University of Nottingham students win EcoTrophelia 2023 food innovation awards with mealworm snack bites
A student team from the University Nottingham called PlanEat has won the gold prize at the EcoTrophelia 2023 food innovation awards, which took place last night [07.06.2023] at Sainsbury’s headquarters in central London.
The PlanEat team came first place with their product ‘PlanEat Protein Poppers’ – ready-to-eat air-fried snack bites made from 41% texturised mealworm protein, vegan meat flavourings, yeast extracts, binding agents, water and oil, coated in a smoky BBQ flavoured gluten-free pea crumb.
PlanEat’s win marks the second year in a row that a University of Nottingham team has received the top prize. Last year’s winners The Green Feathers bagged gold for their ‘Cracker(ed) it Crackers’, made from oat by-products and fruit that would otherwise be wasted after being used for vinegar production.
Each member of the winning team will receive a share of the £2,000 prize, while the teams securing silver and bronze will get a prize of £1,000 and £500 respectively. All three teams will also get one year membership with the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST.)
Liz Ashton, Marketing and Sales Director at Campden BRI and a dragon in the 2023 edition of the competition told Food Matters Live why PlanEat’s product deserved the win: “Insect protein is very innovative. I’ve not seen it or tasted it before in the UK market. Last year there were a lot of waste valorisation products and that has continued [into 2023], which is great. All the entrants at this level are impressive, but I think what was really striking about the [PlanEat] entry was that it’s very proudly addressing a market need and sustainability point of view.”
Laetitia Rocha, Global R&D Internal Capability Senior Manager at PepsiCo (which sponsored the prize winners), and judging dragon added: “It was the thinking behind the raw material and the packaging, they were really thoughtful about the choices they’d made – that’s really what made it stand out.”
Regardless of whether the team secure gold in the final round of EcoTrophelia in Cologne, Germany, where they will compete against teams from across Europe, PlanEat still sees the product having the potential to transform people’s diets. “My hope is that we start a bit of a bug revolution, getting people to try it and realise that mealworms aren’t creepy, they’re pretty awesome and they can taste really brilliant,” said PlanEat team member, Jessica Stinton.
Developing a nutritious product from insects wasn’t easy, the team says. Mealworms have similar allergenic risks to crustaceans, meaning the team had to complete a long list of food safety risk assessments and a HACCP plan to identify any potential hazards in the product. “We were so passionate about using it in the product because it is so sustainable, it was a challenge we were willing to try and push through”, PlanEat team member Isabel Parks told Food Matters Live. “We have so much tenacity as a team and that made us really want to challenge and be bold with our product.”
With the novelty of insect protein being a major selling point of the PlanEat Protein Poppers for the dragons, it also will need careful consideration if it is brought to market, added Liz. “If anything like that was to be launched then obviously how you position it and how you market it is absolutely key in order to have that successful, open, and honest dialogue with consumers [about the product],” she explained.
While mealworm isn’t yet commonly consumed in the west, PlanEat doesn’t see this being a major barrier to the protein bites being commercially viable, especially as their product is designed to look like other popular breaded proteins such as chicken popcorn bites. “The thing we’ve really noticed over the last few weeks when speaking to people is that first contact with an insect has been like a whole cricket, and they’ve been really freaked out by that. So having something in a more recognisable form that people don’t even realise is an insect, will [definitely help].”
The silver prize was awarded to Hey Pesto! – also from the University of Nottingham – for their allergen-free and vegan pesto range ‘Super Seed Pesto’, made from sunflower, pumpkin, and flaxseeds.
Bronze went to Eco-Co from Nottingham Trent University for ‘Nature’s Bliss’, a dessert made using potato flakes from wasted potatoes, freeze-dried fruits from ‘wonky’ produce and croutons sourced from a Greencore sandwich factory. The team spoke to Food Matters Live about their experience: “We’ve learned lots about working with a team and just being surrounded by such expertise,” said Eco-Co team member Lauren Dagnall. “It’s really nice to gain a range of different opinions and views and to get to ask them questions, because they’re the ones working in the industry so they know a lot”, added team member Lucy Green.
Now in its 11th year, EcoTrophelia UK is led jointly by the IFST and Campden BRI. Since it first launched in 2013, the competition has seen over 500 student entrants from 22 universities.
Describing the value of the competition, Laetitia concluded: “It gives students the platform to think about what they want to do [with their career], to ask themselves – do I want to be an entrepreneur? Do I want to understand the different facets of working in the food industry? It really allows them to go deep, and gives them lots of different directions.”