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Do we all have to eat insects in the future?

Let’s just call it high-velocity decision making.
Let’s just call it high-velocity decision making.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
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This is the full transcript for episode 1 of season 3 of the Quartz Obsession podcast Edible bugs: The original superfood.  

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Kira Bindrim: If I asked you to recommend an easy, high-protein snack, what would you suggest? Maybe something creamy, like Greek yogurt or hummus. Or a snack with a crunch, like trail mix. But what you probably wouldn’t recommend? Crickets. Cockroaches. Grasshoppers.

For many people, the idea of eating bugs is pretty gross. Insects may be an important part of the ecosystem, and crickets are a great soundtrack on a summer night, but as far as food goes, a lot of us would say, ‘no, thank you.’

Except, perhaps not as many of us as you’d think. Around the world, roughly 2 billion people actually do make a habit of eating bugs. And as the ethics and environmental implications of our food choices get more attention, those ranks are growing. Because sourcing bugs is more sustainable than a lot of other protein options. That means edible insects could turn out to be a crucial ingredient in the future of food.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: edible insects, the original superfood.

I’m joined now by Ananya Bhattacharya who is a reporter with Quartz India. Now, Ananya, I think I have pretty clearly established that I am in the camp of people who do not eat bugs and who find it kind of gross. But I want to start by asking you: Have you eaten insects?

Ananya Bhattacharya: I have, fairly recently. I had Sriracha-coated hot roasted crickets. They were basically snacks made by Bugvita. And they just felt like peanuts, but a little bit chalkier. If you hadn’t told me they were crickets, I don’t think I would have known.

Kira Bindrim: That’s a pretty strong endorsement. So let’s actually talk about what we mean when we say that people are eating bugs. What would you say are the most common bugs that are consumed regularly?

Ananya Bhattacharya: There’s crickets, there’s mealworms, there’s types of larvae, there’s grasshoppers, ants, cicadas, and then they get less popular, but then there’s cockroaches and a bunch of other things as well that maybe you don’t want eat yet.

Kira Bindrim: Yes, it’s very validating for me that cockroaches would at least be in the second category of popularity. One of the things I keep—logically, I think—coming back to in my head and, I think, my stomach is, just because you can eat something, does not mean that there is a compelling reason to eat it. So let’s imagine we are at a trade show about meat alternatives, and, you know, we’re hearing the pitches for each of these options. And there’s the plant-based meats, where it’s sort of the look and the feel and the taste of real meat. You get the vegetarian options. And then you get to the table that’s just, like, bugs. What is the pitch? Why would you say someone should choose this over other protein options out there?

Which countries eat the most insects?

Ananya Bhattacharya: So 80% of the world’s countries actually eat bugs. Most of these people are in tropical regions, because that’s where the bugs tend to grow the biggest, they’re the easiest to harvest. And yeah, mostly locally, the cultures have embraced them for a while.

So I think we need to know who we’re pitching to. So off the bat, I don’t think vegans are the right people to pitch to because, you know, insects do have central nervous systems. So that kind of audience is out. But if your argument is about sustainability and about nutrition, I think bugs have a really strong case to make for themselves. Because you’ll have mealworms that provide the same amount of proteins and vitamins and minerals that fish and meat do, you have grasshoppers that have the same amount of protein content that lean ground beef does with less fat per gram. So nutritionally, they’re kind of up there.

Also, I just want to say, I haven’t tried this, but I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve eaten bugs or people who work with bugs, and apparently there’s a huge flavor profile, so you can’t really knock them saying ‘I don’t like bugs’ because ants are like acidic and sweet and nutty, stink bugs apparently taste like apple, red agave worms taste spicy, grasshoppers can taste like pecans or mushrooms or coffee or chocolate depending on what you feed them. So I think taste is definitely not something to knock them on.

Kira Bindrim: That makes sense to me. So there’s a nutrition aspect, and there’s a sustainability aspect, which I want to come back to. Would you say that the biggest obstacle to that pitch is just the ick factor, that they look gross?

Ananya Bhattacharya: Yeah, I think fear and disgust are kind of the biggest things at play here. And those are kind of irrational, but there are other rational fears, like, how will my body react because it’s not something I eat? Is it coming from a hygienic source? So it’s a mix of those two things. On the latter, I’d just like to say, and this breaks my heart because I love my chicken and I love my beef too, but those are not really the cleanest things either. Those aren’t really your best bet. So if that’s your problem, then insects are worth a shot, too.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah I’m also just thinking like, of processed foods in general. Like it’s very funny to me imagining myself sitting on my couch eating Sour Patch Kids being like, ‘You know, I’m not gonna put a cricket in my body, that’s too far.’ Who knows what I’m eating on a day-to-day basis.

