During the last weeks of winter, in an airy kitchen at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, two design students are making cocktail bitters. A long wooden table holds mason jars and gleaming bottles of bourbon, vodka, and neutral grain spirits. The fragrance of ingredients that will macerate over the next few weeks, until they surrender their flavor to the alcohol, hangs in the air. There are white bowls of toasted coconut and raw cacao, as well as a jar of cinnamon sticks. Then, there are the crickets.
Lucy Knops rolls up the sleeves of her loose black shirt and carefully pours each ingredient into a small, clear measuring cup sitting on a digital kitchen scale. Her classmate Julia Plevin records the weights in a spreadsheet. When she gets to the crickets, Knops leans closer and peers into the cup. “That’s so crazy,” she says, “there are so many legs!” I follow her gaze; dozens of wiry amputated appendages cling to the sides like the staticky trimmings from a haircut. Knops dumps the whole thing into an empty jar.
I am witnessing a test batch of Critter Bitters, which the pair first created for a school project in 2013. The challenge: make a product in response to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) titled “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.” The report noted that the global population, now at more than 7 billion, may grow to 9 billion by 2050. Already, nearly 1 billion people regularly go hungry. Insects–a source of protein that requires a fraction of the land, water, and feed as livestock–could help alleviate the looming crisis. “The case needs to be made to consumers that eating insects is not only good for their health, it is good for the planet,” the authors wrote. Knops and Plevin figured that while cricket-based bitters might not solve the food problem, the product could help overcome a psychological one. “People are more open to trying new things when there are cocktails involved,” Plevin says.
Baum and Whiteman forecast that insect protein powder would be among the hottest food and drink trends of 2015, along with oysters, unusual root vegetables, and whiskey.
Most of the world has been comfortable with entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, for millennia. But it is only in the past few years that it has gained momentum in Western countries, particularly with respect to crickets. More than 30 start-ups specializing in crickets have launched in North America since 2012. A few raise the insects; the rest either sell cricket meal–milled to a fine powder that resembles nut flour–or products made from it, including cricket granola bars, cricket chips, cricket crackers, cricket chocolates, and cricket cookies. There are fledgling lines of dog treats too, and one company is working to mash crickets into a paste, the entomophagist’s answer to peanut butter. Late last year, the restaurant consultants Baum and Whiteman forecast that insect protein powder would be among the hottest food and drink trends of 2015, along with oysters, unusual root vegetables, and whiskey.
Critter Bitters abstracts the crickets further, filtering out the evidence rather than grinding it up. In fact, Knops and Plevin suspect that their pure cricket bitters–one of several flavors they plan to offer–may have fewer insect parts than are allowed in food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); cinnamon sticks, for example, may legally contain up to 5 percent insects by weight.
As I watch Knops pour alcohol into the jar of crickets, their bodies bobbing in a rising tide of bourbon, I squint into an older container of bitters–a batch from 2013, the students’ first. It’s now nearly gone. Knops and Plevin never suspected the bitters might become a commercial product, but after they presented their final project to the school, they started getting media attention, including from Epicurious.com and Food & Wine’s website. “The urge to do something to save a dying planet coincides with a very adventurous time in eating,” says Plevin.
North America’s cricket-food industry didn’t spring from a spontaneous, collective epiphany about shifting food tastes. Rather, it can be traced to two catalysts. One was the 2013 FAO report that sparked the birth of Critter Bitters. The other was a 2010 TED talk by Dutch ecological entomologist Marcel Dicke that has been viewed online 1.2 million times. Clicking through PowerPoint slides in an insect-adorned T-shirt, Dicke lays out the case for entomophagy. A burgeoning population will not only add more mouths to feed, he points out, but will require more protein; as people grow richer, they want to eat more meat. Then, there’s the economic argument. “If you take 10 kilograms of feed, you can get one kilogram of beef,” Dicke says, “but you can get nine kilograms of locust meat. If you were an entrepreneur, what would you do?”
