Will Americans Ever Eat Insects for Food? Startups Say, ‘Yes, We Will!’
It is not a question of whether it is a good idea. There are many very good reasons to eat insects. But that doesn’t mean insects will ever become a staple of the American diet, right?
Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, isn’t at all deterred by naysayers. Her company’s mission is to popularize cricket foods in the West. Her company manufactures familiar foods, like chocolate chip cookies and snack chips, made with cricket flour to show Americans the versatility of the insect.
Miller said in a recent telephone interview that she was inspired to start Bitty Foods after a visit to Southeast Asia, where insects are part of the regional diet. Preparations like fried grasshoppers, bamboo worms, or spiders, and tree ants with beef are commonly found in public markets there and serve as a valuable protein source.
Insects have enough high-quality protein, good fats, calcium, iron, and zinc to serve as a good (or better) substitute for beef, pork, and chicken. The cricket exoskeleton, or chitin, which is not removed when crickets are ground into flour, is full of fiber, the kind that feeds the beneficial microbes in our gut. Regular meat is not considered a source of fiber.
Miller, who was formerly a trend forecaster and consumer researcher in the media and technology industries, said in a TED talk posted online that she took the leap to eat bugs because she “cannot think of another food source that can have this kind of impact on the environment and the global economy.”
The profile of insect food as a viable food source in the Western world got a considerable boost in 2013, when the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a 200-page report titled “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security.”
With the world’s population expected to double by 2050, and with the environmental concerns associated with animal agriculture, it suggested that we seriously consider expanding insects as an alternative food source. “Insects provide food at low environmental cost,” stated the report.
As long as consumers are willing to substitute insect protein for meat, it is without a doubt that large-scale farming of crickets has the potential to reduce land and fresh water use, and lower greenhouse gas emissions, while meeting the world’s growing need for protein.
According to the FAO report, crickets eat 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens. “That means crickets are twice as efficient in converting feed to meat as chicken, at least four times more efficient than pigs, and 12 times more efficient than cattle,” according to the FAO.
It turns out that young people have taken the environmental message to heart, and they are open to eating the insects.
Tiny Farms, an insect tech company based in the Bay Area, conducted an informal survey at an event booth, where 68 percent of children tried edible insects compared to 30 percent of the adults.
When San Francisco-based market research firm Blueshift Research asked a demographically representative sample of over a thousand U.S. consumers about insects, over a third said they were likely to buy an insect-based product. The most open group was between the ages of 30 and 44.
Two years ago, most people still thought eating crickets was crazy talk, according to multiple sources interviewed for this article. Today, according to anecdotal evidence, most people have at least heard about it, and associate it with something that is good for the environment.
Young Cricket Farmers
Demand for crickets in the United States currently outstrips supply, which has attracted some millennials to get into insect farming.
Aspire co-founder and COO Gabe Mott is a neuroscientist who never imagined he would be a cricket farmer. He is also a vegetarian, but he makes an exception for insects because he believes they are ethical, sustainable, and “a reasonable distribution of food.”
He absolutely gushed over the succulent calamari-texture and sweetness of the palm weevil his company supports in Ghana.
Mott was one of five MBA students from Montreal’s McGill University who won the million-dollar Hult Prize, a startup accelerator for social entrepreneurship, for their idea to help people in countries that already consume insects to expand their production.
Aspire has established operations in Ghana and Mexico, and also has a large farm growing 7 million crickets weekly for human consumption in Texas. This is where Mott spends his days listening to his crickets sing.
Andrew Brentano and his two partners are millennials with technology, software, and design backgrounds who got into insect farming with the idea to create a platform—Silicon Valley style—to scale up insect farming quickly to meet the growing demand.
Brentano envisions that with the many new insect food companies cropping up, the current situation where there are just a handful of farms growing crickets for human consumption will turn to hundreds within a few years’ time.
Tiny Farms is now working on a prototype farm to determine the minimum viable scale (somewhere in the order of 2,000 square feet) for cricket farming. Once Tiny Farms optimizes its model, it plans to license it, providing would-be cricket farmers with the know-how, along with an app for data monitoring of the farm’s operations.
Insects, by the Numbers
1 million: The number of insect species in the world
5,000: Insect species that could be considered harmful to crops, livestock, or humans
1,900: Insect species that have reportedly been used for food
100,000: The number of insects that play a role in plant pollination
Beyond the yuck factor, what is most people’s biggest concern about eating crickets? You guessed it. Taste.
Miller says the flavor of crickets is a nutty, toasty flavor, like hazelnuts or toasted bread.
