Insects have not traditionally been considered an option in North America and Europe, even though they have been a crowd favourite for the 2bn people who eat them elsewhere.
Is this rational?
“Six-legged livestock” are the easiest animal protein to farm. They are packed with great nutritional properties, are highly sustainable and are unlikely to transmit diseases to humans.
Entrepreneurs have increasingly become aware of this oversight as they begin to process insects into food: cookies, chips, energy bars and of course cricket flour, which is the most common staple in the new edible insect market. These are often small companies founded by young, motivated people, convinced of the economic feasibility—and ecological advantage—of edible insects.
There are now more than 150 start-ups passionately committed to creating a whole new food sector. Most of them listed in the BugsFeed directory.
But food corporations are waiting, puzzled by this unexpected phenomenon and worried by the risks posed by the polarising idea of munching worms or spiders. Still, the media loves the concept.
A non-exhaustive search shows that edible insects appear in hundreds of recent articles in the English-language professional media. The investors love it, too: "entopreneurs" have raised significant amounts of money from crowdfunding campaigns or with venture capitalists.
Exo received US$1.2m, and that was just at the seed round; at Series A, around US$4m was added by AccelFoods and others. Mark Zuckerberg’s family funded Tiny Farms with an undisclosed amount.
What about Asia-Pacific? Australia and Vietnam feature a couple of start-ups each, while Thailand is the motherland of edible insects and the largest producer of crickets.
Crickets are the easiest insect to be reared and also the most likely to be accepted by consumers. In Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket was the savvy sidekick, and in general this insect looks more like a nice land shrimp than a filthy monster.
In Thailand, crickets are reared by 20,000 farms with roughly 7,500 tonnes consumed per year, usually as a spicy fried snack. Recently the country has seen the birth of companies like Sahakhun Bug Farm, Eco Insect Farming and Bugsolutely (my company), joining the established Thailand Unique and transforming crickets into cricket flour, pasta and candies.
Could this be the next big thing in food? The market has abundant room for it. Alternative protein sources are predicted to claim up to one-third of the protein market by 2054, affecting agriculture, food technology and food products, according to Lux Research.
In October 2015, the European Parliament introduced a fast-track for the approval of novel food from January 2018. This decision was explicitly due to the acknowledgment that bugs should be on the table. Without such regulations, government agencies are left in a grey area.
The US FDA and Canadian authorities already accept edible insects, if they are raised for human consumption, while most EU countries will wait for the 2018 ruling. In this context, North America is gaining a competitive advantage, and start-ups are not scared to invest there.
The question still remains, though: how can we finally get western people to think of bugs as mainstream food?
There are two answers. The first is for insect manufacturers to persevere. It took many years for raw fish to defeat its western bafflement and the “yuck” effect, and for eating sushi to seen as normal behaviour.
The second is to hide the insects, as usually happens with the other land animals. Westerners cannot accept seeing the head of a rabbit or chicken feet served at their tables. Meat is almost always disguised in a way that the animal is not recognisable and the end result does not look the live version it once was. By following this lead, edible insect foods may find their way into acceptance quite quickly.
Does this sound too optimistic? Belgian researchers from the University of Lieges asked people what they thought, and the conclusion was: “Insects are ready to become a common food ingredient among Western European populations”.
Results from a sample of 2,000 British consumers interviewed by Canadean, a market research company, suggested that 35% were prepared to try processed insect food, and 46% would sample insect-based protein bars.
In America, Blueshift Research found that nearly one-third of respondents to a survey said they were likely to buy an insect-based product (a number that is increasing month after month). Blueshift has also put insect-eating on its list of most interesting food trends, along with gluten-free items and heathy living. It mostly appeals to those aged 30-44, and to people who earn between US$25,000 and US$49,999, or more than US$150,000.
Another survey, by New Nutrition Business, highlights the difference between seeing a whole insect and eating a product which integrates the bugs, usually as a powder, with consistent results: the less the product resembles a bug, the better.
“Once the comprehensible apprehension towards eating insects has been overcome, the potential for such a valuable and easy-to-produce protein is endless,” says Ana Day, founder of 4Ento, a key international online reference for information in the edible insect landscape.
“Educating people is the key to ignite the spark that will fuel an entire new food industry. And this food industry is not only beneficial from an economic standpoint. It will also be a great contribution to help rescue our endangered planet.”