Kees Aarts – Insect-Based Nutrition

holding insect protein in hand

November 10, 2020

Protix is a Dutch nutrition company working to improve future food-production systems by using insect-based foods. Founder and CEO Kees Aarts joins us to discuss what inspired him to pursue creating alternative feed for animals and his vision for a future with less food waste thanks to insect-based ingredients.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Kees Aarts hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio.

Tom:                          I’m Tom Martin, and with us is Kees Aarts, founder and CEO of Protix, an insect-based and nutrition company headquartered in the Netherlands. Kees joined us to talk about his product and about sustainable agriculture.

                                    Thanks for joining us, Kees.

Kees:                          Thanks for having me.

Tom:                          Let’s begin by having you tell us about your company, Protix, and its goals.

Kees:                          I’ll be honored to. So, Protix is a company, a market leader, in insect-based nutrition. Why that is relevant for a sustainable future is because (of) the role insects play in nature, and it’s actually so fascinating and, actually, quite curious, why we never use it in our food system. Because basically every animal, when it’s young, when it has to grow fast, and when it needs to build its defense system, it eats insects, right? Whether it’s a bird, reptile, mammal, fish — it doesn’t matter. They all eat insects when they’re young, they need to grow fast and need to build their defense system.

                                    So, insects are vastly nutritious, and even more beautiful, they can be grown and harvested from feeding them with food wastes. And that is a very exciting new arena, because we’re depleting our natural resources; whether they come from land or from the seas, they are being depleted. And we have this huge amount of food waste, which is nothing more than a whole bunch of nutrients, like protein, lipids and other nutrients, and we could feed that to insects and basically extract the nutrition from that food waste and make it ready again for anything in pet foods, fish feed, livestock feed, chicken feed and even human foods, in the new development bind that we’re having.

                                    So, that’s a bit about Protix. It started ten years ago, and (I’m) very proud about all the 130 colleagues that are basically working relentlessly every day, making this work at scale.

Tom:                          I wonder, do you think it could be psychological? I mean, this is a generalization, but it seems like a safe one that humans — for humans, there’s kind of an “eek!” factor to consuming insects, when you’re not really talking about eating a bug, you’re talking about what’s in the bug, correct?

Kees:                          Absolutely. Yes, there’s definitely an “eek!” factor, and it’s a pretty cool factor, actually. It’s a bit like — like the first fear people had when they — when they were driving a car instead of (riding) a horse. The car was much faster. That was a genuine fear. It’s a bit like this as well.

So, we have these natural barriers against something that is new or something that is small or something that is unknown. So, it is natural that there is this “eek!” factor, because we haven’t used insects in our food system.

So, it’s new, but when you think about it, what do insects really deliver? Other than, of course, beautiful products like honey, (it) is a whole bunch of nutrition. So — and of course, some insects don’t look really nice, but if you — if you process them into a protein meal or an oil or a derivative and you include that into food formulations or feed formulations, then all of a sudden, it becomes this very interesting source of nutrition. And that is something I think will overcome the “eek!” factor big-time in the coming years.

Tom:                          Well, I’m really curious about this, Kees. How did you initially arrive at this idea: building an entire business around insect-based nutrition?

Kees:                          The idea emerged from a beer on the beach after a diving trip, which is very simple, because I came from the sea again, (and) I was genuinely frustrated again by the damage we do through dynamite fishing, overfishing, etc. There was literally nothing to see. So, you could say that’s bit of an egocentric approach, to say, “Okay, I don’t have fish to see when I’m diving, which is a luxury sport. What can I do to battle overfishing? Because I would like to dive and see more tropical fish.”

So, that’s where the idea emerged, because there was some residual knowledge from the past where my family — I’ve got a lot of farmers in the family. My grandpa was feed miller. (Because of) that, I knew that a lot of fish is actually caught, ground into a protein meal, and then, as a protein meal, is fed to chicken and other fish. And that is a resource that is actually not necessary, because insect-based nutrition is far more nutritious.

