Edible insects insights Pt 1: Is the West ready to follow Asia’s entomophagy lead?

By Massimo Reverberi

- Last updated on GMT

Massimo Reverberi
Massimo Reverberi
Bangkok-based expert of edible insects, Massimo Reverberi, has penned a three-part overview into the history, opportunities and challenges of expanding the market for alternative sources of protein. In part one, he assesses growing interest from the West...

For all of known civilization, insects have been a part of a regular diet in every part of the world (over 1,900 species are defined as edible). In some cases the reasons are related to poverty, but in most countries insects are part of the local cuisine by choice, not from necessity.

In Asia and South America, for example, crickets, silkworm, ants and mealworms are popular snacks. In a number of African countries, you can find caterpillars and termites at the local market. Even Europe has traditional foods that contain insects, as in the Italian cheese Casu Marzu, and France, in an old recipe with the Phyllophaga beetle.

There are various theories as to why the West discarded an entire category of perfectly edible animals. One may be the ease at which most insects thrive in tropical areas. Raising or collecting insects in tropical areas would therefore make more sense, economically speaking, than in Northern Europe or North America.

Another frequently cited theory notes that — with the development of agriculture — insects have been increasingly identified as a plague, or pests that must be eliminated to encourage a better crop yield. Last but not least, some insects are poisonous (most ants, for example).

But this aversion to insects seems to have started to change around 2013, thanks to the activity of some institutions such as the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) and the FAO (the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization); and the dissemination of their publications. In 2013, a report on edible insects written by the FAO had been downloaded by almost 10 million people.

In the same period, some young Americans (Pat Crowley, with Chapul, for example, and the founders of Exo Protein) had begun to create packaged foods based on insects, especially energy bars with cricket flour. In some cases the idea comes from visiting Mexico or Thailand, where fried insects, like crickets, are a very common street food. Many of these pioneers seem to be especially sensitive to the issue of sustainability: insects can be a solution to the problem of feeding a population estimated at 9.5 billion by 2050.

From whole bugs to insect as an ingredient

At first, many start-ups simply packaged whole insects (fried or dried). HotLix (US) has sold whole insects embedded in lollipops since 1990. It is more of a joke than a product for an entomophagist, as it is just a surprise of seeing an insect inside a transparent coat of sugar, and not a serious food product.

A few years later, Thailand Unique, started a line of packaged dried or fried whole insects which are sold online and shipped to consumers around the world.

In France, Jimini’s was founded in 2012, perhaps the most famous start-up of edible insects from the old continent. Crickets and mealworms are sold whole, dried, and in a package with an appealing modern design clearly aimed at a young clientele of urban foodies in search of novelties. Other brands such as Don Bugito in the US and Bush Grub (UK) have followed the same approach, which was characteristic of this first phase of the new market of bugs as food.

Later, in 2013, the first processed bug foods began to appear. The most significant cases are biscuits with cricket flour by Bitty Food (USA), Chirps Chips by Six Foods (USA), meatballs and schnitzel by Damhert (BE), cricket pasta by Bugsolutely (TH) and mealworm pasta by Aldento (BE).

In 2016, the Canadian start-up One Hop Kitchen launched two new condiments for pastas: Cricket Bolognese and Mealworm Bolognese sauce. Cricket flour is certainly a key element of this evolution from whole insects to more sophisticated processed foods.

Crickets are regarded as the insect of choice to overcome the western food taboo. Worms may be perceived as more disgusting than crickets, although from 2017 in Europe a number of new products were developed with mealworms, which is easy to farm.

Still, crickets are more common in the new western packaged products. They resemble shrimp (are anatomically close) and are not "monstrous" in the collective mind/background (Jiminy in the fairy tale Pinocchio, for example, is a positive character played by a cricket).

Silkworms may represent a third way between crickets and mealworms, although at the moment they are used only by one start up, Bugsolutely, based in Shanghai and producing a silkworm flour-based snack, Bella Pupa. The flour can easily be integrated into processed foods, and the visual problem, which initiates the "yuck" effect, is lower.

Cricket flour is also the foundation of the new wave of insect energy bars: more than 20 brands between Europe and US. When it comes to cricket energy bars, Exo Protein, Lithic and Chapul are the best known companies (Exo, in particular, for having received funding from venture capitalists for $5 million in 2016). But there are many more start-ups that have launched this type of product between 2014 and 2017 including Crobar (UK), Eat Grub (UK), Jungle Bar (IS), Zoic bar (UK), Bodhi (UK), Gryo (FR) and more recently, in 2016, Naak (CA), Sens bar (CZ) and ProPro (TH).

Most of these bars contain a small percentage of cricket flour (5% to 10%), presumably to maintain a low retail price despite the high cost of cricket flour. Cricket flour is still produced on an artisan scale. As a result, production processes are far from being optimised and efficient.

In North America, the wholesale price for the cricket flour (beginning of 2018) is around US$45 per kg. In Thailand (the country that produces more crickets for human consumption), a dozen new companies have cricket flour prices ranging between US$19 and US$28 per kg.

Because of the flour costs, only a couple of companies are venturing above 10% cricket content (Bugsolutely Cricket Pasta and ProPro Energy).

In the next piece in this series, Massimo will assess the opportunities that abound for the breeding of insects for conversion into flour.

Massimo Reverberi is the founder of Bugsolutely China and Bugsolutely Thailand, and co-founder of AFFIA, the Asian edible insect association.

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