Eating bugs might sound like something you’d do if you lost a bet. But a few companies have cropped up that are marketing insect powder as a nutritional supplement.
Requiring little food or water, bugs also have a low-carbon footprint, a fact that makes them very attractive here in drought-stricken California.
But could cricket-packed cookies and milkshakes be the next big food trend?
Three entrepreneurs in their mid-twenties have launched Coalo Valley Farms in a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Van Nuys, north of Los Angeles. They’re using repurposed cannabis growing equipment to grow tens of thousands of crickets.
The crickets live in big plastic bins filled with cardboard pizza boxes and a pasty food substance.
“You can hear the ambient noise in here, you’ve got a little fan going, it’s nice and warm, and you’ve got the chirping,” said 25-year-old Elliot Mermel, the farm’s founder. “It’s a great place to fall asleep.”
While there have been farms that grow crickets for fishing bait or pet reptile snacks, the trend of growing them exclusively for human consumption here in the United States is relatively new. The first such farm to do so, Big Cricket Farms, opened in Youngstown, Ohio in 2014.
Once they reach adulthood, the crickets are put in a cold room until they go into hibernation, and they never wake up. Then they’re ground up, pasteurized and dried into a powder. Dr. Aaron Dossey, a biochemist in Georgia and founder of All Things Bugs, has been working on this process for years.
“I entered this because I thought it was neat, and I thought I could innovate in this space,” Dossey said. “This is very low-crawling fruit, there’s a lot of innovation to be done.”
Drying crickets, Dossey said, is a lot harder than you’d expect.
“They have exoskeletons, and their bodies are just designed not to dry out because they’re exposed to the elements and things. So if you put them in an oven it takes a long time and a lot of heat to dry them whole,” he said.
A few startup companies, like Exo and Chapul, buy cricket powder wholesale from Dossey, and then put it into nutrition bars. The company Six Foods uses it for their cricket chips, which they call “chirps.” Another company, San Francisco-based Bitty Foods, sells cricket flour for baking, and their cookies with cricket flour sell in all 50 states and in over 30 countries.
“We actually think it’s really important to use crickets in a ground format to introduce it to the Western market, simply because there is no visual barrier to overcome. You know, the use of whole insects, while we think it’s delicious, is not quite as palatable for people, which is why we roast them and then grind them. It’s very similar to making coffee,” said Leslie Ziegler, co-founder of Bitty Foods.
But are consumers in the U.S. ready to eat creepy, crawly insects — even in powdered form? The practice of eating insects, known as entomophagy, is quite common. An estimated 80 percent of the world gets at least part of their protein from insects. Bricia Lopez, co-owner of Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles, says all sorts of insects are eaten in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Escamoles, which are ant larvae. We eat gusanos de maguey, which are the worms that grow inside the maguey. We eat these big ants which are called chicatanas. We make salsa out of them,” Lopez said.
At Guelaguetza, Lopez serves fried grasshoppers, known as chapulines, prepared with tomato, onion, jalapeno, garlic, parsley and a little bit of lime on top. She said people order chapulines every day in the restaurant, and not just Oaxacan customers. But that doesn’t mean they’ve gone mainstream.
“It’s a thing in Oaxaca and people eat them but if you go in other parts of Mexico, like in other states, they’re not as popular. So I think it’ll still gonna be a while to see grasshoppers on, like, McDonald’s menus or something,” she said with a laugh.
Crickets are much cheaper to raise than cows or chickens or pigs, according to Phil Lempert, a food marketing analyst and editor of SupermarketGuru.com.
“Pound for pound, insects, for example, crickets, have about the same amount of protein as does chicken, but certainly costs a lot less to produce, a lot less space, and some would argue, a lot more sustainable,” Lempert said.
In addition, Lempert said, insects have another factor going for them: the thrill of the new.
“The millennials live by the slogan, when it comes to food, you only live once, and I never want to eat the same thing twice in my lifetime,” he said. “And if they take up insects, guess what. Every supermarket in the country will be stocking them.”
There’s also the “Fear Factor” element; the adrenaline rush of trying something scary or forbidden.
“People who like to go out and do those risky, edgy things, they’re much more open to eating insects as well. So some people might do it just for bragging rights too,” said Matt Ruby, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who studies people’s food choices.
Ruby polled 200 Americans about whether they’d eat insects. About two-thirds said they would, with a strong preference to eating them ground up into something, as opposed to eating them whole. Ruby sees a parallel with the rise of sushi in America.
“When sushi was first introduced here, many people were quite disgusted at the thought of eating raw fish. But sushi has become incredibly popular in the United States. There’s almost 4,000 sushi restaurants just in the U.S.,” Ruby said. “So, the same thing could happen with insects, but it’s really quite difficult to say.”
It's up to companies to determine whether the food they're making is safe to eat, and The Food and Drug Administration will get involved if that comes into question. So far, no one's asked them to investigate, including Elliot Mermel and the guys at Coalo Valley Farms. Regulatory questions aside, they think the moment for insects has arrived, especially in food-obsessed Los Angeles.
“It’s a new ingredient for chefs to play around with. It’s a new ingredient for food-centric individuals to try out. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Southeast Asia to try it. You can try something new right here in LA,” Mermel said.
They haven’t started making the cricket powder themselves yet. In the meantime they plan to hit farmers markets, with a food truck marked with the slogan “Sustainable Junk Food.” They’ll sell gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and quesadillas with whole crickets in them. The crickets are optional... sort of.
“Sure, if someone really wants a grilled cheese without the crickets we’ll give it to them, but we might give it to them with a disapproving look,” Mermel said.
Mermel said they add a tasty crunch, sort of like potato chips in your sandwich. So be warned: crickets — and perhaps other insects — may soon be coming to a dinner plate near you.
From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International