Is it time for insects to move up the food chain?
Fried in cornmeal. Smothered in ketchup and mustard. Dripping with maple syrup. On top of an ice cream sundae. I can still remember the myriad ways that Billy Forrester tried to disguise the fact that he was forced to eat 15 night crawlers in as many days after losing a bet in the classic children’s book How to Eat Fried Worms.
As hilarious as Billy’s predicament was to my fourth-grade self, I have to admit the thought of eating worms has never been that appealing to me, now or then. In fact, for many people the idea of entomophagy, or eating insects, is, well, to use a fourth grader’s favorite word, gross!
But in much of the world, that is simply not the case. Throughout Asia, Central America and Mexico and Africa, insects are just another part of the food chain—much like burgers, fries or pizza are part of the American diet. And with many experts worried that the planet may not be able to support projected world population growth—which the U.N. is projecting will reach 9.6 billion by 2050—there are an increasing number of entomophagy advocates and companies that believe the solution for feeding the planet is to turn back to sources that can already be readily found in nature.
Food sources based on what’s already found in nature vary. An article in Natural News, for instance, suggests looking to drought-resistant plants and trees that grow quickly or produce large yields. For instance, jicama—a root grown primarily in Mexico and Central America—is said to provide high amounts of vitamin C. The article also points to the moringa tree, also known as the horseradish or drumstick tree, as a potential food source. The tree, which grows in tropical areas, is said to propagate easily, has edible leaves that are high in protein and vitamins and its seeds can supposedly be used to purify water.
A similar article in Scientific American suggests a return to a staple of the Native American diet—the acorn. According to the article, oak trees—from which acorns come—are actually the single most important tree used by wildlife for food and cover throughout the state of California. Acorns have been a dietary staple for farm animals—and of course, squirrels—and people for centuries. The article says acorns can be eaten in a variety of ways—raw, cooked, boiled, mushed or even—not unlike chicory—for coffee.
So-called “wild” foods—or foods found in forested areas have also been suggested as new, natural food sources. A 2011 report by the U.N’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), suggested that world’s forests could also serve as a source for helping to ensure food security for the world’s populations. Judging by the recent popularity of “foraging” activities, such as mushroom gathering, can searching for more fruits of the forest be far behind?
But by far the most often-cited natural resource for alternative food sources is insects. Again, the U.N. is leading the way in advocating for insects as a food. Since 2003, the FAO has been doing research on edible insects in numerous countries across the world. Thus far they have found as many as 1,900 types of insects that are safe for human consumption. According to the FAO there are various benefits of insect eating:
Edible insects contain high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids for humans. Insects have a high food conversion rate, e.g. crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Besides, they emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock. Insects can be grown on organic waste. Therefore, insects are a potential source for conventional production (mini-livestock) of protein, either for direct human consumption, or indirectly in recomposed foods (with extracted protein from insects); and as a protein source into feedstock mixtures.
Getting beyond the “ick” factor
Of course getting Westerners to move beyond being grossed out by the thought of eating bugs will take some doing. However, there are a number of companies and VC firms that are betting the ant farm, so to speak, that they will. According to the Wall Street Journal, VC firms put $83.4 million into food start-ups that are developing alternative food products—from meat substitutes to insect-based foods—during the third quarter of 2014.
Although there are many insects that can be eaten—grasshoppers, ants, worms, cicadas, caterpillars and beetles to name a few—judging from the number of start-ups that are using them, crickets seem to be the gateway bug of choice for burgeoning entomophagists.
Although I’ve heard of roasted cricket snacks, the most popular medium for conveying crickets into food stuffs these days seems to be cricket flour. Crickets are said to be very high in protein, calcium and iron and low in carbs. By finely grinding the crickets into a “flour,” they can be easily ingested and used in a variety of products—from protein bars (Exo, Hopper Foods,) to cookies (Bitty), chips (Six Foods) and even cocktail bitters (Critter Bitters).
Breeding insects for food products is also a key part of this value chain. In addition to milling cricket flour, Aspire Food Group offers organic whole crickets for cooking, and the company has insect breeding projects underway in Austin, Texas Mexico (grasshoppers) and in Ghana (weevil larvae). Taking the childhood ant farm model a number of steps further, Silicon Valley based Tiny Farms offers mealworm farming starter kits for companies that want to develop their own products or people who want to start their own insect farms. The company is even using data collected from individual insect farms to develop best practices for better growth.
If Rene Redzepi, famous forager and chef of Denmark’s acclaimed Noma, can make insects palatable to foodies by serving fermented grasshoppers or ant-infused gin, can more middle brow palates be far behind? Palates change. Ten years ago, not many people were eating kale, either. Everyone thought its sole purpose was to adorn salad bars. Even Rosé is making a comeback after being maligned as the wine of choice for 1980s housewives. And who knew that canning would someday become a hipster DIY activity?
So maybe we should try bugs. We might like them.
If you’re a technology based food product start-up, we’d love to hear from you. Bon Appétech Conference will be a great way to connect with industry stakeholders, large brands and influential decision makers. We are hosting a startup expo where entrepreneurs can showcase and launch new products, including new food products. More information available at www.bonappetech.com
Post image copyright 2006 by Lon&Queta. See full license for use.