For all of known civilization, insects have been a part of a regular diet in every part of the world (over 1900 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. Lat but not least, some insects are poisoning (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 (United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization); and the dissemination of their publications. In 2013, a report on edible insects written by the FAO has 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) have 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.
The next few paragraphs are devoted to the new western market of edible insects that these innovators (hundreds of startups in Europe and the US) are
creating. And since 2017, “bug” start-ups have popped up in Asia too, like Bugsolutely (China and Thailand) and ProPro (Thailand).
Note: the vast world of insects as feed for livestock will not be part of this article.
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 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 ne 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 optimized and efficient. In North America, the wholesale price for the cricket flour (beginning of 2018) is around 45 USD per kg. In Thailand (the country that produces more crickets for human consumption), a dozen of new companies have cricket flour prices ranging between 19 and 28 USD per kg.
Because of the flour costs, only a couple of companies are venturing above 10% cricket content (Bugsolutely Cricket Pasta and ProPro Energy).
The breeding of insects for conversion into flour
The world eats hundreds of species of insects, but their rearing is rarely studied. They are often just collected from the wild. An exception is the silkworm pupae (Bombix Mori), which is bred in China for its silk coocon. The insect is then cooked and sold as feed or as food, in China but also exported frozen to Cambodia, Korea under the name of beondegi and to Thailand.
For Asian farmers, breeding is an extracurricular activity often done in their spare time. For crickets, the main cost is the feed, consisting primarily of chopped fine grain and sold in bags of 30kg that costs between 13 and 16 USD.
Silkworms represent an even better example of sustainability, if not a perfect circular economy, as they feed only on mulberry leaves, and they do not drink water.
Some start-ups in Thailand buy the crickets and dry them out in an oven to produce cricket flour. The dried crickets lose more than a third of their weight and are ground before being packed in vacuum foil pouches. Given the low cost of land and labor, as well as their
ability to grow in a tropical climate, whole crickets and cricket flour are much lower in cost in Thailand than the rest of the world.
In China, silkworms have been farmed for 5,000 years, and chinese silk represents 75% of the worldwide production. Silkworm pupae are a by-pass product of the silk industry therefore they are a great business opportunity as their nutritional properties are as good as those of a cricket.
In the European Union, due to the current regulations, there are very few insect farms. Protifarm, and its subsidiary Kreka, breed crickets and mealworms in Holland, and then they market them in a dried version as well as flour. There are small farms in Belgium and France, too.
The Canadian Entomo Farms is known to be the largest cricket farm in North America. They resell the cricket flour both wholesale and consumers, as well as whole dried crickets. It provides flour to many of the startups in North America, where there are only a few cricket farms. In the US, Aspire Food Group, pioneer of cricket flour with the Aketta mark, expanded its activities by buying the cricket energy bar brand EXO in 2018.
Tiny Farms, a US cricket farm. was in the news for one of their lenders being a member of the Zuckerberg
family, but s of 2018 does not seem to have expanded significatively.
What is certain is that the cricket flour costs in the West are still very high for cricket flour to be a staple food. European and North American production costs are definitely higher for labor and land, and in some cases premises need also to be heated, for the crickets require a very warm climate. Thailand is far more competitive (and in the future Brazil, China and other emerging countries might be, too, if they convert the existing big insects farms currently rearing crickets as feed). China also has a large production of food grade silkworm that has not been exploited for packaged food.
The “yuck” factor
The market research firm Blueshift Research asked a sample of consumers to contemplate the thought of eating insects. The most likely consumers were between the age of 30 and 44 years, with a middle to high income.
According to a similar survey conducted in the UK by Canadean, out of the 2,000 respondents, 803 would try a processed food with insects.
Both studies highlight that the high number of newspaper articles in the West helped people to understand the reasons to eat bugs.
The research results of the University of Turku Finland, in collaboration with the local Natural Resources Institute show that 70 percent of 585 respondents were interested in eating insects (with a strong component of people under the age of 45, proving that the food taboo tends to consolidate in age and with customs).
There is no doubt that there is a problem of perception in the West. From a rational point of view, there are no reasons to consider an insect disgusting. Snails (escargot), pig’s feet, frogs or cheese (mold), which many western countries eat daily, do not look less “monstrous”. One of the most respected academic studying distaste, the psychologist Paul Rozin, also considers disgust towards insects as fundamentally irrational.
The most extreme reactions are when the insect is whole, unprocessed – the visual impact of a whole locust proposed as food is very different from that of a chips containing cricket or silkworm flour.
