Will people eat bugs? World Entomophagy takes on a tough market
This week, Food Dive launched a new Food Startups directory that features a wide range of innovative companies in in ingredients, packaging, processing and retail. Among them, you will notice a small niche group emerging that wants to serve up insects to a new generation of consumers.
These startups are not crazy.
A May United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report called for more edible insect farming, with estimates pointing to creepy-crawlies becoming a necessary supplement to Western diets by 2050 due to sustainability issues. Needless to say, interest in human insect consumption, known as entomophagy, has risen in recent months.
Several forward-thinkers, like Harman Singh Johar, were ahead of the curve. Johar is the founder of World Entomophagy, an edible insect supplier with clients ranging from food service companies to private individuals. A recent college graduate, he founded the company out of his dorm room at the University of Georgia in 2010, and it has grown to include over 20 other individuals and an array of insects ranging from crickets and meal worms to scorpions.
Food Dive caught up with Johar to talk the edible bug market, the future of entomophagy and how he got into this increasingly visible niche segment in the first place.
FOOD DIVE: Let's start at the beginning. How did you get the idea to start selling edible insects?
HARMAN SINGH JOHAR: Oh, man. It’s kind of a college story that starts with what just about any good story starts out with. I was chasing this girl at UGA, trying to get her to date me. It had been about a two month process at this point, which sounds kind of sad. I was studying at the time as an entomology student, and I was approached by the department to show David Gracer around Athens when he came to give a lecture. So, I ended up showing him around town and I heard about why eating insects is fantastic—the science behind it, basically. At the time, I thought it was a really interesting idea, but who’s gonna eat bugs?
So the next day, after David left town, I got a call from the girl saying, “Hey, let’s go out.” I ended up taking her out for sushi, and while we were eating, I kind of zoned out. I realized that 20 years ago, no one would be eating raw fish. It kind of hit me like, “Man, I don’t know what we’re gonna be eating 20 years from today. I decided that instead of investing in more beer as a college student, maybe I should invest in bugs. It turned out that I invested in a little bit of both, and I got just drunk enough to invest in a crazy company and it kind of took off.
It’s probably safe to assume at this point that you’re not still raising them in your closet, right?
JOHAR: No. We started out doing that in the first six months. We were raising them in my dorm closet, but those were more for experiments to see how we could raise the insects, what was the most efficient way. That was kind of keeping our overhead at the bare minimum to make sure that I didn’t invest too much money in something that wasn’t going to go anywhere. Now, everything is grown in a warehouse space that’s environmentally sealed. All of the environmental and health precautions are taken, and actually, right now, we’re working with a pretty large insect farm to figure out ways we can grow them in a higher quality and higher mass and cheaper.
(Image Credit: Food Dive)
Did your landlord ever know that you were raising all of these bugs in your closet?
JOHAR: I had two different landlords. One was the University of Georgia, and they had absolutely no idea. Had they had an idea, I would have been kicked out right away. I hid them in my closet, and all of my clothes were all over my bed. I lived in about a 12’ by 8’ apartment—it was a little bit more than that, I think. I lived with another person in the room, and he was really, really understanding, thank god. I kind of got away with hiding it, especially because we weren’t shipping anything out or creating any end products for sale at the time.
Later on, I started growing them out of my college apartment when I moved. Again, there, if the landlord found out, I probably would have gotten thrown out—and maybe fined quite a bit. That’s when we started selling to a few people in the industry to try and get their opinions on the matter. We’d package them in the priority shipping for USPS to ship out, and when I’d go drop them off at the front desk for the mailman to collect, our landlord started asking questions. Every day, we were shipping out like 10 of these packets. “Hey, what are you shipping? Why are you here every day?” I just came up with a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head lie, saying, “I’m just shipping books that I sell on eBay.” [Laughs]
What has it been like going from operating out of your closet to having that warehouse space with 20 people?
