The Future of Food: Will Bugs be Labeled Organic?

Stephen DeAngelis

December 22, 2014

This time of year people think a lot about treats — candy canes hung on Christmas trees, visions of sugarplums, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Few people, however, are thinking about roasted grasshoppers or chocolate-covered ants. There is an old joke about a diner who summons over his waiter and states, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.” To which the waiter responds, “Sir, please keep your voice down or everyone will be asking for one.” In the future, finding a bug in your food might not be unusual. In fact, the bug might be your meal (or at least part of it). Jennifer Holland (@jsholland36) reports, “The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reminds us that there are more than 1,900 edible insect species on Earth, hundreds of which are already part of the diet in many countries. In fact, some two billion people eat a wide variety of insects regularly, both cooked and raw; only in Western countries does the practice retain an ‘ick’ factor among the masses.” [“U.N. Urges Eating Insects,” National Geographic, 14 May 2013] Getting over that “ick factor” probably won’t be easy. In fact, Nicholas Robinson (@NicholasRbinson), Associate Editor of Food Manufacture, reports, “Insects are unlikely to become a viable solution to feeding the increasing global population if western attitudes towards them remain negative.” [“Poor attitudes in the west will stop insects being food,” Food Manufacture, 4 November 2014]

 

If you live in a western nation, you might be thinking, “That’s fine by me.” But the concern about being able to feed the 9 billion plus people who are predicted to be living on this planet by the middle of this century is very real and insects could provide a valuable piece to the food security puzzle. Holland explains:

“Many insects are packed with protein, fiber, good fats, and vital minerals — as much or more than many other food sources. One example: mealworms, the larval form of a particular species of darkling beetle that lives in temperate regions worldwide. Mealworms provide protein, vitamins, and minerals on par with those found in fish and meat. Another healthful treat: small grasshoppers rank up there with lean ground beef in protein content, with less fat per gram. And raising and harvesting insects requires much less land than raising cows, pigs, and sheep. Insects convert food into protein much more efficiently than livestock do — meaning they need less food to produce more product. They also emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock (think gassy cows).”

Studies have shown that we can retrain our brains to like foods we normally refrain from eating and such retraining may be necessary in the future. I suspect that the retraining effort will begin by disguising bug protein by mixing it with other foods or disguising in it in another form. In fact, most of us already willingly consume bug parts in the foods we eat without knowing it. Rachel Feltman (@rachelfeltman) writes, “If you think that ‘red’ is the best flavor of candy (which it obviously is) then you’ve got to face the facts: The most natural way your candy could be colored is using ground-up cochineal insects. These little critters have been dyeing things red for a long, long time. … Like many bug-based additives, this red dye used to be listed as just another ‘natural color’ on ingredient lists. But since some people are allergic to cochineal insects, the dye is now listed separately as carmine.” [“Your favorite candy probably has bugs in it, and that’s really okay,” The Washington Post, 28 October 2014] She adds, “Besides, basically everything you eat is full of bugs anyway: The Food and Drug Administration reports that chocolate can have as much as 60 insect fragments per 100 grams before they’ll take action.” You might be thinking, “Too much information.” The point is that we all eat bug parts everyday but nevertheless enjoy the foods we eat. That’s why concealing bug protein in products (rather than eating them whole in their natural state) is much more likely to be how we are introduced to the nutritional benefits of insects.

 

You might not consider yourself an entomophagist (i.e., someone who makes it a practice of eating insects), but entomophagy has a history that is as old as humanity itself. According to the Insects Are Food website, “The word ‘entomophagy’ derives from the Greek term éntomos, or éntomon, meaning, ‘insect(ed),’ literally meaning ‘cut in two,’ referring to an insect’s segmented body, and ph?gein, ‘to eat.’ Combined, the two terms mean, ‘insect eating’.” There are few spots in the western world where entomophagy is getting a toehold. Here are a few examples:

 

The Netherlands

RTÉ News reports that a major Dutch supermarket chain recently unveiled “its first-ever range of insect-based products,” [“Dutch supermarket chain unveils insect-based product range,” RTÉ News, 30 October 2014] The article notes, “Customers at Jumbo stores in two northern Dutch cities will be able to purchase ‘buggy balls’, ‘buggy burgers’ and ‘buggy crisps’.” Laura Valks, a spokesperson for the Jumbo chain, stated, “Edible insects are not only healthy, but sustainable and give the opportunity to do something about replenishing ailing food resources.”