In the U.S., both events rippled through a food culture that is increasingly self-aware, if not always scientific–one populated by gluten-free trendsetters, protein-heavy paleo dieters, and eco-conscious locavores–and through a start-up culture filled with young idealists. “This generation has greater access to knowledge than just 30 to 40 years ago,” says David Gracer, a purveyor of exotic arthropods at SmallStock Food Strategies. “And when there are TED talks and FAO reports, they inspire a lot of people.”
Thanks to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, aspiring start-ups can now connect directly to an audience especially receptive to their message. Critter Bitters plans to launch its first Kickstarter campaign this spring, in part to gauge the potential of its customer base. Terry Romero, Kickstarter’s food outreach lead, has seen an uptick in insect-food projects. “Instead of the classic investor putting in a giant chunk of money, we are helping companies forge relationships with people who are emotionally invested in what they do,” she says. “These will often be loyal fans for years to come.”
Crowdfunding has also proved to investors that there’s a market to be tapped. Patrick Crowley launched Chapul, the first cricket protein bar in the U.S, with a $16,065 Kickstarter campaign in 2012. Last year, Crowley was on the reality show Shark Tank, where small businesses pitch to a panel of investors. By the end of the show, Crowley had convinced Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team, to invest $50,000 for 15 percent equity. And by the end of the year, Chapul had earned nearly $400,000 from sales both online and in health food stores, food co-ops, and at Central Market, a gourmet chain. This year it will launch in select Whole Foods. “This was really a passion project to spread an idea,” Crowley says. “I thought we were probably five to 10 years too early when we launched it; it’s happening a lot faster than I had envisioned.”
Another success was SixFoods, the creator of Chirps cricket chips, which raised $70,599 on Kickstarter last year. Now, it’s distributing to co-ops in Boston and Seattle and is in talks with big-box stores. A cricket protein bar called Exo attracted $54,911 on Kickstarter in 2013; the start-up has since sold several hundred thousand bars, raised an additional $1.2 million, and may appear in JetBlue snack packs later this year. And Next Millennium Farms, which sells flour made from crickets it grows outside Toronto, raised $1 million from private investors. “Some of the largest food production companies in the world are in talks with us–flavoring companies that sell to PepsiCo, Unilever, McDonald’s,” says co-founder Jarrod Goldin. “Food producers have had to pay attention to what is going on.”
Many in the new cricket industry also hope to ride a wave of other trends. Goldin, for example, sells organic and gluten-free cricket flour and will soon add a paleo line of crickets that are fed a grain-free meal. But regardless of the sales pitch, packing crickets into the familiar shapes of cookies and snack bars doesn’t necessarily ease demand for more resource-intensive forms of protein (particularly with regard to products that may contain neglible amounts of cricket). The best scenario for entomophagy advocates concerned about global food security is getting people to eat the insects as they are.
“When we started ordering crickets to our dorm, we realized America isn’t ready for that,” says Laura D’Asaro, who co-founded Six Foods shortly after graduating from Harvard. “We see our chips and cookies as a first step. It’s useful just to have crickets on the ingredients list and have Americans eating them. But we want to slowly introduce other products, with the ultimate goal of going to a restaurant where you can get a chicken burger, veggie burger, or ento burger.”
The culinary possibilities of ento food rest on a steady supply of the main ingredient, which is another reason crickets have taken off. North America already has an industrial cricket infrastructure; the insects have been grown for decades as fish bait and food for pet reptiles. To see how crickets are raised for people, last November, I took a trip to Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio, the first food-grade cricket operation in the U.S.
The farm resides in a former vegetable co-op, a 5,000-square-foot warehouse tucked in the back of a parking lot. Kevin Bachhuber, Big Cricket’s co-founder, had promised I would hear the chorus of breeders–mature crickets capable of reproducing–but when I stepped inside, I met only silence. A crisis of unknown origin had killed more than a million breeders weeks before my arrival. Luckily, I missed the direct aftermath: the deathly smell of 900 pounds of rotting cricket corpses. “It was like a little genocide,” Bachhuber said.
