Earlier this year, the United Nations released a report on incorporating insects into the diet as a means of increasing nutrition in developing nations and reducing the carbon footprint of the food production industry. While many might have taken this report as a bit of a novelty, it has captured the imagination of several mindful entrepreneurs set to change the way we eat.
While, according to the Aspire Group, currently two billion people regularly eat insects in 162 countries, the idea has nearly been completely eliminated from a modern Western diet. Eating crickets and ants has been reduced to a fun dare while traveling abroad and entertaining the idea of eating cockroaches or maggots has been relegated to the world of gross-out reality TV competitions. However, this could all change, as food insecurity becomes a growing problem in the face of population increase and environmental problems.
It seems that one insect in particular is poised to become the staple insect of the modern diet — the cricket. According to protein bar company Exo, crickets are both a nutritious and environmentally friendly option moving forward. Cricket protein is particularly low in fats and carbohydrates, contains all of the essential amino acids, and is high in micronutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamin B. In fact, it provides almost as much calcium as milk and it provides even more iron than beef! Since most protein bars use soy protein, cricket protein is able to be more effective while being grain, gluten, soy and dairy free. (Warning: Although they are incredibly healthy, if you are allergic to shellfish [like I am], you are most likely also allergic to eating crickets and all other insects since they are all arthropods. The more you know.)
Furthermore, many current conventional protein options such as beef or chicken do not provide a substantial protein intake relative to the amount of water it takes to produce them. For example, it takes 100 gallons of water to create 6 grams of cow protein. That same 100 gallons of water can create 18 grams of chicken protein or 238 grams of cricket protein. Crickets also produce 80 times less methane than cattle and overall are 20 times more efficient as a source of protein.
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With cricket protein the possible heir apparent in the food industry, several companies have all contributed to what will certainly be an insect revolution:
Winner of the prestigious 2013 Hult Prize, this group of MBA students from McGill University is using the nutritional benefits of crickets to help food security issues in developing nations. With a mission to develop and distribute affordable and sustainable insect-farming technologies, the Aspire Group has primarily focused on Mexico and its indigenous chapuline grasshopper. While there are several benefits to using chapulines – from their nutritional value to the easy of farming them — co-founder Gabe Mott candidly added, “The reason for chapulines in particular is that they are a delicacy in parts of Mexico. They are in high demand, and thus have a comparably high price point (higher than meat from conventional livestock). Thus, as we increase the supply and lower the price, people will be able to increase the amount they consume without increasing their food budget.”
The Aspire Group’s focus on developing nations and food security sets it apart from most of the other insect food companies sprouting up in the industry. With support from several NGOs and social enterprises, Aspire is also working on projects in Thailand, Kenya and Ghana. As they develop and distribute more portable farming technologies to developing nations, the hope is to create income stability and lower the price of edible insects. This set of ambitions and goals makes the Aspire Group an exciting project, but Mott seems to understand the practical challenges as well. “The goal is to, as much as possible, stay within the reality of current consumer behavior," Mott said. "We don’t want to change habits, we just want to make existing habits healthier.”
Calling themselves “The original cricket bar,” Chapul founder Pat Crowley was inspired by a 2011 TED Talk by Prof. Marcel Dicke titled “Why Not Eat Insects?” Funded by a 2012 Kickstarter campaign raising just $16,000, Chapul has managed to become one of the most widely distributed cricket-based protein bars available. Offering flavored energy bars inspired by different regions known for already eating crickets, Chapul also wants to give back to those regions. The three-fold mission of the company is to create a delicious product, use the efficient and sustainable cricket protein, but also to invest 10 percent of all profits into water conservation in the regions that inspire the bars.
John Heylin, the founder of Chirp, came at the idea of making a cricket protein bar from a different standpoint. Building off of the shockingly true urban legend that people eat around one pound of ground-up insects every year in processed foods, Heylin wondered if he should grind them up to and sell them in baked goods and energy bars, an idea he brought to fruition for his Capstone project at Presidio Graduate School. But after facing several challenges, such as a cricket-specific virus that wiped out a substantial portion of the cricket farming industry, he has found it more practical and cost-effective to start farming his own crickets.
“The best part is, raising bugs is cheap! They breed like crazy, they eat waste fruits and vegetables, so really most of my cost after buying the equipment needed is negligible,” Heylin said.
Chirp’s path to prominence has been unique to the insect food industry. Heylin and his start-up were featured on an episode of Lifetime’s "Supermarket Superstar," a television show designed for pitching new product ideas to get funding. While Heylin did not win, Chirp was still given some excellent exposure. Unfortunately, he couldn’t overcome “the ick factor.”
“Some people are just freaked about bugs,” Heylin said. “It’s not their fault — it’s cultural. But culture changes and soon you’ll be seeing insect-based foods everywhere.” Heylin says he expects to have a new product ready to launch in early 2014.
In the meantime, tune in to the Travel Channel on December 23 to see Chirp featured on "Bizarre Foods America."
All of these insect-protein companies agree that the biggest barrier is the need for a psychological shift away from the gross-out factor. Several of these companies cite the cultural attitudes towards sushi over the last 40 years. What was once viewed as a fringe Japanese delicacy is now widely available and mostly stigma-free. The British company Ento has decided to take on this comparison a little more directly. Inspired by the traditional bento box in Japanese cuisine, they are introducing the “Ento Box.” Coming from a design and cuisine standpoint, Ento boxes are made up of several delicious-looking cubes made up of all sorts of insects (including caterpillars), along with complimentary seasonings. This tongue-in-cheek redesign could be effective in making insects a more palatable delicacy.
Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz began thinking about building a better protein bar during their senior year at Brown University, and their company Exo was born. Lewis and Sewitz were concerned that people wouldn’t see crickets as a necessary part of a future sustainable diet. This lead them to hire chef Kyle Connaughton, former head of The Fat Duck, a 3 Michelin star restaurant in London. The final recipe for their protein bar includes raw almonds, dates, coconuts, honey and about 25 crickets per protein bar, which supposedly give it a nutty and smoky flavor.
Once they’d finalized their recipe, Lewis and Sewitz took to Kickstarter to raise money for production. Their campaign, which ended in August, raised nearly $55,000, more than 250 percent of their goal. Now, the two have started making the cricket flour themselves. The crickets are trucked to Brooklyn from an East coast cricket farm, frozen for preservation, slow-roasted, crushed into a usable powder and turned into bars that come in three flavors: cacao nut, peanut butter & jelly or cashew ginger Moroccan spice.
A finalist for the 2013 Index Design Award, Mansour Ourasanah is hoping consumers will take a more hands-on approach for their cricket-farming needs. The Lespis is a small, countertop terrarium that will allow you to harvest crickets in the comfort of your own kitchen. The terrarium is divided into four units that will allow you to easily breed, grow, harvest and eventually kill your own grasshoppers. While also a weirdly beautiful conversation starter, this futuristic kitchen appliance could not only help people become more accustomed to the idea of eating crickets, but at the very least is an alternative way to grow your own food for your pet lizard.