When people taste a food containing insects, most claim that “it doesn’t taste like bugs”, even if it is the first time they eat a bug food. They show how their illogical perception toward edible insects works.
In addition there is not “an” insect flavor, but over 2,000 different flavors, as many species are now considered edible.
“Participants really liked the cookies with the cricket flour and roasted crickets”, states a report from Wageningen University. In fact there seems to be no problem with the taste of insects, as confirmed by joint research at Oxford University, London University and Nordic Food Lab. People just need to overcome the preconception to know that the real taste is appreciated by the large majority of the people.
“Eating is a highly relational activity, which intersects with other social practices such as work, school, socialization,” notes Jonas House in the study “Consumer acceptance of insect-based foods in The Netherlands”. This reasoning justifies the attitude of Western consumers in the events, special dinners, and festivals where insects are served. When they are chef prepared, presented as a delicatessen and eaten in a collective context, the insects become highly attractive for the most.
Investment and growth estimates
According to Research firm Global Market Insight (GMI), the edible insect industry category attracting the most investments will start with breeding, and then give way to industrial activities (food processing).
In fact in the initial phase (2013-2017), there have not been many supermarkets that decided to put edible insects on the shelves (at least in the countries in which selling insect products is legal). The start-ups have
relied mostly on online sales, on its website or through one of the new sites specializing in insects. In this context, it is difficult to have meaningful sales figures.
Finally in 2018 Metro Germany, Coop Switzerland, Carrefour Spain and SOK Finland started some tests in their supermarkets, despite the legal “grey” area about selling insects in the EU. Others pilots are going on int the US and Canada.
Global Market Insights (2016) gives the market a superior size of $520 million by 2023, with a growth of 40% per annum. For another researcher, Arcluster, the development would be even more rapid and substantial, with an estimated market of $1.5 billion by 2021. Persistence Market Research (PMR) is in an intermediate range, assuming for 2024, a size of $723 million. This data could convince venture capitalists to invest in the sector.
The new associations to support entomophagy
Together with start ups, the panorama of edible insects has been enriched by a number of national associations representing the interests of the sector and especially promoting the consumption of insects as food (and as feed). In 2013 Robert Nathan Allen founded Little Herds in the USA, the most famous association for promotion of consumption of edible insects in the Americas, specializing in educational and communication initiatives. The North America Edible
Insect Coalition (NAEIC), created two years later by the same Robert Nathan Allen along with some US edible insect start- ups, instead focuses on the industrial aspects and lobbying activities (both for food and feed). In Europe, the most famous is IPIFF, which aims to represent companies from all over Europe, particularly at the institutional level (and for this reason the office is in Brussels, a few steps from the European Parliament). Made up of a mix of startups and medium- sized enterprises, IPIFF promotes the use of insects both as food and feed, with an EU protectionist approach.
In Europe there are also BiiF in Belgium (small, but very active), and FFPIDI in France. In Italy there are no associations, but organizations like Italbugs and Entonote bring on educational activities. In Asia, AFFIA (Asean Food and Feed Insect Association) was founded in 2016. Based in Bangkok, it’s connected with the other associations and promote bugs as both feed and food at Asian level.
Legal status of edible insects in western countries
Entomophagy is a new phenomenon in the West, and as a result, missed a regulation. Public institutions such as Food agencies and customs often find themselves not prepared in the face of new products based on processed insects.
From a geographical point of view, there are three legal trends: the “Anglo-Saxon” countries, where the food agency opinion was enough to allow marketing. Then, non-English-speaking Western countries (the European Union, in particular) which has felt the need to have rules and provide approvals before allowing any marketing,\. And finally non-Western countries, where insects are often a traditional food, but rarely packaged and exported or imported. In these countries, customs and the FDA had never found themselves facing a packaged product containing insects (as insects were usually found in the local market, unpackaged, as a street food) and in the absence of regulations have sometimes inconsistent reactions.
There are cases where the marketing of edible insects is legal, but the import or export is not (for example, Belgium does not accept insects from non-EU countries).
Among other aspects, insects are not included in the Codex Alimentarius, which contains an international guideline for food safety and it is maintained by the United nations (trhough FAO).
Customs offices also often have difficulty in finding reference points. Harmonized System Codes (HS) decided internationally by the World Custom Organization for the nomenclature of goods do not contain any definition that refers to insects as food,
making uncertain what custom duties should be applied.
