Crickets are the new ‘in’ food in Silicon Valley – and in a lot of other places. As Food Trade Trends reported in January, “the concept of eating insects, or being able to buy consumer products made from insects, is hardly new.” In fact, they have long been a staple for people in many countries.
One of the reasons for crickets’ popularity is that they are 70% protein. So when made into cookies and chips, as San Francisco-based Bitty Foods is doing, they make excellent snacks – as workers in start-ups around Silicon Valley are increasingly consuming them.
Proponents note the tiny, chirping bugs are high iron as well as protein, and they can serve as a sustainable alternative to beef or chicken.
Another west coast company focused on crickets is Tiny Farms, in San Leandro, California. It is breeding crickets for mass consumption, and New York-based Exo using them in protein bars. The products are showing up in Silicon Valley break rooms, and investors and entrepreneurs are paying close attention.
“I would say there’s a new [insect-using company] that launches every six months, maybe even more frequently than that,” Exo co-founder Greg Sewitz said recently to The San Jose [California] Mercury News.
In addition to crickets, street vendors across Thailand offer everything from those critters to silk worms.
And in Mexico, fried grasshoppers, or chapulines, are a favorite.
Companies like Exo and Bitty are part of a larger trend of food startups that are replacing meat, gluten and dairy in everyday products. Investors have poured more than $500 million into companies such as plant-based imitation meat maker Impossible Foods of Redwood City and meal replacement Soylent, according to venture capital database CB Insights.
Impossible Foods has raised $183 million from big names including Bill Gates and Google Ventures, and Soylent raked in $21.5 million from backers including Andreessen Horowitz. Investment in these next-generation food startups is on track to hit record growth this year, CB Insights analyst Zoe Leavitt told the Mercury News.
Chocolate-covered insects and lollipops with bugs suspended in transparent, sugary candy have long been available as novelty items, but the crickets-as-protein movement began picking up steam in 2013 with a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The report touted the nutritional benefits of insects and introduced them as a potential solution to a rapidly approaching problem: The world will house 9 billion people by 2050, forcing humans to nearly double their food production using a limited supply of land and water. Crickets need one-twelfth as much food as cattle and half as much as chickens to produce the same amount of protein. They require less water and space to farm, produce minimal amounts of greenhouse gases and can be fed organic waste, according to the report.
“Edible insects are one of the most sustainable forms of protein on the planet,” said Megan Miller, co-founder of San Francisco-based startup Bitty Foods.
But whether they can be used as a more environmentally friendly alternative to other meats will depend on how the insects are farmed and what they are fed. A report published last year by researchers with the University of California-Davis found more study is needed to evaluate the long-term potential of bugs as protein, and concluded “the potential for crickets to supplement the global supply of dietary protein appears to be more limited than has been recently suggested.”
Of the world’s 2,000 types of edible insects, crickets seem to be gaining the most traction in the U.S. They have a neutral flavor — “sort of nutty and toasty with a bit of earthiness,” Miller said — and aren’t as frightening as spiders or scorpions.
“Tech workers are generally the people who are most interested in new trends and in innovation,” Miller said. “I don’t think there’s any place else in the world where you have the intersection of foodies and innovation like you do in the Bay Area. So it’s the natural place to launch a slightly strange product.”
Many companies that make cricket snacks, including Bitty and Exo, get their bugs from Entomo Farms in Canada. But San Leandro’s Tiny Farms is ramping up its own small cricket farm with the hope of providing cricket connoisseurs with a local, low-cost alternative.
Tucked into a warehouse it shares with artists working on Burning Man projects, biotech firms, a 3-D printing company and a rabbit supply store, the Tiny Farms space is filled with the incessant chirping of millions of crickets crawling over pallets that resemble broken apart egg cartons. Co-founder and CEO Daniel Imrie-Situnayake hopes to have his bugs on the market by the end of September. His long-term goal is to make crickets a realistic protein option by reducing their price — a pound of cricket flour now costs about $20, he said.
“If a pound of beef cost $20, no one would eat burgers anymore,” Imrie-Situnayake said. “So we really need to get the price even lower.”
For the more daring, Tiny Farms also deep fries whole crickets, legs, antennae and all, and serves them with lime, salt and chili powder. The end result is a greasy morsel with a light, airy crunch and the earthy flavor of a pumpkin seed.
“They’re a really good bar snack,” Imrie-Situnayake said, “good with chips and guac.”