Buggin' Out

by Monica Johnson

In the United States, insects are typically viewed as pests that gross us out, but 80 percent of the world consumes them on a regular basis—they’re even considered a delicacy in some cultures. And as our worldwide population continues to expand, making sure that everyone has access to nutritious food is a growing challenge. Here at home, for example, one in five Texas households is considered food insecure, meaning they lack access to adequate food because of a shortage of financial or other material resources. To address this problem, many food experts are encouraging folks in the U.S. to consider insects as part of their regular diet.

In short, insects are tiny packages full of proteins and vitamins. And, when compared to other animals that are raised for human consumption, insects require fewer resources, such as land, water, feed and energy. Plus, they emit less waste, i.e., greenhouse gases. But can Americans ever get past the negative connotation associated with consuming insects to consider them a viable food source? Many people think so, as insect-based food startups are popping up from coast to coast. In fact, you don’t have to travel far to find a few, because a hub of bug-munchers exists right here in Austin.

Actually bugs are nothing new to this city—Austin has been hosting a bug-eating festival for more than eight years and is home to Little Herds, a nonprofit dedicated to all things regarding edible bugs. And, more recently, two insect-based food startups have opened in Austin: Hopper Foods and Crickers—both of whom source the cricket flour used in their products from a local farm known as Aspire FG.

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Founding member and CEO of Aspire FG, Mohammed Ashour, says his company is on a mission to address worldwide food insecurity through the promotion of edible insects. They’ve already increased the existing markets in Ghana and in Mexico, the latter a country where grasshoppers have long been a staple. But while Aspire FG was busy focusing on grasshoppers, it started to get requests for crickets—even from chefs in the U.S. They quickly decided to establish a cricket farm to meet demands.

Ashour says they wanted their cricket farm to be close to Mexico, since that’s where most of their product would go, and one city stood out among all the others as a possible farm site. “All signals pointed to Austin,” he says, “which had the perfect culture for this kind of food, this kind of industry. And there were a few insect-based food startups that we had been talking to that happened to be based in Austin.”

Austin turned out to be a good fit, and local chefs quickly embraced the crickets and started to incorporate them into menus. For example, Bryan Butler, butcher and co-owner of Salt & Time, was so intrigued that he created a special version of mortadella (a sausage made from finely ground pork) containing Aspire FG’s crickets. “I thought [the mortadella] turned out really nice and had a really nice flavor,” he says. “Most people just thought [the cricket] was a nut.” He was happy to share the truth, though, and the customer response has been so positive that he’s planning on incorporating crickets into more of his products.

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When Leah Jones and Megan McDonald, the creators of Crickers, a cricket-flour cracker, started serving edible insects at their dinner parties, not all of their friends shared their passion. They discovered, though, that their friends were much more open to trying insects if they were packaged as familiar-looking food. “Putting [insects] into a cracker—and it looks just like a cracker—it’s easier to get your head around that it’s just a healthy cracker,” says McDonald.

Are you ready to hop on the entomophagy (eating insects) train? If so, there are a few things to keep in mind. If you have a shellfish allergy, there’s a good chance you’ll be allergic to insects, and if you’re eating a whole bug, be sure to cook it thoroughly. Also, it’s not recommended to eat insects you find in your home or backyard—not all edible insects are created equal. Instead, purchase them from a reputable farmer.

Right now, the government doesn’t distinguish between insects raised as feed for animals, such as lizards, and those raised for human consumption. “We’re working towards a system that recognizes the quality of the insects we’re farming, but right now we’re fighting an uphill battle,” says Robert Nathan Allen, director of sales at Aspire FG. “While we use organic practices and organic feed for our crickets, the industry is still in its infancy, so there’s very little regulatory oversight. As we work with agencies like the FDA and USDA to define what the standards should be, we’re able to continuously comply with their guidance to grow the industry safely and responsibly. Unfortunately, because there’s no currently defined standards for food-grade or organic crickets, we’re competing with pet-food-grade or imported cricket product prices, and the consumer doesn’t have to be told the difference.”

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The edible insect industry in this country is still in the very early stages, but these visionary startups see great potential. And while we may have a way to go before the custom becomes commonplace, it’s fair to say that we’re well on our way to fully embracing the other, other white meat. “Edible insects will be a part of our food culture,” says Ashour. “The questions are when and how—and who’s going to be a part of writing that history.”

You may read our story on Hopper Foods here.