So, one of my missions is to stop fisheries (from using) protein meals, because I believe that natural biodiversity in oceans is disappearing too fast, and we need to restore that. So, that’s how the idea emerged.

                                    Now, the second part of your question — whether I was actually sane enough to think about the consequences of starting the business, because it’s quite a hell of  a ride since then. We needed to develop new legislative frameworks, new technologies, new operating principles. So, there was all these — all these barriers in between the idea and the execution.

                                    So, luckily, I was young and I didn’t have children, so — but, yeah, that’s how the idea emerged and how the venture started.

Tom:                          Interesting. Let’s turn to the product line, and before we get into the specific types of products that you’re producing, tell us: What are the benefits of insect-based nutrition?

Kees:                          So, one of the key benefits is the antioxidant activity. So, what we truly see is that the immune response of the animals eating the insects is very positive. It’s far more positive than the pro-oxidant activity from, for instance, fish meal or chicken meal.

                                    So, if you have fish or chicken and you want to feed them, then you have choices. The choices, of course, (are) the cost or origins, but now, there’s this new category that originated from insects, that you have additional benefits, like antioxidants, which is genuinely important when the creature needs to grow fast.

                                    So, these are, these are only — and we’re just scratching the surface of this, because we are now a market leader in this field, but the field is very young. And so, this is only one of them. We see other benefits, like a better liver quality of the fish. We are seeing the plasma between the knee wrist and the shoulder wrist of the chicken was more smooth, and so, there was less knee sores.

                                    So, there’s all these benefits that we’re seeing in the last couple of years that makes the feed and (has) the aquaculture and the food industry looking at this with very big interest.

Tom:                          I mentioned your product line. What are the food system markets that you target?

Kees:                          Principally, our main objective is to create sustainable white meat and fish as fast as possible. So, if you look at chickens, eggs, shrimp, salmon and trout, these are five major categories of very concentrated protein growth. So, these are very efficient animals; they grow fast, and they grow very efficiently, sometimes even at a 1.1 conversion rate. This means you only need 1.1 kg of feed to grow 1 kg of target animal flesh.

                                    Now, within these sectors, the demand for sustainable nutrition is the highest. And those are the ones we target, because that’s where the consumer can directly choose what is a great product — eggs, chicken, trout, salmon and shrimp — but all of a sudden, we did (it with) a vastly lower footprint. So, a much lower environmental effect (was) measured in CO2 (on) land and water.

                                    So, those are the targets to create a sustainable meat and fish as fast as possible.       

Tom:                          Okay. Let’s look at one of those, aquaculture. What are the benefits? How is it applied in aquaculture?

Kees:                          Aquaculture, this is very interesting market, right? So, this is one of the fastest-growing markets and one of the most efficient animals.

                                    Now, for those fish, let’s take, for instance, trout and salmon. Feeds are formulated, and the feeds are formulated basically as a composition of proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and some other additives.

                                    Now, within that, we can replace protein meals, some of the lipids, and we can increase the functionalities, especially on the antioxidant side. And these are benefits that salmon producers start to see, on top of the sustainability element, that you can actually grow this fish with a lower dependency on marine-based ingredients. Because that’s the tricky part, right? So that, on the one hand, you’re growing the fish, but on the other hand, you need these marine resources, like fish meal or fish oil and other ones. And that’s something that consumers, more and more, would like to challenge, and that’s where we come in.

On top of the sustainability of this replacement argument, we have some additional health benefits.

Tom:                          You have a product for poultry, and on your website, you say that this results in a better-tasting egg. Tell us more about that.

Kees:                          Yeah. That was really fun. And so, basically, if you look at a chicken, right? It has two eyes on the side of its head, but the brain is a lizard brain. A chicken basically reacts to something that moves, and what doesn’t move, it doesn’t see. These chickens are in this barn and basically waiting to be fed, but all these feeds are silent, right? They don’t move.

