If you saw a bug on your kitchen shelf, would you run or would you start planning dinner?
About 2 million people around the world—mostly across Africa, Asia, and South America—already eat more than 2,100 species of insects. However, this primordial superfood is not the rage it has the potential to be.
In the west, particularly in Europe and North America, embracing edible bugs remains a thing of hesitation. Hollywood stars have experimented with and endorsed it—Angelina Jolie’s kids eat crickets “like Doritos“—and Robert Downey Jr. has invested in the budding industry, backing French insect farm company Ynsect. But insects remain an infrequent delicacy.
Besides the unfamiliarity and “ick” factor that deters many, the alternative protein source can also be expensive, and availability still varies by country depending on factors like harvesting and government regulation. However, “there is a growing case for edible insect consumption, mainly due to their nutritional composition and low environmental footprint,” says Ishka Nicole Bless, a PhD Student at University of Adelaide.
Edible insects offer more protein content than chicken or beef while damaging the environment less.
Compared with livestock, edible insects use less arable land and water and produce significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, cricket farming uses 75% less CO2 and 50% less water compared to chicken farming. Mealworm production emits between 10 and 100 times less greenhouse gases per kilogram versus pigs.
Upping insect consumption in wealthy countries has the potential to remedy global hunger and food security issues in poorer ones. However, making insects mainstream in cultures where they are not already widely consumed is a challenge.
🎧 Are we piquing your interest in dining on insects? Learn more with the Quartz Obsession podcast episode on the future of edible bugs.
Hundreds of startups are trying to crack the formula, and landing the funding to do so. Companies working with insects dominated the investments aimed at diet-based solutions to climate change between 2017 and 2021, raising $608 million, according to a Talis Capital and Dealroom report on European climate tech. This was more than plant-based solutions ($450 million) and lab grown alternatives ($216 million) raised.
But without scale, it’s an uphill battle.
One nine-year-old company is finally getting close, though. Texas-based Aspire Food Group is setting up the world’s largest commercial cricket farm in Ontario, Canada. With the new plant, Aspire can “make crickets 50% to 75% less expensive than they’ve been, and still have additional runway to reduce cost,” Mohammed Ashour, co-founder and CEO of Aspire, told Quartz. “The industry is experiencing an inflection point, and insects can and will be an incredibly valuable protein source that can be obtained for good value as well.”
After winning the 2013 Hult Prize—the largest competition for budding social enterprises worldwide—Ashour travelled around the world to communities that raise and eat insects.
In Oaxaca, Mexico, he visited insect farms and spent hours harvesting them. These small-scale, mom-and-pop operations would harvest crickets by letting them climb a cardboard stack for 12 minutes and then setting them aside. This way, they filtered out dead crickets and excrement. But some live crickets would always be left behind.
Aspire took the basic premise and improved upon it. The company’s automated harvester uses gravitational sorting, as well as vibrational, mechanical, and sound-based stimuli, to separate 100% of live crickets within 30 seconds. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to explore existing best practices and use tech to enhance them,” Ashour says.
“We’ve come up with ways to take advantage of vertical farming tech, robotics, big data, and machine learning capabilities to devise an indoor, controlled protein production system with insects at the center…one that is modular enough to deploy virtually anywhere in the world,” he says.
To sell the products to consumers, Aspire began by grinding the crickets up and adding them to protein bars. This gave them a cost advantage.
“Look at the Tesla model. They started with Model S six-figure car that rivals Mercedes Benz S class. The goal is to get electric cars in the hands of the average person but they didn’t have scale to build Model 3 until eight years into [the] journey,” says Ashour. “Our ‘Model S’ was looking at sports nutrition. A protein bar in North America sells for as much as $3. It only uses 12 grams of cricket. We can absorb the high cost of crickets in a relatively premium product.”
Turning crickets into powder and flour to add to protein bars, pancakes, and smoothies helped adoption from a taste perspective. Even in insect-based pet food, humans would rather the ingredient be disguised.
“We can’t start at 100—can’t show whole crickets and say add this to your stir fry,” says Ashour. “We need to turn crickets into [an] ingredient and cleverly add that ingredient to existing food without changing or compromising the taste so people can be like this is a completely neutral bland ingredient.” Options like that—yellow mealworm smoothies, biscuits, pasta, and burgers—will soon be mass produced across Europe.
Whole insects are more complicated. Kolkata-based chef Avinandan Kundu recalled serving ants as one element of a dish in an eight-course tasting menu when he worked at Michelin-starred restaurant Kadeau in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“A spoonful of ants is always challenging,” he says jokingly. Fine dining restaurants can take the calculated risks of introducing patrons to insects, Kundu says.
“Instead of starting from home, it’s easier to procure insects through restaurants,” he says. Moreover, the restaurant approach helps people understand flavors and they may try to recreate it, he added. “Once it percolates into someone’s house, it becomes part of the mainstream.”
The primary audience to convert into insect-eaters are, of course, meat eaters.
However, there’s also a pitch for vegetarians who have quit meat for environmental and ecological reasons. “All of the ethical reasons for why you avoid eating animal meat are avoided with insects,” explains Ashour. Cricket powder has 10 times more protein than tofu or quinoa.
In the wild, insects are at the bottom of the food chain, in danger of being consumed by all sorts of predators. Plus, they’re ectotherms that bake to death in the heat or freeze in the cold. “If you somehow avoid both terrible things, what are you eating in the wild? You’re eating trash or eating from fields full of pesticides and toxins,” says Ashour. “With insects, I can make the very provocative claim that the insects we rear experience a far more ethical, far more healthy, and far less threatening lifestyle than their counterparts in the wild.”