The day is nearing when moms around the world may tell their kids to “sit down and eat your crickets!”
Bug protein — grasshoppers, crickets and the appropriately named mealworms — is crawling to your grocer’s shelves. While a niche choice, demand is soaring as beef and pork lose customers for health and environmental reasons. One can even find an “Amazon Choice” for cricket powder (“100% pure crickets. Twice as much protein as beef.”)
While bug cuisine may cause retching or bad jokes, entrepreneurs are dead serious about their products and are drawing investors who share their enthusiasm.
“Now is the time to go mainstream — especially with processed, packaged mass products like crackers, pasta, chips with insect powder as an ingredient,” Massimo Reverberi, founder of Bangkok-based blended bug-protein startup, Bugsolutely, said in an interview with Karma.
The worldwide market for edible insects is growing 24% a year and will reach $1.18 billion by 2023, according to data from Meticulous Research reported by Reuters last year. While that’s just a flea-sized speck of the global $12 trillion food market, the need for protein is rising in line with an expanding population, the group said.
For the time being, the wretch factor remains a hurdle to wide acceptance, which was confirmed in reports last April that cited an Oklahoma State University study that found 57% of those surveyed were disgusted by the thought of cricket flour cookies.
Still, entrepreneurs have high hopes, and bet consumers will come around.
“The edible insect consumer market is still pretty small, but considering that it just started, that is normal,” Reverberi says. Citing the European Union’s authorization list, he notes crickets and mealworms should be approved before the year ends.
Falling prices may also encourage consumers to try BBQ mealworms. The price of cricket flour is dropping steeply, from $50 to $30 per kilogram, Reverberi said, stoking opportunity for mass-market suppliers that mix the powder into other foods for a health boost.
While some bug startups target the fitness market with energy bars, edible insects are more than just protein, says Reverberi, whose pasta is branded sustainable, nutty and nutritious, featuring all nine essential amino acids.
He adds that he just received an undisclosed amount of funding from the Australian Venture Capital firm Artesian to concoct a new bug product. “We definitely see an interest in food accelerators in supporting insects as food,” he says, citing Brinc and BitsxBites as examples.
The dominant ingredient is crickets, due to their credentials as being sustainable and nutritious. U.S. supplier Exo is backed by investors include influencer Tim Ferriss and sells cricket protein bars. Another American company, Detroit Ento, sells locally reared crickets. Sydney-based Edible Bug Shop, run by entomologist and food scientist Skye Blackburn, peddles Australian-farmed cricket fare. Two alternative ventures, Pennsylvania-based Candy Favorites and California’s Hotlix, sell sweet bug treats, as does the European firm Insectes Comestibles.
Innovation consultant Mike Plishka is less upbeat than Reverberi about the outlook for bug-protein players because of a hurdle he frames as mental or cultural. Unless judged fascinating objects of beauty, insects are squashed or exterminated, Plishka says, echoing the Oklahoma research indicating aversion. The image has to change, he says.
“The challenge for any startup, then, is in the brand: the brand message,” Plishka said. The products have to avoid triggering cultural hang-ups, he says.
That means no package pictures of crickets or some guy chomping mealworms, he says. The focus should be on high protein and environmentally friendly protein, he says. He adds that, as with Bugsolutely, making insect protein blends and distributing samples extensively can help a brand go mainstream, aided by sampling and canny branding.
“It’s essential that more be done where the rubber meets the road. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more marketing campaigns that enable people to sample. Terms like ‘non-animal based protein’ should be leveraged.”
Any pain involved in insect slaughter is unlikely to deter consumers, he says, noting that we routinely step on bugs. Likewise, the suffering undergone by large, farmed animals deters few from eating meat, he says.
Certainly, he says, farming insects is technically “very feasible”: in Thailand alone some 20,000 insect farms operate.
Worldwide, the insect farming process is largely manual. Industrialization and innovation will supposedly eventuate in line with the demand that Plishka and Reverberi reckon can be spurred by blending and deft marketing – emphasis on palpable benefits rather than the creepy-crawly, icky side.