About one-third of the world’s population eats insects on a regular basis. With good reason. They’re nutritious, far less resource-intensive than cattle, and, we’re told, actually quite tasty.
But entomophagy has never caught on in the West, despite years of advocacy by activists, foodies, and the United Nations. Even if you did want to eat bugs, you can’t just drive down to your local supermarket and buy some. But aside from a few startups, you pretty much either have to find a trendy restaurant that happens to serve them, or raise them yourself. But Icelandic designer and entrepreneur Búi Bjarmar Aðalsteinsson wants to make edible bugs an everyday thing.
His company Crowbar Protein will soon offer a protein bar made, in part, out of cricket flour. His goal is to eventually sell the product in upscale grocery stores everywhere. In the meantime the company is raising money on Kickstarter, where it recently surpassed its $15,000 goal.
They’re called Jungle Bars, and each one contains about 200 calories and eight grams of protein. About 20 percent of each bar comes from cricket flour, and the rest comes from dates, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds. They’re completely free of soy, gluten, dairy, peanuts and tree nuts. What they aren’t free of is bugs.
The ongoing drought in California highlights just how unsustainable much of modern agricultural system is. That’s a huge problem given that according to report published by World Resources Institute in 2013, we need to increase food production by 60 percent to meet the demands of a growing global population.
One of the best ways to do that would be to kick our addiction to meat and dairy and use the farmland and water that goes towards produce livestock feed to grow protein rich plants like soy and hemp instead. The tech industry is throwing its weight behind the problem through meat substitute companies like Beyond Meat, which is backed by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and the non-profit Counter Culture Labs, which aims to create real milk without the need for dairy cows.
But Aðalsteinsson thinks insect protein could be one of the best alternatives of all. People who are allergic to meat alternatives like soy and wheat gluten can eat them. And, eventually, he thinks we might be able to mass-produce insect protein without expending many natural resources at all.
Aðalsteinsson got his start in entomophagy as a product design student at The Iceland Academy of the Arts. “I was about to quit design school because a lot of the projects were about making more stuff,” he explains. “And I didn’t see the point of making more fancy chairs or new cutlery. It didn’t do much for me as a creative person.”
Then he discovered the sustainable design movement, which is all about making do with less stuff. He started researching recycling and sustainable food production and eventually came-up with something he called the Fly Factory, a hyper-efficient environment for raising fly larvae.
His idea is that the Fly Factory could be integrated into commercial kitchens or industrial food processing plants to feed organic waste to flies that will produce massive amounts of edible larvae, creating a zero-waste food production system.
He’s not alone in his quest to find better ways to raise insects, which is one of the biggest non-cultural factors holding back entomophagy. A startup called Tiny Farms, for example, is working on an open source kit for raising insects, hoping to help bug farmers share knowledge and determine the best and most efficient ways to raise their “livestock.” But creating a market for those insects means getting people to at least start thinking about eating them. That’s why Aðalsteinsson decided to move on from insect farming and create insect-based food itself.
“We had chefs trying different things in the beginning, starting with making more meat-like foods like paté and meat pudding, substituting the meat with insects,” Aðalsteinsson says. “Then we went into the bars and candies and came up with Jungle Bar.”
Aðalsteinsson didn’t want Crowbar Protein to rely on farming insects for its products because that would set the launch of the company back by months or years. He knows that western society isn’t quite ready to eat fly larvae. So the team settled on crickets, which are already mass produced and are, if not more appetizing, at least less off-putting to Western customers. He says that even if crickets aren’t the most resource efficient source of protein, they’re still far more efficient than beef or chicken, and could help people get comfortable with the idea of entomophagy.
Aðalsteinsson says the crickets are raised organically in Canada, where the bars will be manufactured to meet both Canadian and U.S. legal standards.
He describes the bars as being crunchy and chocolate. He says that although most people can’t really taste the cricket flour, it does have a distinct taste. “The kind we use have an earthy, mild nutty taste,” he says.
The idea of eating protein blocks made of ground insects might bring to mind an uncomfortable scene from the film Snowpiercer, and Crowbar Protein is acutely aware of that. So instead of marketing the product as a food for the poor, the company plans to market it as a high-end product.
On Kickstarter, a box of six runs $25. Though Aðalsteinsson says costs will likely come down once the bars are being mass produced, it’s hard not to worry that the price might be a barrier to entry even for the insect-curious.
But Aðalsteinsson says he’s already been contacted by distributors interested in putting Jungle Bars on shelves in upscale stores across the U.S., Canada and Europe. “Brands that are portraying themselves as open to new things, trendy,” he says. “Kind of saying ‘We are the store that knows what’s happening in the food culture.”
That may sound like a long shot, but consider the current popularity of sushi in the US. Thirty years ago, only the most adventurous non-Japanese eaters would shell out for raw fish. Today you can buy pre-made sushi boxes at just about any major grocery store chain, right next to the cheese plates, ranch dip, and crudités.
Source Credits: Klint Finley in Wired