Crickets were not considered Novel Food, and today the largest breeder in North America is located in Canada. If, however, an insect lacks a history of safe consumption, it might fall back into the Novel Food category and request an evaluation by the Bureau of Microbial Hazards in the Food Directorate.
There are no specific set of standards for edible insects. The FDA has made public its opinion: to be allowed, insects must have been bred for human consumption. Products containing insects must follow average standards like bacteriological tests and GMP certification. The label on the product must include the common name and the insect’s scientific name, and note the potential risks of allergy.
Australia and New Zealand
The two nations share an agency for the maintenance of food safety, called the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). This agency has addressed some cases like the house cricket (Acheta domesticus), and the mealworm (Tenebrio Molitor) deciding that they are not a Novel Food and can be imposed and sold.
According to a 2015 decision of the European Parliament, insects fall into the category of “Novel Foods” and consequently are subject to a lengthy approval process. Five countries did not accept this interpretation and explicitly permit the marketing and consumption of insects. These are Belgium, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland. In some other countries there is a certain degree of tolerance (France, for example). From January 2018, a new Novel Food is in place in the Eu, and the application is less expensive and lengthy (although still hard to deal with for a start up).As of May 2018, 4 applications have been submitted (House Crickets and Mealworms are among them). The standard approval is supposed to take about a year.
The procedure will approve insects by species. Food categories must also be mentioned in the application:house cricket pasta, house crickets chips or house crickets energy bars won’t be approved if not included in the dossier. In other words, dozens of applications may need to be submitted to see a number of food products on the shelves, due to the bureaucracy of the European Union.
The Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) has produced a specific regulation for edible insects (which makes Belgium one of the most advanced nations in t erms of entomophagy). The FASFC approved ten insects: two types of cricket (Acheta domesticus and Gryllodes Sigillatus), two types of locust, three variants of moths (mealworm), two types of moths (greater wax moth, lesser wax moth) and silkworms. They have specifically detailed rules for breeding and sale, and no insects bred outside of the European Union is accepted.
The Netherlands is home to some mealworm and cricket farms for human consumption, including the leader Protifarm (and its subsidiary Kreca), as well as some start-ups active in the marketing and production of edible insects. Its legal basis is not clear, and the public body responsible for food safety (NVWA) has refused to comment.
The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) believes that the whole insects (including flour, if coming from whole insects) does not fall under the EU Novel Food legislation. As a result, imports from non- EU countries is possible, following the danish regulation on edible insects.
The control of food in Germany is a task of the 16 federal states. The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), fulfil only some coordination functions. Therefore, the BVL position is not legally binding and it is aligned with the EU commission decision: insects or parts of insects are novel food and cannot be sold in Germany until a procedure for Novel Food approval has been finalized.
The Food Safety Agency (FSA) gave a favorable opinion to the sale, consumption and import of edible insects. Insects are also possible, for human and for feed consumption for aquaculture (but not as animal feed). Great Britain considers edible insects outside the context of the European regulation on Novel Food. bThe future is uncertain, because of Brexit.
The Conseil Fédéral passed a law in 2016 (which took effect on May 1, 2017) allowing the sale and consumption of three species: crickets, locust and mealworms. The Swiss food agency then released a very restrictive regulations and importing to Switzerland of packaged insect food is forbidden. Importing whole insects is theoretically possible, but close to impossible due to the requirements.
Examples in non-western countries
The countries of South East Asia have a food tradition of entomophagy, but do not have regulations relating to breeding, sale and export. Thailand, the world’s largest breeder of crickets, is working on the creation of guidelines for breeding. The ACFS (Thai government agency for the safety of agricultural products) is expected to release the Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) for the breeding of crickets by the end of 2017. A set of preliminary guidelines for GAP was made public by the University of Khon Kaen. Even in China, insects are a common culinary ingredient in many regions, but there are no mentions in food law. An exception is the silkworm (silkworm pupae), which was included in 2014 in the list of foods allowed by the Ministry of Health. China is the world’s largest producer of silk and silkworms are available in very large quantities (they are also exported for food consumption, for example to Thailand). The government of South Korea has launched a process of legalization of some edible insects in 2011. In the list there are mealworm, crickets (not the usual Acheta Domesticus, but the Gryllus bimaculatus species) and some larvae. Following this preliminary process, in 2016, the KFDA (Korean Food and Drug Administration) has classified crickets and mealworms as normal food, without restrictions. It is expected that other insects will be added soon to the eligibility list.