JOHAR: It’s been a very kind of run-and-gun process and I’ve been trying to remain as flexible as possible. So we do have about 20 people working on the project, but almost all of them are college students who are doing this either as internships or as favors to me—and they’ll do it on a project-by-project basis. It’s been very strange. We’ve been exposed to a whole lot of new opportunities. The fact that this industry is growing and we happened to get in on it at the right time, it’s been absolutely amazing. Some of the opportunities that are coming our way and some of the effects that we’re having on the world have defined who we are and what we’re gonna be doing in the future with our professions.
Where do you see World Entomophagy in the overall edible insect market?
JOHAR: We’re suppliers. If you’re a company that wants to produce a cricket bar, instead of having to worry about your marketing, branding, creating the product and getting it out there for distribution and also growing your own crickets or worrying that your crickets from a random cricket farm are safe for human consumption and the quality’s good—instead of all that, you can just focus on your marketing and branding, and leave the idea of having those insects to World Ento. We’re a producer and distributor of edible insects to people who want to make a product out of them. If you’re a bakery that wants to have cricket cookies for Halloween, we’re the guys to call.
Who do you think your competitors are in the market?
JOHAR: In the overall scheme of things, I suppose we’ll be taking a little bit of protein share off of the meat market. In terms of competitors, right now, there’s no one that can provide high-quality insects or high-quality insect flour like we can. There are two or three firms that I believe are trying to do what we are, but they haven’t had any products ready that are on the market yet.
What have you noticed since 2010 as far as increasing acceptance to eating bugs?
JOHAR: The two biggest things that we’ve seen are that the market has trended away from mealworms, and now crickets dominate everything. Honestly, the future of this industry lies in crickets. In terms of acceptance, people have been more exposed to the science of why eating insects is so good, it’s become a lot easier to get people to try it. The real big innovation in the industry so far has been the idea of creating flour out of insects—basically just grinding the insects down into a very fine powder and using that in baking, using that in bug burgers and stuff like that. Once we get our bugs down to where you can’t even tell what they are and you can’t even see them in the product, it’s so easy to get people to accept the idea of eating insects.
How can the food industry benefit most from using insects?
JOHAR: In terms of the food industry, we can now cater toward paleo-diet clients that want more carb-consistent foods that feel like breads and so forth. It’s an alternative protein source that’s fantastic for the environment. Theoretically, it’s cheaper than any other protein source we have right now, once you get up to a certain economy of scale. In terms of advantages, it just really offers a new and really refreshing culinary experience. It’s opening the door to the next generation of our food. Not only does it have to be organic and nutritious, but it also has to be environmentally sustainable, so we’re now on the forefront of the next generation of food.
Are there any dangers to consuming insects?
JOHAR: Yes. There are a few different precautions that have to be taken. The first one is, you have to educate your audience so they don’t go out and find insects off the ground and start eating them. Those insects could be exposed to parasites, to chemicals, to pesticides and whatnot. You really want to make sure that what you’re eating comes from a safe and reliable source. You also want to make sure you know what kind of insect you’re eating, because some insects are incredibly detrimental to human health. For example, we have people who order scorpions from us, and some people wanted to order live scorpions, which we can’t do. Scorpions can be very dangerous, especially if you’re highly allergic to their venom. We can process them so the venom is no longer an issue and stuff like that. What it really comes down to is that there are some dangers, just like there are with any food. You could have rancid or spoiled meat and so on. As long as you know the source you’re getting them from is a safe and reliable source, you’ll be fine.
(Image credit: World Entomophagy)
What sort of regulatory concerns do you have to worry about, like say FDA or USDA regulations?
JOHAR: We make sure that all of our insects are raised not just in the environmentally responsible manner for our clients, but in a way that’s safe for human health. We follow a few different health code regulations—all of our insects are processed in a FDA-approved kitchen to make sure that they’re kept separate from other contaminants, that they’re processed in a proper manner and so on and so forth. There are quite a lot of regulations to take into consideration.
It was definitely something we wondered about, as far as whether the FDA or USDA pays much attention yet to insects as food.
