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 (Acheta domesticus and Gryllus bimaculatus), silkworm (Bombix Mori) and moths (Tenebrio Molitor) 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 (DeFoliart, and others). This 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; and the dissemination of their publications. In 2013, a report produced by the FAO headquarters in Rome on edible insects has been downloaded by 9 million people. Other documents created by the FAO Asia-Pacific headquarters based in Bangkok have also fueled a broad debate.
In the same period, some young Americans (Pat Crowley, founder of Chapul in 2012, for example, and the founders of Exo Protein) have begun to create 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 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.
The Western market has different characteristics of entomophagy than Asia, Africa and South America, where insects as food have always been an economic reality.
Note: the vast world of insects as feed for livestock will not be part of this article.
From whole bugs to the 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, a Thai company founded by an Englishman, 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. Again, crickets and moths (mealworm) 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 (tenebrio molitor) or locusts may be perceived as more disgusting than crickets. Crickets 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). Also, crickets live among the plants and not in the soil like worms (the crickets used to produce flour are actually farmed in plastic or concrete pens).
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 made by a couple dozen startups in western countries.
The aforementioned Exo Protein and Chapul are the best known companies (Exo, in particular, for having received funding from venture capitalists for $5 million). But there are many more start-ups that have launched this type of product between 2013 and 2017 including Crobar (UK, winner of a World Food Innovation Awards 2016), 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% or even less), presumably to maintain a low retail price despite the high cost of cricket flour.
Cricket flour (also called cricket powder, for technically it is not a flour) has been produced for only a couple of years and mostly 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 2017) is around 50 USD per kg. In Thailand (the country that produces more crickets for human consumption than anywhere in the world), seven local manufacturers have prices ranging between 19 and 28 USD per kg. A food that consists entirely of cricket flour would have difficulty accessing the market because of the price, and only a couple of companies are venturing above 10% cricket content (Bugsolutely Cricket Pasta and ProPro Energy Bar, both based in Thailand, where reaching 20% of flour content is more feasible).
The breeding of insects for conversion into flour
The world eats hundreds of species of insects, but their rearing is rarely studied. An exception is the silkworm pupae (Bombix Mori), which is bred in China for its cocoon. The silkworm is then cooked and sold as food as it is a legal food item in China. It is also popular in Cambodia, and in Korea under the name of beondegi.
Crickets are also very popular in some countries. The motherland of cricket rearing is Thailand (northern and north-east) where 22,000 small farmers will produce 7,500 tonnes (according to an estimate from the University of Khon Kaen, other estimates point to 3,000. Since this is an informal economy, it is difficult to have exact data). This production is entirely for human consumption, not for animal feed.
For farmers, breeding is an extracurricular activity often done by women in their spare time, partly for personal use and partly for resale. 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. Some well-known brands of feed for chickens have re-packaged their product (they just trimmed it thinner) specifically for crickets. The containers (breeding cages) are rather cheap, and often simply consist of concrete cylinders, plastic boxes or wooden crates, which are positioned under a roof and surrounded by a protection net. After maturing for 5 weeks, the crickets are usually boiled and then transported under ice to the main fresh produce markets in Thailand (Bangkok, Thai Thalad and Khlong Thoei). Some start-ups buy the crickets and dry them out in an oven (usually in a tray oven, normal gas or electric ovens, which cost little but have high energy consumption and long drying times), 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 the European Union, due to the current regulations, there are very few insect farms. Protifarm, and its subsidiary Kreca, breed crickets and mealworms in Holland, and then they market them in a dried version as well as flour.
The Canadian Entomo Farms is known to be the largest cricket farm in the western world, with an industrial area of more than 60,000 sq ft. They resell the cricket flour both wholesale and at retail level (as a consumer product to cook), 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, appears to have resumed production of the flour after a break in 2015, and now has a staff of more than 20 people.
Even Big Cricket Farms, an “urban” cricket farm, seems to have encountered initial difficulties (due to a problem with the water, according to a statement by the company) which forced it to suspend its activity for a certain period, but still claims to have a market with production growing strongly. Another breeder of American crickets, Tiny Farms, was in the news for one of their lenders being a member of the Zuckerberg family. Based in California, the company assumes that the minimum size of an urban area for breeding crickets should be more than 200 square meters, to keep costs reasonable.
Final mention should be All Things Bugs, an American start-up focused on cricket flour production. Their production takes a different approach as they pre-grind the crickets before drying them with a high pressure spray technique, which allows them to have a particularly fine powder.
What is certain is that the 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 farms currently rearing crickets as feed).