                                    What we did — we brought, through a very smart system, live larvae into the pen again. And all of a sudden, this lizard brain starts to work again, so this chicken becomes more active, and it is less inclined to start pecking each other, so that it’s more active, more healthy chicken, each side. (Thanks to) reformulated feed, these live insects and the combination of that, basically, in public panels, as a result of that, the people love the smell and the taste more (because it’s) more natural.

Tom:                          You know, the temptation is to go down the rabbit hole with each one of these products. I mean, I have to wonder: What is the story behind the discovery of that? It’s almost like the discovery of lobsters, you know — who thought of that first?

Kees:                          I agree. But this is the beauty. I mean, you have to go back a century to think about — so, when was the last time this new category of ingredient was created, right?

                                    So, it’s just truly a new platform. Once the boats got bigger to catch fish and to catch them deeper, all of a sudden, fish was more than just a direct meal; it was this new category of ingredients.

                                    Fish meal and fish oil, other than (the fact that) they’re destroying natural diversity, it’s a good platform of nutrition. If you go back and ask the question, “When was the last time this new platform of nutrition was created?” You have to go back a century. And that’s why I like your remark. It’s true; you can literally go down the rabbit hole for each one of these new applications, and we only scratch the surface of it.

                                    I bet a lot of things (are) moving in the insect industry. We will see so many exciting applications and health-promoting benefits in chicken feeds, but we will also start seeing — we’ll start seeing flavors being extracted from insects.

Tom:                          Ah!

Kees:                          We’ll start to see human applications.

So, I love this question: “How can it be that larvae, they live and grow in this very challenged environment with a lot of microbial pressure, and they remain healthy?” It’s because they have all these waxes and these skins and these compounds around them. So what if you extract those, what if you isolate those and use them in, maybe, plant protection or skin protection?

                                    And I’m not just asking them — we’re actually looking at some of these avenues, and we saw some very exciting things when we sprayed some of those compounds on leaves. So, I fully confirm that it’s so exciting to think about all these rabbit holes for each of these applications. It’s pretty cool.

Tom:                          Is there a particular insect that is your, your workhorse, key to your product line?

Kees:                          Yes. So, we work mainly with the black soldier fly. That’s our workhorse, indeed. We have knowledge of some of the others, and we have bred, for instance, also a mealworm and a cricket.

                                    But why we’ve chosen to pursue building the platform of black soldier fly is because it doesn’t eat as a fly. So, why is that interesting? It actually doesn’t have a mouth. The larvae need to store all the nutrition to transform itself to cocoon, to pupae, to hatch, to mate and to lay the eggs, because anywhere between the eggs and the transition to pupae, it doesn’t extract any new nutrition. So, the larva is especially nutritious, to do all of that after that. So, that’s why it’s a workhorse, and there are some other benefits, but it’s a bit too detailed for now. But so, our platform is the black soldier fly as a nutritional base.

Tom:                          Pet food applications also are included in your line — is that correct?

Kees:                          Yes, absolutely.

Tom:                          Are you also engaged in developing it for human consumption?

Kees:                          Yes, absolutely. So, in our office, there are two people who are constantly cooking this exciting new stuff. And then, sometimes, they’re wildly tasty and wildly interesting.

Tom:                          Well, let me just — let me stop you right there. Give us an example. What does it taste like?

Kees:                          One of the things I really loved was a butter, which was — which has to do with melting pathways. So, the melting temperature of insect oil is very long. So why is that interesting? So, when you put that on a sandwich and everything you top, (what) you put on top of it has a very strong carryover, because butters and fats are usually the taste intermittent. So, the butter was really tasty.

                                    We had a consommé, so basically a soup extract. We did a baking oil for breads and cookies. The protein fillers, so the protein itself —  so what we tested is a hybrid where we took a meat — so, ground meat, I think, is the word, and then we replaced half of it with our insect protein meal. And then, we gave it in blind testing to people, where there (was a) 100% score, that all of them chose the mix with the insect, because it delivered this additional nutty and even an umami, salty-type flavor.