I kind of feel like bugs need a mascot. Are there actually any celebrities that are kind of out there shilling for the the insect-eating lifestyle?

Ananya Bhattacharya: Yeah, I think there’s a bunch. I don’t know if they eat it regularly, I haven’t been inside their kitchen. But I know Zac Efron ate it for a show. Shailene Woodley said she eats it often. Nicole Kidman. Angelina Jolie says her kids eat insects like they’re Doritos. So there’s a bunch of celebrities that are doing it, and acting pretty casual about it. If you want to follow that lead, you can.

Which insects can be eaten?

Kira Bindrim: Just for fun, what is the most out-there example of an edible bug that you can think of?

Ananya Bhattacharya: So I’m from India, and we have a place in India called Chhattisgarh, where there is a Bastar tribe. And they make red ant chutney and Gordon Ramsay apparently tried it in 2010. There’s probably a clip of it on the internet. But that was really intriguing to me, because it’s a condiment, right? It’s something that you can have all the time, and they’ve had it for years and years and years. And it’s normal. And I think the issue with bugs today is that it’s not really considered normal. And it is.

Another thing I would mention is, so Muji, the Japanese brand, they made cricket crackers in May 2020. And it sold out in a day. And I think why that’s kind of interesting to me is that, you obviously want to try things for fun, but there’s clearly a market that’s huge, like, it’s not just like three or four people buying it. And Japan is especially interesting, because I think they’re a community that are a lot more experimental with their food—they have insect vending machines, you know, they make like cider out of insects. So there’s a huge market there. I think in the West, the examples are a little more tame, like chips and bars. But yeah, there’s like a whole world out.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, that totally makes sense. I am also most experimental with my snacking, versus my core foods. Is that the most common example, or is that actually a novelty?

Ananya Bhattacharya: I think that’s the most common example for people like you and me, right? We live in urban centers, we’re not really exposed to them. But even for cooking, so if you want to use it as an ingredient as your base in meals, you would have flour, you would have powdered form of crickets, you get powdered forms of grasshoppers, you can use them as powdered salts, as baking powder. So there are multiple uses, which you could just use instead of your almond flour, instead of your plain flour.

Kira Bindrim: When we talk about people who eat bugs now, and I guess, by proxy, how we might expect to see the trends grow in the future, especially in the West, it is less that we’ll all be sitting around eating, you know, a pound bag of chocolate-covered crickets and calling that day’s protein and more that we will start seeing insect protein in meat patties, in powders, in a lot of other foodstuffs that we’re already familiar with. Is that right?

Ananya Bhattacharya: Correct.

Kira Bindrim: After the break: Eat a bug, save the planet.

[ad break]

Are bugs a sustainable source of nutrition?

Kira Bindrim: So you mentioned earlier that, in our trade show pitch for bugs, our imaginary trade show, that sustainability would be one of the things that you would mention as an advantage of eating insects. In what sense are bugs more sustainable as a source of protein?

Ananya Bhattacharya: So when you breed insects, basically, the biggest thing is that you emit a lot less methane than you would with livestock, for instance. They also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide, which is also a warming gas; much less ammonia than breeding pigs and things; you will have a lot less CO2, or you will have about 50% less water than when you’re chicken farming. So that’s one aspect of it. The other thing is also their feed conversion rate. So when you feed these bugs, they require a lot less input to give you more output. So, for instance, crickets will need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half the feed needed by pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Overall, it’s on both ends of the process where they’re actually saving a lot of greenhouse emissions.

Kira Bindrim: So it sounds like those savings would work as things scale up. You know, when we say that the way that we farm meat or chicken, in particular in the US, is not great, it is because of the industrial scale at which we are making that food, versus that eating chicken itself is inherently bad for the environment. What do we know about what it takes to produce insect protein at that kind of scale? Like literally, what does that look like, because the idea of an insect farm is now something I think I’ll have nightmares about, but also what are sort of the environmental implications?

Ananya Bhattacharya: There are certain companies that are working on this. The issue is there’s a lot of regulation around it. So in Europe, in Australia, you’ll have people tell you, you can dry them out, you can freeze them and sell them, but you can’t use live worms, for instance. So if that is the case, there is still a lack of clarity around how companies can scale up. So while there are people that are attempting to do it, we don’t really know what that looks like yet. One thing is for sure that if you compare it directly to a chicken or a cattle farm, it will technically have a fewer side effects, but it might give birth to other problems. Like you could have a pest problem, you could have, you know, issues with transport of insects and things like that. So and then if you’re also taking insects that are not native to where you are and sending them elsewhere, what does that look like logistically? All of those questions still need to be answered because that scale has not yet been achieved.

Kira Bindrim: So there’s a lot more to figure out about what the next phase of this would look like.

Ananya Bhattacharya: Yeah.

