A TWITCHING mass of European house crickets clings to a maze of meshed cardboard in a tent about the size of a minivan. They are inside their new home, an abandoned warehouse in Youngstown, Ohio, where they will prosper until being killed, ground into "flour" and baked into cookies and tortilla chips.
These are the first insects in the US to be farmed for human consumption. Big Cricket Farms, the company running the warehouse, is working with insect food start-up Six Foods in Boston, who will make the cricket chips (pictured right) – which they call "chirps" – and cookies. They are among many adventurous eaters hoping to carve out a niche for a protein-rich, environmentally friendly food source that could transform the modern diet.
Laura D'Asaro and Rose Wang, who founded Six Foods, plan to get around the yuck factor with insect-based foods that don't look like the creepy-crawlies they come from. Their cricket flour is about 70 per cent protein by weight – the idea is to blend it into recipes for chips and cookies alongside the other typical ingredients. The foods come out looking and tasting like things people are already used to eating, only with a boost in nutritional value.
Six Foods isn't the first company to make a foray into insect-based foods. Other start-ups like Chapul and Exo are already making protein bars with crickets in them.
The environmental benefits are hard to ignore. A United Nations report released last year showed that farmed insects can provide dietary protein far more efficiently than most livestock. It takes 10 kilograms of feed to get a kilogram of beef, for example, but only 1.7 kilograms of feed is needed to produce a kilogram of cricket. Pound for pound, insect farming emits 1 per cent of the greenhouse gases that raising ruminants like cows and sheep does – and it requires far less water.
There is more to farming and selling edible insects than making them less icky, however. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the US National Institute of Food and Agriculture, says there are "numerous challenges, including lack of knowledge about the basic biology of many species that potentially may serve as food".
Information about the parasites and pathogens that may affect insect farms is also lacking. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it doesn't know of any relevant legislation that covers the production of insects as human food, which makes farming them a risky business.
This results in some legal quirks. "You are not allowed to slaughter your animal on the farm," says Arnold Van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and one of the authors on the UN report. "Because insects are animals they are subject to the same legislation. You need a separate slaughterhouse, which is totally crazy."
Until now, insects for human consumption in the US have been purchased from companies that breed them to be sold as pet food. But it is hard to ensure that the entire supply chain is safe for human consumption, says Kevin Bachhuber, who founded Big Cricket Farms, as it isn't subject to the same level of scrutiny as food destined for people. This means there is a lack of transparency as to what the insects are being fed. "Some of those places are feeding their insects gone-off dog food, and that's obviously not OK for human consumption," he says.
That's where Big Cricket Farms comes in. "Farming insects is risky, and we can't afford the remotest chance that our insects are contaminated with feed that's not fit for humans," he says. "I want the USDA to come inspect this place when we've been up and running for a few months and have them say, 'Yeah, this is how it should be done'."
Even a whiff of a problem, like a food-borne illness caused by eating insects, would be a disaster. "It would tank our entire newborn industry," says Bachhuber.
Sampling some of Six Foods's cricket concoctions, one could be convinced that they will catch on. The chips and the cookies taste almost normal; the hint of "bugginess" – an earthy, nutty flavour often talked about in the field of insect cuisine – is barely detectable.
Proof in the pudding
Less-processed insect meat is a different matter. Cricket sushi, for example, replaces the cool yielding flesh of raw fish with a crunch that feels very out of place. The insects sit better among the vegetables and noodles of a stir fry.
Chefs around the world are hard at work experimenting with insects to make new and appetising foods. Nordic Food Lab – a non-profit spun out from Danish restaurant Noma – began a project to make insects delicious to the Western palate in May last year. Their chefs believe that making insects tasty could spark a wave of interest in entomophagy (see "Taste test").
Nurdin Topham, now head chef at Nur in Hong Kong, was involved in the work, and noticed that the flavour of the insects changed depending on what they had been fed. "The diets that the insects were fed made quite a significant difference to the quality, taste and freshness, in the same way as shellfish or prawns," he says. "There was a definite difference."
Indeed, Tiny Farms in Berkeley, California, is already doing this. It uses a process called gut loading – in which crickets are fed certain flavoured or nutrient-rich foods just before they are killed – to rear crickets that taste like honey and apples, or that are high in vitamin C. Bachhuber says Big Cricket Farms is planning to do the same on a bigger scale once it is fully up and running. He currently feeds the crickets with organic chicken feed, but plans to eventually use food waste from around Youngstown.
Over the coming months Bachhuber expects the 5000 insects in his first Youngstown facility to breed, producing 1 million crickets every four weeks – enough to produce 113 kilograms of cricket flour. When the warehouse reaches full capacity, he expects that number to reach 700 kilograms.
Paul Rozin, who studies the psychology of disgust at the University of Pennsylvania, says new and unusual foods tend to make their way into popular culture from the top down, starting with those who can afford to dine in expensive, adventurous restaurants.
Sushi is one example of this trend. The idea of eating raw fish was largely foreign to people in the US before the 1960s, but now sushi restaurants can be found almost anywhere. "Sushi originally started with Japanese businessmen in Los Angeles. It was just a local ethnic thing for them, but then they would invite their American counterparts," says Rozin. "It's true of most unusual cuisine – people who are wealthy and adventurous do something, and then it becomes trendy."
But even if nobody ever eats crickets as anything other than Six Foods's protein flour, they still have the potential to play an important role in improving public health and the environment, says Rozin. "If Pepsico starts using cricket flour as 3 per cent of Cheetos, then you've got a major impact."