                                    So, other than it is a higher concentrate of protein meal, it delivers a natural flavor. And that is why I think it has the potential, because if you look at the meat replacements development, it’s hard to do that without a whole range of additives to match the taste. So, this insect protein meal comes with its own taste, taste platform, or how do you call that? Palatability. And that is a very exciting development in food, of course.

Tom:                          The people who tried these products and approved and liked them, were they later told what they had had?

Kees:                          Yeah.

Tom:                          Were they amazed?

Kees:                          Yeah. A lot of them were amazed, especially if you — I think what you alluded to as well in the beginning, right? If it’s a hidden ingredient, the “eek!” factors come really quickly, right? And the curiosity kicks in much easier. If it’s a visible compound, then it’s harder to skip to that curiosity, but the hidden compound, it was fantastic.

Tom:                          We’re not talking about chocolate-covered grasshoppers here, are we? [Laughs]

Kees:                          Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I agree that it’s been of an adventurous, maybe a party-style thing, that you put a cricket on a stick with a chocolate dip. No, we’re, indeed — we’re really talking on (an) ingredient level and enriching a product or a food with the ingredients we supply.

Tom:                          I don’t mean to trivialize; I just think that the human mind generally kind of goes in that direction when we’re talking about insects, and perhaps we need to get past our arachnophobia here — because we’re talking about sustainability, aren’t we?

Kees:                          Yes. What I discussed as well, earlier, I even coined a term for that. I wrote a book. It’s called “The Footprintarian,” whereby, basically, you combine all the basic principles. All my products, foods, services, goods and experiences, I wish to source at the lowest possible footprint, because when you have the choice to buy different products, services, goods, foods and experiences, you are already at the top 10% in the world, right? So, and once you’re there, your footprint is simply too big.

So, every individual has a contribution to make, to make the future inspiring and motivating again. So, there’s one objective we all have, whether you’re a government and creating new legislation or at a company creating a new product or as a consumer buying something: You need to somehow source and fulfill your desires at the lowest possible footprint.

                                    And in that, I kind of appeal a little bit to everyone (that we have) a responsibility to overcome anything, right? If you’re — let’s take a sidestep. I know it’s very cool to have your hand on the steering wheel and own a car, but you have to overcome, somehow, that feeling, right? It’s about mobility. You have to ask your government and companies to fulfill your mobility at the lowest possible footprint. That’s cool.

                                    Same as with foods. It doesn’t matter — it literally doesn’t matter how it looks like or how it’s made, as long as you like it, it’s tasty, and it’s produced at the lowest possible footprint. And in trying to achieve that, you have to overcome everything, anything. You just have to ask the question to companies, the government, to help you fulfill that need.

And our contribution in that is that we have an ingredient that has the lowest footprint in terms of protein, unit of protein, in terms of energy, water and land. And we’ve proven that with the Deutsches Institut für Lebensmitteltechnik with ETH Zurich. We can produce over — and this is phenomenal — our production capacity is 6,000 tons of protein per hectare per year.

                                    And that number — I’ll put it in perspective. It’s three (tons per hectare) for soy, intensified soy. It’s 100 for the best algae farm. It’s about 400 to 500 for extremely well-developed fermentation-type approach or bacterial. And we have 6,000, and that is because our technology, the biology, the operations, everything is under control, and we manage it in a very high-tech environment. But that system — and it should then normalize that to the use (of) energy, water and land. And that protein meal just should find its way in every product imaginable, whether it’s a pet food, whether it’s a feed, whether it’s direct food — it doesn’t matter, because we need to reduce the footprint of our food system.

Tom:                          Well, this would seem to have significant implications for efforts to mitigate climate change.

Kees:                          It has. Huge.

Tom:                          Another thing that you talk about on your website (is) mycotoxins’ threat to lifestyle producers, especially in the Midwest here in the United States. What has your research revealed about how insects can play a role in reducing these molds?