Companies producing edible bug snacks

Kira Bindrim: I want to ask you about the companies that are getting into this space. You know, if you say to me ‘chicken,’ I think Tyson, I think Purdue, I think of giant us food conglomerates. If you say, ‘beef,’ I think Cargill, I think Tyson again. But if you say to me ‘crickets,’ that is the sound you’ll hear because I have no idea who makes them, or who’s into this space. So what kinds of companies are getting into this space in the US or elsewhere? Are there names that I would recognize?

Ananya Bhattacharya: So recognition, I think is a long shot. I don’t think we’re there yet. But the companies are old and they’re established. They’re pretty big. So a couple of them that I would just like to name would be, there’s a company in Texas called Aspire Food Group. So they’ve been around since 2013. And why I’m naming them is because you might have heard of XO, who make like insect protein bars that you actually get in Whole Foods, and they acquired XO a while ago. And that’s only part of their business. They’re also the people who started an automated cricket farm. So they’re really deep into it. There’s also another company in Canada called Entomo Farms. And they produce a lot of insect food and supply it to over 50 food companies in eight countries. So these are kind of behind-the-scenes, big players. And you’ll see them pop up in like small ways maybe if you go to a local market and pick up a particular product that may be owned by them, or it may be owned by a subsidiary company. But I don’t think you’ll know the companies themselves. But maybe now when you go, you’ll think about them.

And then beyond the big people, I think there are also particular startups that really focus on one product or one selling point. So they have Illegal Oats in the US, which makes granola bars. There’s Bitty Foods in San Francisco; there’s Chirps in Massachusetts, these guys make chips. And then you have powdered protein shake from a company called Crik Nutrition in Canada. So there are a bunch of players. I know I’ve named North American companies; there is a lot of interest all over the world, but I think in the western world is where these products are being made into easier-to-digest—no pun intended—insect food items.

Kira Bindrim: So based on the companies that we know about now, where do you think we’ll start to see insects? Like if I think about plant-based meat, for example, there was some early pickup in high-profile restaurants, then you started seeing it in grocery stores, at least in the West. And now it’s ubiquitous. You can get plant-based chorizo at Chipotle if you are so inclined. Would you anticipate a similar trajectory for bugs? Or it sounds like maybe at least in the West, snack foods and these sorts of like protein bars and things in that space might take off first before, for example, restaurants?

Ananya Bhattacharya: So I think snack foods are definitely one way that the Western world will be introduced to these items. But what will happen is it won’t become a staple, it won’t become your go-to. So for that to happen. I think there needs to be a commercial wave. And I’ve spoken to a couple of people—so there’s the chef called Avinandan Kundu, who used to work at a Michelin-star restaurant in Denmark. And at that restaurant, they tried to introduce insects, just like inching forward a little bit, where they’d have a tasting menu. And they had like one item, which was made of kohlrabi and bee pollen and ants. And this would just be like slipped in right before your dessert, because answer like acidic and kind of a palate cleanser. So he told me that nobody was sending these things back. There were people who were a little bit taken aback by it, but they will eat it. And he was making the case for basically having high-end restaurants that can afford to procure these items, that have the risk appetite to make innovative dishes that people would embrace in fine-dining experiences, that’s where it kind of starts. And, you know, there is some sort of an elitism problem to that. But it has to be kind of a top-down issue. It can’t be bottom up. If you want to introduce people to grasshoppers and crickets and ants, and you want a variety of things and you want to show them how they can be prepared as well, then you’re gonna need to start that wave in a restaurant.

Kira Bindrim: That’s so interesting. It’s almost like when you have an experimental to-a-certain-place type of food, you can appeal to people who might consider themselves foodies or, you know, from a sustainability standpoint, or who are just themselves experimental in how they eat, and that might get you to snack market. But to really start the process of an experimental food becoming ubiquitous, you also really need to have it start to appear in restaurants and filter down that way.

Ananya Bhattacharya: Yeah. And I think one more important thing to add to that is, you know, when restaurants deal with bugs, because one of our biggest concerns is hygiene and safety, right? So like, at this restaurant, they would go out and forage and pick up this food. But they would also test the animals for like, trace elements of things that you don’t want in your food, and they knew exactly what to do to kind of clean these things as well. So maybe it’s really daunting to start doing that at home, maybe you do need a professional to do it first for you to develop that confidence. So that’s also another part of like the behind-the-scenes part of why it needs to come in restaurants first.

Kira Bindrim: It’s like a Seinfeld episode of like, the health commissioner comes, and he’s like, ‘You’ve got ants in your restaurant,’ and he’s like, ‘No, those are the food ants!’

Ananya Bhattacharya: Exactly.

Would you consider eating insects as an alternative to meat?