JOHAR: I can tell you that they are paying attention to what’s happening and regulations are in the pipeline. There are no edible insect-specific regulations; however, if you’re a company that’s really worth trusting and eating from, you’re going to be following all of the regulations that the FDA has that could apply to insects. We actually have internal regulations to really make sure that our insects are safe. We aim for testing—at least 20-30% of the time—above the industry standard for other products. We make sure that our insects are processed a little bit more than they probably should be, just to make sure that they are really, really safe to eat.
Which are your personal favorites to eat?
JOHAR: My personal favorites—I really do enjoy scorpions, but that’s more because I happen to take it with shots of tequila when I eat them. I really like these things called chapulines, Mexican grasshoppers that are caught in Oaxaca, Mexico. They’re fried in chili and lime, and they taste amazing. They taste like a very spicy Dorito. I absolutely go nuts over them. I’m trying to think of what else is really good. I do enjoy these Ugandan katydids that when you fry them, they taste just like bacon. Those are my two favorites. I’ve had tarantula sushi before. It was quite good. Honestly, my company, we provide the insects as raw ingredients. I’ve seen some chefs do some absolutely mind-blowing things with crickets and create some of the most delectable dishes I’ve ever eaten in my life. Just this summer, we were in Austin, Texas, having a gourmet bug dinner. The chef took our crickets and made this mole sliced chocolate chip cricket cookie out of them, and it was fantastic.
Who do your customers include?
JOHAR: We’re very serious about our clients’ privacy, so I can’t really speak too much to that. I can tell you that there’s everything from the New York Botanical Gardens to Yale University. We’ve catered to just about anyone that’s involved in the environmental side of things. The most interesting clients that we get, we get a lot of private individuals. Just, like, every day, normal folk that will call in and order from us. They’ll be moms, dads and aunties that are like, “Hey, I’ve got a nephew or niece or a son or a daughter and I really want them to be exposed to newer things. Can I have some bugs from you guys?” We have a “Cool Mom and Dad” discount that we apply to them. They’re the ones that will follow up with pictures of their kids with crickets in their mouths, having a blast.
(Image credit: World Entomophagy)
Where do you see the market for edible insects 10 years from now?
JOHAR: I think it’s going to be a very significant part of the food industry. It’ll probably honestly end up very similar to sushi, but with a little bit more of an everyday focus because they’re just so good for us environmentally and so good for us in terms of sustainability. I wouldn’t be surprised to see products that have edible insects on the shelves at Whole Foods or at Trader Joe’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can’t go to the Whole Foods market and go to the freezer section and just pull out a frozen bag of raw crickets for you to cook with at home.
A UN report earlier this year suggested bugs could be a staple of diets worldwide by 2050. Do you think it will happen sooner?
JOHAR: I don’t think that they’ll be a staple of our diet before then, but I do believe that they’ll be very well integrated—kind of like sushi is. I’d say that, in about 10 years, we’ll see them as kind of a normal food that you can go out and eat, and it’ll take maybe another 20-30 years before they really become a “you probably eat them four or five times a week” kind of thing.
What do you think the pros and cons of being ahead of the curve are?
JOHAR: In terms of cons in general and being ahead of the curve, we’re the ones that have the burden of developing the market—of making this go from more than just being a fad that’s gonna be around for maybe a year or two to make it become something that sticks around in our society, like sushi or so on. The pros, we got into this when no one else was around, which meant we had the first-to-market advantage. We have the initial publicity. The idea of eating insects is still kind of crazy and people still kind of recognize that, so it’s very easy to kind of lure in the interested parties. It’s really just another food product that we’re trying to get out there. It’s just another market that we’re trying to develop. I guess one of the biggest pros is it was really easy to get involved into the entomophagy community because no one else was willing to put their money where their mouth was at that time, and we kind of got a lot of street cred really fast. Within six months of being on the scene, we had a product and we were delivering.
Would you like to see more food and beverage industry news and information like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Food Dive email newsletter! You may also want to check out Food Dive's look at 5 food industry acquisitions that will define 2013.
Follow Roger Riddell on Twitter