees.

Commodity coffee prices are determined on international exchanges and there is little opportunity for growers to differentiate their crops or capture additional value for higher quality or better flavors.  This leads to a potential opportunity to further develop the specialty coffee industry in Vietnam, especially coffee for the domestic market, where rising incomes and urban lifestyles are fueling a dynamic café culture.

This specialty coffee industry has been a target of Meros’ ongoing work in Vietnam. We are working with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to understand opportunities and challenges for Japanese and other foreign investors into Vietnam’s agricultural value chains.

The team, led by Meros’ Chisa Ogura, together with experts in program evaluation, investment and private sector development recently visited La Viet, an example of a larger, fast growing specialty coffee business. It is located in the highlands of Dalat, the center of the coffee industry. The owner Tran Nhat Quang is enthusiastic and clearly committed to creating high-quality, specialty coffee in Vietnam. The company grows coffee in their own fields as well as collecting coffee from 120 farmers. 60% of their coffee is exported as green beans for roasting overseas. The other 40% is processed and roasted by La Viet themselves, mainly for the domestic market. This domestic market is expanding and La Viet now operate 5 retail coffee shops in Vietnam.

La Viet owner Tran Nhat Quang has also invented an original style of Vietnamese coffee maker. (There is now one in the Meros office in Tokyo –  come try it in our office!)

Who will drive the emerging specialty coffee industry?

But can a small Vietnamese coffee producer get to the size of La Viet? Is it realistic for small producers to take the risk of leaving the reliable sales channel of commodity export beans to take on the domestic specialty coffee market? With the right investment, is there really opportunity here for Vietnamese growers? These are the questions we wrestle with.

Mr. Nguyen Van Son’s business Sonpacamara indicates that there are entrepreneurs who may be able to do it.  Nguyen Van Son’s business is small – he harvests 4 hectares of his own coffee, plus 6 hectares from a partner. While he used to sell for export to Japanese roasting giant UCC, he now only deals with specialty coffee. He invested in his own roaster and now roasts 90% of his coffee for the domestic market. His coffees are characterized by a very clear and fruity taste.

Mr. Nguyen is not originally a coffee grower – left his career as a car dealer for coffee in 2005. Entrepreneurial spirit, charisma and passion for coffee drive his success, attracting volunteers and interns from around the world. Why coffee?  “Oh, I didn’t choose coffee,” Nguyen says. “Coffee chose me!”