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Could insects be the next sushi and bug-burgers the new sirloin steak? Pat Crowley, founder of Chapul, which makes energy bars from finely milled crickets, hopes so.
Mr Crowley launched his bug bars, which blend powdered cricket protein with ingredients such as ginger, chocolate and dates, from his home town of Salt Lake City in 2012. He began by stir-frying mealworms and crickets at parties and noticed that while some of his guests crunched fearlessly, others jibbed when met by an insect eye. So he looked for ways to make insects palatable. “After six months of experimenting we settled on a protein-rich bar designed for [fitness enthusiasts],” he says.
Mr Crowley’s decision to launch with an energy bar was helped by the health trend for high-protein diets. The protein and mineral content of crickets compares well with that of beef, so Chapul had a good story to tell. A hydrologist and part-time white-water rafting guide, he had spent his early career seeking ways to mitigate over-extraction of river water to irrigate crops for livestock feed. One morning he heard a Dutch ecologist argue in a podcast that to protect the world’s rivers, cut carbon emissions and improve their own health, westerners should eat less meat and emulate the 2bn people across Asia, Africa and Latin America for whom insects, which require little water or space, are a delicacy or standard fare: “It was as if a light had switched on.”
Today, Chapul — pronounced “Chahpool” from the Aztec word for cricket — is stocked by the US chain Natural Grocers and is entering Whole Foods.
Other bug-based food producers are emerging, encouraged by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s championing of insects − mini-livestock − as a sustainable alternative to conventional herds. But are western consumers ready to see bugs, more typically associated with spreading disease, as dinner? In 2014, research by Mintel, the market researcher, found that among consumers who had not eaten insect-sourced protein, some would be interested in trying it: in Germany, the figure was 21 per cent; 26 per cent in the US and 27 per cent in the UK, rising to 52 per cent in China.
Gabi Lewis, co-founder of Exo, a New York cricket bar start-up, views cricket flour as the gateway to an emergent insect cuisine. Just as the California roll, a westernised version of sushi, gave Americans a stepping stone to eating raw fish, he predicts that “cricket bars will pave the way for a broader range of insect foods”. The thinking is that once someone has eaten a cricket bar, they have psychologically broken the bug taboo — soon they could be chewing bug-burgers or caterpillar kebabs.
Of the estimated 1,900 species of insects eaten around the world, only a handful may tempt western palates, at least initially. Mr Crowley considered mealworms and black soldier fly larvae for his bars, but their creepy-crawly appearance and unappetising names made them more off-putting than the cricket, which resembles the familiar shrimp.
By keeping branding playful — bug puns are a favourite device − insect entrepreneurs hope to put bugs on people’s plates without being labelled cranks. “[We want] to normalise eating insects in a way that [emphasises] the coolness and fun,” says Rose Wang, co-founder of Six Foods (as in six legs) which makes “Chirps”, a tortilla-style cricket crisp, which the founders developed at Harvard university.
Appealing to the senses is important when introducing novel foods, says chef Andy Holcroft. He is planning the opening of Grub, a restaurant serving delicacies such as Moroccan-spiced insect kebabs, at a bug visitor attraction in Wales. “Crispy and crunchy descriptions of insects, such as stir-fried or sautéed, sound more appetising than soft-boiled or poached . . . [which sound] squelchy and squishy,” he says. His venture follows a move by Wahaca, a high-street Mexican restaurant chain, to put crickets on its specials menu.
But even if the “yuck factor” can be neutralised, will insect protein live up to expectations? Timothy Lang, a professor at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, cautions against “leaping to the conclusion that industrially farmed insects will have the same ecological value as insects harvested in tropical areas”. Cultures that traditionally practise entomophagy − insect-eating − gather bugs from the forest. In the west the insects will be farmed and require feeding and heating.
Then there is the question of regulation. Insect-specific regulations have traditionally focused on prescribing limits for insect fragments accidentally included in foods. For Chapul this posed a dilemma: how to convince retailers its cricket bars were compliant when there were no cricket standards with which to comply.
So, it requested official guidance, which led the US Food and Drug Administration to state that insects farmed for food — rather than fish bait or reptile feed − must be specifically bred for human consumption. In the expectation that further requirements will be laid upon them the start-ups are working with cricket farmers to develop human-grade cricket protocols. A case in point is the crickets’ diet — organic, not genetically modified and strictly vegetarian.
“That’s far superior to what most cows are fed,” says Mr Lewis. Allergy research is also under way. Insects are closely related to crustaceans, raising concerns — to which the start-ups have responded with warnings on their packs − that people with shellfish allergies should also avoid insects.
In the EU, planned revisions clarifying the scope and intention of the Novel Foods Regulation promise to end legal disputes between member states over whether it is permitted to market insects, or parts of insects, as food without prior authorisation and make it easier to gain food approval for insects that have long been eaten without ill-effects by people outside Europe. In the meantime, bug-food makers complain regulatory confusion is holding them back.
“In the Netherlands and Belgium [which has approved 10 insect species for food use,] there’s no problem, but [elsewhere] you don’t know if your products will be allowed,” says Damien Huysmans, founder of The Green Kow Company, a Belgian producer of savoury mealworm spreads.
Nevertheless, there are signs that investors are taking insect protein seriously. Exo recently raised $1.2m in seed funding to expand its operations, while an appearance on Shark Tank, a US TV show focused on angel investing, secured Chapul a $50,000 equity injection and start-up support from investor Mark Cuban.
“People think we’re trying to do something totally new but, in evolutionary terms, we’ve been eating insects for much longer than crops and cuts of beef that we think of as traditional,” Mr Crowley says.