“The interesting thing about crickets is that with animals you can only eat a small percentage of them, but with crickets, there are benefits in the whole thing – you can eat it whole.”
Chirps, a cricket-based crisp and protein powder maker from the US is on a mission to change attitudes in the Western world that sees insects as pests, not as a sustainable and tasty food source.
Chirps founder Laura D’Asaro was an African Studies major in college when she ate her first bug, while studying abroad in Tanzania.
“It was a fried caterpillar, by a street vendor,” she says, “So I bought the fried caterpillar, was a little hesitant, because you know I’d never eaten a bug before and I grew up a vegetarian. But I ate it and I was pleasantly surprised – I thought it tasted like lobster.”
In many parts of the world, insects are a common snack. In Mexico they have chapulines, grasshoppers, eaten in tacos. Or, says D’Asaro, “You can also get them seasoned and you can eat them with Doritos.” Barbequed scorpions on skewers are also a common street food in China and across Asia.
This encounter with a tasty caterpillar led D’Asaro to start researching why people eat bugs abroad but not at home in the US. She says, “I came across crazy facts around sustainability and health and just the entire food system. I asked the question what is it going to take to take this food and get people past the ‘ick’ factor? And that’s what I’ve been doing the last few years asking what is it exactly about insects that grosses people out and how can we change the format to get past those barriers.”
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Chirps came up with the solution of a cricket flour, “So you don’t have to see the bug but you can know about it conceptually and get the benefits still.”
The tortilla chips that Chirps have produced are delicious, with a nice amount of crunch and flavouring.
D’Asaro says, “One thing people are scared of is ooey-gooey, like worms, so we wanted to get pretty far away from that, so that’s why we thought chips because crunch is a lot less scary than ooey-gooey, slimy. Putting it into a familiar form into a chip, the idea is you look at it and the first thing you register is that it is food.”
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There is a clear rationale in D’Asaro’s decision to use crickets. She explains, “There are over 2,000 varieties of insects all over the world, some are sweet, some are sour, some are high protein, some are high fat, it’s a whole undiscovered food group.
“But it came down to a few things, one was we needed a differentiating factor, so we needed to reinvent bugs beyond just being bugs. In protein-obsessed America, [the protein factor] seemed like a good one. And crickets are one of the highest protein insects, and because they’re high protein, low fat they can be easily made into a powder.”
Chirps’ second product is a protein powder that works like the popular whey protein powder, but with a healthy dose of pure ground-up cricket.
“The second factor was farmability, crickets are one of the few species that have been farmed at scale for quite a while. In south-east Asia they’ve been farmed for human consumption for thousands of years, here in the States they’ve been farmed for pet food and fish food. So there were already farms doing it, so it’s not a big difference, but you have to process it differently. Basically, it came down to a choice behind mealworms and crickets, and crickets had higher protein and it’s just going to be more difficult to get anything called mealworms [into a Western food chain].”
Changing a food attitude
D’Asaro is optimistic that she can change the current anti-bug as food attitude because it’s been done before with raw fish.
She says, “Sushi is a good example, it’s something our grandparents didn’t eat, but it’s pretty popular now. If I asked you if you ate sea urchin, you might get a similar response to insects but when you put it into the context of sushi then it becomes something interesting.
“We spent nine months calling the health department pretty much every week in Massachusetts and they kept telling us our job is to keep bugs out of the food, we’re not going to let you put bugs in the food.”
The additional benefits of insects as food
There are several health benefits behind eating bugs, but the thing that is likely to lift the Chirps project higher is the sustainability factor. A pound of cricket protein needs a single gallon of water to farm and produce, while soy protein powders need 216 gallons and whey needs 1,000 gallons, according to Chirps’ research. Also, a pound of protein from beef needs 10 pounds of feed, a pound of protein from pork needs five pounds of feed and chicken needs 2.5 pounds. But crickets? Our noisy friends only need 1.7 pounds of feed to provide us with a pound of protein as our food.
Whey, the most common basis for muscle-building protein powder, is made from milk which leads to the associated problems of livestock farming, like desertification of grasslands and too much methane production, damaging the environment. Whey also causes problems for the lactose-intolerant, while cricket powder, says the Chirps brand, reduces inflammation and improves gut health.
The ultimate goal of Chirps is to make insects so acceptable in our food that they are used widely, as an ingredient in breakfast cereals or as a whole meat alternative.
So the gentle chirping of crickets might make you think of sitting in a rocking chair on your porch on the savannah or evening falling on safari in the Maasai Mara. But in a few years, chirping crickets will be making you think, when’s dinner?