He and the company’s cricket wrangler, Luana Correia, led me away from the empty breeder boxes to the nursery, split into two black tents. We pulled sanitary disposable booties over our shoes, unzipped a door, and stepped into an oppressive heat–the tents are kept at 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity to nurture the young. It smelled like roasted nuts. Plastic boxes lined the walls, and Correia pulled one down to show me an egg carton inside. It teemed with uncountable baby crickets, nicknamed pinheads, the features on their fragile bodies nearly imperceptible. The tents hold three to four million in total. If they all grow to adulthood–unlikely, as pinheads are prone to accidental squashing–they will amount to 3,000 pounds of cricket meat, or 750 pounds of protein powder. By harvesting the adults every seven weeks, Big Cricket projects it will grow 60,000 pounds of crickets annually, and Next Millennium Farms, even more: up to 300,000 pounds a year.
The fledgling industry poses an interesting conundrum to government agencies. Like larger livestock, crickets are subject to federal and state regulations. Until the relevant agencies can sort out the finer points, both they and the start-ups they regulate have been collectively winging it. When Big Cricket Farms had to rebuild its stock after the mass death of its breeders, Bachhuber followed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic chicken egg rules to decide whether eggs from a pet-grade cricket farm can be hatched for human consumption, for example. The FDA and the Ohio State Department of Health simply require a guarantee that food-grade crickets are farm-raised rather than wild-caught to avoid pesticides and other unintentional contaminants. And as of now, the USDA has no plans to inspect cricket farms and likely won’t unless there is an obvious and widespread health problem or they begin producing amounts comparable to beef and other meat, says Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. That’s not likely anytime soon: Americans alone eat about 26 billion pounds of beef a year.
“The ultimate goal is going to a restaurant where you can get a chicken burger, veggie burger, or entoburger.”
Although crickets are unlikely to transmit illnesses like mad cow disease or swine flu, they do get sick, and that is perhaps the trickiest part of the business. Big Cricket Farms chose the European house cricket, Acheta domesticus, for its taste and nutritional profile. But the species is prone to cricket paralysis virus, which can whip through a farm and leave 95 percent of the insects dead. It’s also the only farmed cricket subject to a less contagious picornavirus, which I later learned may have caused the die-off at Big Cricket. The company subsequently switched to a hardier stock: the tropical house cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus. It also began researching a receiving room that would disinfect new shipments of eggs or crickets with virus-killing ultraviolet light. “The nice thing about being in the first year of operations of a start-up,” Bachhuber told me, “is that your stress levels will never be higher.”
Big Cricket got its start through the Youngstown Business Incubator, and at the end of my visit to Ohio, Bachhuber and I headed to the former furniture store it occupies across town. A conference room had been set up for a small reception, and a long table held typical party fare: platters of cheese and hard sausage, veggies with dip, chips, and crackers. At the end of the row sat one bowl of homemade cricket pesto and another with whole crickets sautéed in garlic. The pesto looked like any other, and I spooned some on my plate. But the crickets–there was no abstraction here. These had eyes, antennae, and legs. If this is the future, might as well see what I’m in for, I thought.
I can’t say the crickets went down smoothly. I had to drown them in pesto and shovel them in with a cracker. It was an eating experience reminiscent of childhood, when my parents made me take just three more bites of an unfamiliar food before I could leave the table. As then, I did so warily, willing my tongue and teeth not to explore. I’m no picky eater these days, but if consuming whole insects is the eventual goal, I think it will take a while to convince the American palate. But that cricket pesto? Washed down with a cricket bitters cocktail? That, I’d have weekly.
This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Popular Science.
Insects In The Grocery Aisle
Dozens of cricket-food start-ups have launched in the past few years–and nearly all disguise the insects in familiar products.