Kira Bindrim: Are there cost considerations here? I know, it’s probably difficult to generalize. But again, to go back to the comparison to plant-based meat, I think we saw a relatively high price point in the beginning that has come down a lot over the past five years. Is it currently expensive to be eating insects as a replacement for other proteins?

Ananya Bhattacharya: So just as an example, the sriracha crickets that I ate, it was a 48-gram packet, and it cost me about five pounds, which is $6.80. But if you get like a packet of potato chips, that costs you about 75 pence, or $1 in America. So it is extremely expensive, right—it’s more than six times the price. And if you look at raw ingredients, they’re a little bit less extreme, like maybe it’s not six times the price, maybe it’s like two or three times the price. But it’s still expensive. And that’s because of a demand-supply gap, right. So there is not enough supply, and I think recently, there’s been a lot of demand, at least, like out of curiosity more than anything else. So there is a demand that’s getting created. But the supply isn’t really scaling up at the same point. Having said that, it is going to happen. Like in 2019, we used to have about 500 tons of insects produced. And I think by 2030, the estimate is supposed to be 260,000 tons. So there are things that are scaling up.

And another thing that I would just add is, you know, we’re talking about North America, we’re talking about Europe. But if you look at the markets where insects are very regularly consumed and kind of part of your staple diet, this problem doesn’t really exist. So just like if you take the example of Zambia, the chicken and the beef there cost about $3.50 and $7 per kilogram respectively. But you’ll get like moths, and you’ll get crickets and grasshoppers that cost about $2, $2.50 per kilogram. So in markets where they are widely consumed, they do end up being a lot cheaper. So you could probably expect that if that same amount of demand was generated in the West as well.

Kira Bindrim: Where do you see bugs as a food source in, let’s say, 50 years from now?

Ananya Bhattacharya: That’s a really interesting question. I think it really depends on how open-minded people are, really. Like I think if everyone was like me, then, yeah, we’d be having it three times a day and it’s fine. But I think if people have other inhibitions, whether that’s from fear, whether it’s the fact that everyone’s turned vegan, right, because then you have other reservations that you need to address. So it really depends. But I do think as a snack, it’s definitely something that’s marketable. I think, as a substitute for meat-eaters specifically, I think, especially for people who want to be aware and want to have the conversation, if you’ve decided that I don’t want to have beef more than twice a week but you’d really don’t want to eat broccoli, maybe you start having insects three or four times a week. So I think we’re still in nascent stages, I don’t think I really know where consumer behavior is headed at this point. But it definitely will be a lot more prevalent than it is today, is what my gut says.

Kira Bindrim: It reminds me a little bit of sushi, just the way that sushi went from being something that a lot of people thought, ‘raw fish, gross’ to being ubiquitous and co-opted, and at this point, like totally appropriated around the world in terms of what we consider sushi. But it feels like that kind of trajectory that I could see in a few decades, a decade from now, it will seem silly to us that this was something that anyone was particularly anxious about eating.

Ananya Bhattacharya: And a chef did say you can put insects in sushi, too, so.

Kira Bindrim: That not where I would start, but it’s the combination of fish and insects. But it’s good to know. If I wanted to give bugs a try, which I think I do after this conversation—and also that’s a good ad slogan, ‘Give bugs a try’—where do you recommend I start? What is a good, if not recipe, because I don’t know if you’re at that point yet, a snack that is most likely to convince the skeptical?

Ananya Bhattacharya: So I highly recommend the Sriracha crickets that I tried because they’re really flavorful. And I think that they really disguise the flavor, which is their biggest advantage, because I really don’t know what crickets tastes like, right? Like I’m saying I like them, but it’s because I mostly taste Sriracha. But having said that the one recipe that I am dying to try, which if anyone wants to try and let me know how it went, please do, is just chocolate chip cookies. And the recipe looks identical to a regular chocolate chip cookie, but it has like a quarter cup of mealworms in it. And it’s just supposed to make it a lot more like, it’s kind of like having a protein cookie. So I can’t imagine it doing any harm, and gives you more nutritional value. So yeah, that would be one thing that I would try.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, it’s the perfect thing to trick your friends with to just make some cookies and then be like, ‘psst, there’s mealworms.’

Ananya Bhattacharya: Yeah, and a great activity to do with kids. Because what you do at the beginning is actually you roast them in the oven, the mealworms, you get live ones, you roast them in the oven, and then you crush them. And then you use that in your cookies. I don’t know if I made it better or worse, but that is what you do.

Kira Bindrim: No. I’m gonna go with the crickets, I think. Thank you, Ananya, for your culinary adventures and then taking us on this adventure. It was fascinating.

Ananya Bhattacharya: Thank you,I had a great time.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Ananya Bhattacharya in Mumbai.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Bug them until they listen, yes I said that. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.