Food. It’s a word that probably everyone uses every day. But do we really know what that means?
This is Regulation (EC) No 178/2002, the regulation which establishes the basic principles of food law to protect human health and consumer interests. This exciting piece of EU law defines food as “any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans”.
A bit of a bite, no doubt. This definition includes beverages, chewing gum and in general any substance, including water, intentionally incorporated into an edible product during its manufacture, preparation or treatment.
Interestingly, however, while defining food in such broad terms, the EU sets strict rules in this sector to regulate what fits and what does not fit its definition. Obviously, this includes any substance that could be harmful to health or dangerous or unfit for human consumption in any other way. Thus, although chewing gum is included in the definition, substances containing residues, contaminants and pre-harvest plants are definitely not considered “food”.
Yet there is a type of food that challenges this definition and upends our own understanding of what “food” might be. It’s called ‘new food’ and, as you’d expect, it doesn’t happen very easily in Italy, although some brands are doing their best to change that.
A new way of thinking about food?
Novel food. Those two words probably don’t mean much to a lot of people. But think about some of the latest food trends on our plates — and in newspaper columns — and you might know them more than you think.
Where to start? grasshoppers. Lab-grown meat. Sources of vitamin K (menaquinone, anyone?). Seeds (think chia). Berries (goji). UV-treated milk, bread, mushrooms or yeast.
At first glance, novel foods could be defined as new and different types of foods. That’s more or less the truth of things. But back to European regulations. Specifically, a novel food is any food that had not been significantly consumed by humans in the EU before 15 May 1997, when the first Novel Food Regulation came into force.
As we said, part of all of this regulation is a legitimate food safety concern. A new food, in addition to being new, must also be safe for consumers, correctly labeled and, if the novel food is intended to replace another type of food, at least not nutritionally disadvantageous.
But is there something missing in all of this? Something about the joy, pleasure and experience of food?
The Italian Nouvelle Cuisine Experience
Since January 2018, when EU Regulation 2015/2283 came into force, you can now buy novel foods in all member states. This means that in Italy too you can buy all kinds of new treats: Chinese millipedes, tarantulas, giant worms or silkworms, butterflies, crickets, scorpions and many other animals too.
But so far, the Italians have none of it. According to a survey by Coldiretti (the Italian producers’ association), consumers are reluctant to many types of new foods. In fact, while some say Italians are increasingly open to ethnic food, 54% of respondents were not drawn to foods that differ from our culture and traditions.
Meanwhile, only 16% of respondents said new foods such as insects could be a big opportunity, either for us or for the environment. At the same time, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claims that this type of food is sustainable, rich in protein and very easy to produce. There are many benefits, not only for the environment, but also for the condition of the world’s poor.
Either way, Italian consumers aren’t quite ready for this cultural revolution. Only a small portion of the population is sufficiently open-minded or curious enough to eat these different types of innovative foods – which some are hailing as the food of the future.
What many fail to see, however, is that insects are also the food of the past, of ancient Italian tradition and culture. Forget lab-grown meat and UV-treated bread, of course. But if we look at our own Italian roots, insects have a long and delicious history in our kitchens. From cicadas to beetles, these “new” foods were the pinnacle of luxury for the ancient Romans and Greeks.
Entonote, Fucibo, InsettiCommestibili: where everything revolves around insects
Whatever the story, there are brands in Italy bringing back our ancient tastes for insects.
In Milan, for example, you can find Entonote, one of the first places in Italy to discover, eat and buy many types of insects and their derivatives. Created in 2015 by two young women, Giulia Maffei and Giulia Tacchini, the association’s main objective is to spread knowledge about insects and their importance for human health and the planet through cooking demonstrations and workshops.
In this way, Entonote has made a name for itself as one of the most important companies in Italy in this particular sector of new foods.
However, they are not the only ones. Another big startup, called Fucibo, is the first Italian brand to sell insect-based products like flour, through 21bites, the first European e-commerce site dedicated to insects and other selected superfoods.
Lorenzo Pezzato, one of the co-founders of Fucibo with Davide Rossi, pointed out that there are already two billion insect consumers in the world. They just aren’t in Italy — yet. But according to Pezzato, tradition and innovation should not be opposed. Instead, he says, he truly believes insects are an important new ingredient that everyone can use in a very versatile way.
Indeed, the objective of Pezzato and Rossi is to bring to market products of Italian origin, made with Italian know-how and borrowing from the incredible food brands of the country. This, they hope, will help them achieve their main goal of selling all their food, not only online, but also in Italian and European supermarkets. This year, they believe, the brand will grow by 60%.
Finally, there is insetticommestibili.it, an online site where food and drinks are made from insects. Here you can find rare products that come directly from a local factory, the Azienda Agricola Insetti Commestibili located in Monselice, located southwest of Padua. And before buying a product – giant wasp, caterpillar, crickets or snails – you can read its full history, how to cook it, recipes and other important suggestions.
These brands guarantee that the insect sector is constantly growing, between curiosity and mistrust, also here in Italy.
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