Insects are slowly creeping their way into the American diet
Would you eat bugs for dinner instead of a hamburger? Several food companies, including Micarna — a Swiss company that recently won an innovation prize for cricket meatballs — are betting that soon, you will, even though the typical American has a great aversion to eating insects in any form.
“Yeah, no thanks,” says Tiffany Gonzales, a 45-year-old administrative assistant.
Her sentiment is typical in both America and Europe where it’s not even legal to sell insect food products currently in certain parts. Yet many companies and food experts are doubling-down and betting a steady diet of insect products will be the next big food trend everywhere.
Debbie Rutz is a representative for Micarna. She says her company just hired a Product Manager for Insects and considers the little buggers a “sustainable food trend.” She and her team hope that eventually, insects will be considered normal not only to benefit her company, but because the sustainability of them is parallel to none.
[Debbie Rutz and her team at Micarna won an innovation prize for their cricket flour meatballs at the Anuga trade fair — a leading convention for the food industry.]
“Not just because Micarna sees insects as a new food trend, but because we believe there lays potential that goes beyond direct consumption,” she says. “Researching in or developing products based on insects has only been legal in Switzerland for a few months. In Germany, where we presented our Pop-Bugs — which later won the innovation prize — it’s still not allowed. The fact that Micarna already puts resources into researching insects as part of our nutrition and the fact the we have won several innovation prizes for our product already, shows that insects can play a sustainable role in our diet.”
However, these innovative insect foods are not simply whole bugs on a stick. In fact, a finished product full of bugs is hardly even recognizable.
That camouflage is helping the bug industry slowly creep its way into the American diet.
In an informal poll, 80 percent of people say they wouldn’t eat an insect whole or if it was identifiable as such. However, 47 percent of people say they would try a product made with insect flour. This trend is what food companies are banking on. If trying bugs becomes more acceptable, the societal aversion will lessen with subsequent generations.
Vincent Vitale, the Sales and Marketing Manager for Aspire Food Group — a company working towards the normalization of food grade crickets in the U.S. — says, “The real key is sharing cricket protein with children. Kids are unbiased and mostly want to eat what tastes good and what their parents like, so by a family choosing to eat cricket protein with their children, they're promoting a culture that accepts entomophagy [the human use of insects as food] as an option. Which will definitely be great for the planet!"
The good of the planet is huge for advocates of insects as a protein source, too. Aspire Food Group CEO, Mohammed Ashour, predicts, "that in the next 20 years, alternative proteins will satisfy at least half of the protein demand on Earth. This is because our world will be deficient in protein production, giving companies that have the potential to rapidly and effectively commercialize and scale their protein sources the greatest advantage. Of course, these companies will overwhelmingly be companies that produce ‘alternative’ proteins — sources that rely on far less resources than conventional sources of protein today.
“Consequently,” adds Ashour, “the next 20 years will not only be formative, but they will be transformative for our relationship with protein and the radical shift we will undergo in order to responsibly feed our world, which is expected to grow significantly in both population and appetite."
Others agree, replacing wasteful food sources with bugs will only serve to help the environment.
"By making the switch to cricket protein, even for a few snacks/meals per week, the impact will really depend on what they are replacing in their current diet,” says Vitale. “If they switch from something that isn't sustainable obviously eating crickets will be better for the planet.”
And in today’s current climate of searching for alternatives, it could be the boost bugs need to find a place as an American staple.
“I guess if it’s better for the environment, I would be willing to try something with insect protein — if it didn't look like a bug,” says 19-year-old Marley Wolfe.
Environmentalism isn’t the only reason to incorporate insect based protein, however. Vitale says there are “tons of reasons” to switch. “They taste great! We make products that people love. They're really good for you. They're packed with protein 60 percent by weight, and have tons of Vitamin B12 in them, as well as all of the essential amino acids." Bugs are also extremely low in fats.
So, insects are both better for the world and healthy. But they’re also safe — one reason people, especially Americans, cite why they wouldn’t take to the trend. However, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN found that edible insects were as safe, or even safer, to eat than traditional meats such as beef or pork.
The same report also found that insect consumption is beneficial for helping impoverished people and countries developing their economies.
“Insects are not new for people to consume, but people in Europe and in the U.S. are just not used to it,” says Rutz. “Therefore, many are worried, don’t really know what it means, how it tastes like or even what it looks like. When we think about eating insects are always think about eating grasshoppers or maggots”
So, what does this insect protein substitute of the future look like? The answer may surprise anyone asking.
Vitale says some of Aspire Food Group’s top products are dry roasted cricket chips that come in a few popular flavors and a granola made with Aketta cricket protein powder. Pop-Bugs, the cricket flour meatball substitute with a variety of dipping sauces, was the product that won Micarna their prize in food innovation. Cricket flour protein bars and pasta made with flour from beetles are also options.
Restaurants in places like New York and San Francisco already offer insects on the menu in the form of grasshopper tacos or mealworm flour tortillas.
“Micarna’s goal is not necessarily to offer insects as an end product or even as an alternative to meat,” says Rutz. “For us, insects are mainly a very interesting alternative source of protein. This means we focus mainly on insects as protein supplier and don’t want to sell insects as the end product; at least not as the main goal. Simply speaking: we want to work with them. We see great potential regarding insects as protein suppliers.”
So future bug food actually looks and tastes a lot like the food we already eat and not like whole crickets or beetles.
[After appearing on Shark Tank, Chirps Chips received a $100,000 investment from Mark Cuban in 2017.]
Michael Dunning, a 21-year-old barista, found bugs years ago when he was looking for a protein substitute. He says there really isn’t much difference between what he used to eat and the bugs he uses now in his daily diet.
“I was looking for different vegetarianism diets,” he says. “One of the things I was always lacking was protein, so I was seeking protein substitutes.”
It’s then he discovered cricket flour, something easy to use in recipes along with tofu and tempa to beef up his protein intake. He says he’s also tried beetles, chocolate covered roaches and scorpions. Cricket flour, like the flour used to make Pop-Bugs, was his favorite.
In their effort to attempt to get the typical American like Dunning to even consider tasting insects, companies are taking strategic and calculated efforts. However, Rutz notes that over two billion people throughout the world already consume some of the over 2,000 edible insects on a daily basis. It’s just that America and Europe aren’t on board yet.
“Trends in general, but food-trend especially, change over time,” says Rutz. “It’s often a question of generation and what kind of cultural change we live through. Nevertheless, it will of course be important that products made with insect-proteins are always clearly labeled so consumer can always decide for themselves what kind of products they want to buy and eat. Food should be a fun and a tasty experience.”
“Nobody is forced to eat insects,” she adds.
“For us, it's a dual focus on intellect and emotion,” says Ashour. “Convincing people of the reasons they should eat insects speaks to their minds, and metaphorically, can get them to dip their toes in the water. But a fantastic product will fortify that connection emotionally, and that’s when they make the full plunge. So it’s not enough just to talk about the attributes of our products. If sustainability was all that people cared about, they would eat grass and drink water. Food is a very emotional experience, and a company like ours has to focus not only on delighting the customer’s values, but also, their senses."
It’s worthwhile to add that the average American is already eating insects without knowing it anyway.
According to FDA rules, broccoli, the hops for your beer, and canned tomatoes can have insect fragments or even whole insects. In fact, just 10 grams of hops could have as many as 2,500 aphids.
It is a unique lifestyle switch that may not be as unique in the future. Dunning encourages people to just be open-minded about trying bugs for dinner.
“Honestly, it will surprise you more than you think,” Dunning says.