 

The United Kingdom

Dean Irvine (@deansirvine76) reports that Ento, a UK-based food startup, “is developing products like insect seasoning and ‘croquettes’ for a potential commercial release next year. Currently they source their insects from an organic collective in Spain.” [“Crickets, grubs and bugs: Will insects be the next Thai food phenomenon?CNN, 6 November 2014] Jacky Chung, director of Ento, told Irvine, “Making the products like this should make it easier for Western palates to accept. … Most people are very disconnected from where their food is from, they generally don’t want to see something on their plate that resembles the animal it’s from.”

 

United States

Tafi Mukunyadzi (@TafiMukunyadzi) reports that a company called Six Foods, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, is also introducing insect-based products. [“Cambridge-based company brings insects to dinner table,” The Daily Free Press, 11 October 2014] Founders of Six Foods, Laura D’Asaro, Rose Wang, and Meryl Natow, told Mukunyadzi that their first product is something called “Chirps,” a baked chip product “made from beans, rice and cricket flour.” Anya Hoffman (@anya_hoffman) reports that, in addition to Six Foods, a number of other U.S. companies are getting into the insect food business. [“Inside the Edible Insect Industrial Complex,” Fast Company, 3 November 2014] Other companies include: Big Cricket Farms and Millennium Farms, which raise crickets solely for human consumption; Bitty Foods, which is selling cricket-based pastries; Exo, which makes cricket-based protein bars; All Things Bugs, which makes a nutrient-dense cricket powder; and Tiny Farms, a San Francisco–based edible-insect consulting firm. Hoffman continues:

“Wherever there is a marketable product, there is a supply chain. In this case, entrepreneurs like [Kevin] Bachhuber [owner and founder of Big Cricket Farms] are rushing to feed America’s newfound hunger for edible insects. Turns out that a whole ecosystem — including, of course, bug business consultants — has sprung up to prop up the estimated $20 million and growing industry. … One of the most challenging issues facing this new, rapidly growing industry is record-keeping. In order to comply with food safety standards, everything the crickets eat or do must be logged. And because the life cycle of insects is so distinct from those of traditional livestock — it takes less than seven weeks for a cricket to grow to its ideal, tastiest age (‘slightly pubescent,’ says Kevin Bachhuber) — existing farm-management models don’t really apply.”

There is really no end to what creative chefs could do with insect-based products. Ento’s Chung is correct that most people don’t want to see food that resembles the animal it’s from and, at least in the West, that is particularly true of insects. With so many insects to choose from and so many flavors that can be produced, I predict that the insect-based food manufacturing industry will become big users of cognitive computing systems that can help them match all of the variables to create products that fit Western tastes. There are, however, some concerns.

 

Ben Reade (@benreade), new Head of Culinary Research and Development at Nordic Food Lab, cautions, “Putting insects into nondescript chunks of protein, I hesitate to say it, but it’s very dystopian. When you’re dealing with battery-farmed insects and turning them into chunks of protein you’re on a slippery slope. The way I see that going is massive insect farms in north Africa, where they’re grown on the cheapest land in the planet, they’re fed antibiotics before they’re even ill, they’re shipped to Europe to be turned into these nondescript chunks of protein and they’re formed into the shape of chicken breasts and then shipped back to Africa where chicken is an unaffordable luxury.” [“Grub’s up: can insects feed the world?” by Trevor Baker, The Guardian, 5 August 2014] Despite concerns like those voiced by Reade, insect-based products are likely to grow in popularity and play a significant role in the future of food. Still, I don’t expect anybody to have visions of sugared crickets dancing in their heads this holiday season.