Kees:                          Yeah. That’s an interesting one. What we found out is that they can break it down. I’m not sure yet, but I expect that the indications will even be stronger. But we could extract a compound from our insects and use it on the crop side. Our “flytilizer” on the soil improves the soil quality and, therefore, reduces the risk of the mycotoxins, but that is in development still.

What we have already seen is that if you take mycotoxins, then there are huge amounts of corn and other cereals that cannot be used in the food system (and are) discarded. And then (these) can actually be fed to our insects; they break down the mycotoxins, and then those products that come out of it, the protein meals and the lipids, can then be used again in the food system.

                                    So, that is quite impactful. So, it doesn’t have to go to landfilling or digestion or any other utilization outside the food system, because that is a true waste. So, mycotoxins, we already saw the ability of insects to break it down, fingers crossed. I’m not making the scientific proof yet, but there are indications we can even avoid it.

Tom:                          Kees, tell us about your contribution to discussions about supply chain collaborations from production all the way to the consumer level.

Kees:                          This is, of course, the nicest opportunity, but also, of course, one that takes the most effort. So, we have this new ingredient, and we’re about four or five stages away from the consumer. And every single supply chain has its own dynamic, right? Whether it’s purchase, risk, or whether it’s minimum size needed, or whether it’s ability to afford the increased price. So, there are always, always challenges.

                                    Now, how we try to solve it is to go all the way to the consumer with a brand we own, something like the Oer Egg or the Friendly Fish. And then, we try to bring this narrative of, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, we can help you make a choice to buy a product where all the way to the fundamental resources, a sustainability trigger we made. Now, how does it look like?”

                                    And then, we tell that on the packaging, we tell that through in-store and communications. And then, we see (that) consumers like having this “aha moment,” right? So, “Aha! Of course sustainability is more than an LED light in a farm or a non-plastic packaging. It is where does the primary ingredient come from, how is it made in the meantime, and if this end product actually healthy.”

                                    And these three questions, we try to answer, based on proposition, of course. And in order to — and once we have the brand in place, we go back to the players in the middle, and we start helping them also, creating their contribution and increase the demand for our ingredient.

Tom:                          Well, speaking of your contribution, I’d like to ask you if you can condense this. I know it’s difficult to put this in brief form, but if you could, describe for us, Kees, the future food system that you imagine.

Kees:                          So, for me, it’s one in balance. So, if I simply look at myself, it’s becoming more and more guilt-laden, right? Everything you buy, there’s always this downside related to it. And those downsides have become more and more visible.

                                    Now, I don’t think we have it in our nature to be always in some form of restriction. So, “You can no longer do this, you can no longer do that, you can no longer do this, because it’s not good.” That’s not our nature. Our nature is motivation, inspiration, long-term, endlessness. So, that is our nature.

                                    And I think the food system is one that’s so primal, it’s so close to our skin — if we can make that in balance with nature again, then your purchase and your consumption is guilt-free. And all of a sudden, it’s no longer guilt-laden, but it is pleasure-laden. And that is the basic picture I would like to draw up for the food system — that I can’t do everything, (but) I’ll do my part — but that is the picture I would like to see for the food system.

Tom:                          Okay. I have to ask you this question. What was it like for you and for your people when the king came visiting (your company)?

Kees:                          That’s, of course, such a fantastic recognition. I mean, it’s truly fantastic. We had about ten or twelve colleagues at all different parts of the factory explaining to his majesty what — the king — what was engineered, how it would work.

                                    And the cool thing about our king is he is extremely committed to stimulating innovation, and especially at the crossroads of business, education, science. And I’m pretty proud about the amount of innovation that goes on in the Netherlands, even though we’re that small. And having him as a true advocate of that and then coming up (to) visit us at the grand opening was quite, yeah, was pretty cool.

Tom:                          Kees Aarts, founder and CEO of Protix, an insect-based nutrition company headquartered in the Netherlands. Thank you so much for joining us, Kees.

Kees:                          Thank you.

Tom:                          This has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.

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