Brentano says insect flavors vary from mushrooms, to shrimp, to nuts. “Lots of umami,” he says.
Well, a group of food technologists at a Global Food Forums Inc. event in 2015 who tried cricket protein identified taste as the biggest barrier to including insects in mainstream food processing.
Those who had tried cricket protein before gave the attribute of taste an 8 out of 10 (10 being the worst), yet the same group rated consumer acceptance better than those who tried it for the first time (7.4 versus 8.5).
Mott was very up front about the reality of cricket food in the United States. He said it’s mostly niche customers, but there are many!
There are people who want functional protein, and don’t care what they are eating—it is just about the protein.
There are people who are vegetarian (like him) and genuinely want diversity in their protein sources.
There are people with special dietary restrictions who can eat insects.
There are foodies and chefs who want to be at the forefront of the latest edgy thing.
Bitty Foods is coming out with an award-winning new product this summer, Chiridos chips, in Spicy Mole, Baja Ranchero, and Salsa Verde flavors. The chip is inspired by chapulines, a traditional Mexican snack, and packs three times the amount of protein as regular chips.
Miller said response to this new product has been great, and she is particularly pleased that individual bag portions will allow more people to try the insect chips at an affordable price point.
Bitty Foods is not the only company working to popularize insects in the United States.
According to Tiny Farms, which hosts a global community hub for the community of insect enthusiasts, there are around 40 U.S. companies manufacturing food with insects. Distribution for these products is still limited, but changes are coming slowly.
Some of the other popular options include whole cricket snacks in BBQ, Moroccan, Honey Mustard, Sea Salt, and Fire and Brimstone flavors, by Bug Bistro; the original cricket bar, by Chapul; cricket flour protein bars made by Exo; chips called “chirps” made of crickets, beans, and rice, by Six Foods; and insect energy bars in unique flavors like kale, seaweed, and ginger, by Hopper Foods.
In Europe, where new food trends tend to be a couple of years ahead of the United States, insects have already been widely available in some supermarkets.
In the Netherlands in late October 2014, Dutch chain retailer Jumbo launched a line of edible insects, with products like “buggy balls” made of mealworms, “buggy citizens” make of buffalo worms, and “buggy crisps” made of waxworm larvae, according to Public Radio International.
Henk Hoogenkamp, a Netherlands native and world-renowned plant protein expert, said in an email that Jumbo’s initial product launch failed, and the products are now available only in some specialty shops.
Hoogenkamp said that he has tried cricket flour many times and for him it tastes like “earth/woodish/burnt,” suggesting an application for savory products.
Belgian food producer Damhert Nutrition is doing just that. It launched the Insecta brand to Belgian supermarkets, also in 2014, offering burgers, schnitzels, and nuggets, all created using Dutch-bred buffalo worms, according to trade publication Food Ingredients 1st.
Damhert Nutrition still lists the Insecta brand on its website.
While insects are a novelty in the most developed countries, insects are regularly consumed by over 2 billion people in the developing world today.
From the ants and beetle larvae eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of their subsistence diets, to the popular, crispy-fried locusts and beetles enjoyed in Thailand, more than 1,900 species have reportedly been used as food, according to the FAO report.
The Most Commonly Consumed Insects
Beetles: 31 percent
Caterpillars: 18 percent
Bees, wasps, and ants: 14 percent
Grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets: 13 percent
Cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects, and true bugs: 10 percent
Termites: 3 percent
Dragonflies: 3 percent
Flies: 2 percent
Other: 5 percent
SOURCE: “Edible Insects,” 2013 study by the FAO
Most insect-consuming cultures are in the tropics, where the sizes of the insects tend to be larger, and insects congregate in large numbers, facilitating ease of harvest.
While most edible insects are harvested in the wild, the farming of insects like crickets and maggots is increasingly common. Aside from human food, they are bred to feed insect-eating animals in zoos or for biological pest control.
Insects are also gaining more attention as a viable alternative to fishmeal and soy-based animal feeds.
And, of course, we have cultivated bees and silkworms for centuries for the beeswax and honey, and silk fibers they provide.
The Beauty of the Cricket Song
In China, singing crickets became domestic pets over 2,000 years ago. During the Tang Dynasty (618–906 A.D.), people kept crickets in cages to listen to their song:
Whenever the autumn arrives, the ladies of the palace catch crickets and keep them in small golden cages, which are placed near their pillows so as to hear their songs during the night. This custom was also mirrored by common people.
(Kai Yuan Tian Boa Yi Shi, “Affairs of the Period of Tian Bao,” 742–759 A.D.)
SOURCE: “Edible Insects,” 2013 study by the FAO