After centuries of being viewed as a pest in the U.S., growing consumer demand for sustainable protein has given the humble cricket a chance to sing.
From insect-enriched bread, cookies and crackers to seasoned and whole roasted bugs, this segment has legs. According to Global Market Insights, the worldwide insects market could top $522 million by 2023, with beetles, grasshoppers and crickets positioned as the most promising growth drivers. In the U.S., a number of edible insect manufacturers have come to market in the past few years, with brands such as Chirps, Bitty Food and Exo Protein cropping up at niche retailers like MOM's Organic Market.
And though the average Western consumer may still be leery of munching on crickets in any form, Darren Goldin —co-founder of Canadian insect supplier Entomo Farms — is struck by how quickly the market has grown in just a few years. Since launching the company with his brothers in 2014, Entomo now supplies its cricket flour to 50 North American companies, including Loblaws, Canada's largest supermarket. The company also sells branded cricket flour and whole roasted crickets directly to consumers through its website.
At the Institute of Food Technologists Conference in Chicago this summer, Goldin talked with Food Dive about how Entomo approaches education-based marketing, why consumers are attracted to their products and trends on the horizon for the larger market.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity.
FOOD DIVE: What opportunity did you see in the insect space when you first founded Entomo Farms?
DARREN GOLDIN: My younger brother and I own another company [Reptile Feeders] and we produced five species of insects for the pet trade. All of my brothers have this passion for sustainability and ecology… organic production, sustainable systems. In 2013 the United Nations put up the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] report, Edible insects: future prospects for food and food security. And so we came across that document and started talking about how incredible an opportunity this might be to be involved in a business that can have a truly positive impact on nutrition and sustainability. That was in 2013… I think Chapul had just launched their bars, the first company to do it. And we thought, you know what? Let’s give it a try and see what happens.
How much has this segment changed since you first entered the scene?
GOLDIN: Four years later, I wouldn’t say [insects as food] is well-known [in North America], but a majority of people that you speak to have heard about it… We supply over 50 companies. When we first launched, we didn’t have a single customer. So the transformation has been, I think, fairly staggering for an ingredient that has just entered the market and has seen such traction in such a short period of time.
Would you say this segment is becoming more competitive, or is it still largely untapped?
GOLDIN: There are certainly more people farming now, but the market’s also opened up so much that I would not say that it’s flooded with supply by any means.
You provide a lot of recipe ideas for consumers on your website. Is that education key to making consumers comfortable with eating bugs?
GOLDIN: I think so. I’m not the social media person, but I think we do interact a lot with our customers… to educate them about what you can do with the [cricket] powder. It’s definitely been a necessary part of what we do because it’s such a new ingredient, people don’t know what to do with it. There [are] very few… natural ingredients that are as versatile as pure cricket powder. You can do anything with it from sweet to savory, from breakfast to mains.
What draws consumers to your products? The sustainability factor? The protein content?
GOLDIN: If you look at the majority of our consumer base, it's a combination of people who are interested in health and sustainability. And those two things do go very much hand in hand. … Early on, when we first started, there was very little research about crickets. … There wasn't that kind of scientific data that North American or Western consumers like to have. So as we've progressed… the scientific literature is basically supporting all the health benefits and nutrition benefits and now the fiber, and the whole story around the prebiotic function of the fiber. I think the focus is shifting to health, but people who care about health also care about sustainability side.
There [are] very few… natural ingredients that are as versatile as pure cricket powder. You can do anything with it from sweet to savory, from breakfast to mains."
Co-founder, Entomo Farms
On the consumer side of the business, who is your typical customer?
GOLDIN: I would say that it's probably millennial-heavy, but at the same time it’s a completely unpredictable demographic and we learned that very early on. You can go do a demo in a grocery store and… if you had a group of millennials and an 80-year-old woman, you couldn't predict people's reactions. I think millennials are much more interested in health and sustainability, but when people come into contact with what we do for the first time, you cannot predict [interest in insects] based on demographics.
What do the majority of the manufacturers you supply to use your products for? Bars, shakes?
GOLDIN: We certainly early on were very bar-heavy, and I would say now based on sales volume we aren’t bar-heavy. So the product lines are definitely diversifying. Loblaws launched a private label [cricket] brand in Canada this year, so that’s of course a huge customer for us and they’re selling the whole powder. Can you imagine seeing that in the grocery store 10 years ago? [This category] went from not existing to Canada’s largest retail chain launching cricket powder products.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you faced scaling the company?
GOLDIN: Certainly one of the challenges is that there’s a huge lack of resources. It’s very expensive, because really it’s trial and error and… small-scale lab research does not always translate well when you scale. It’s impossible to predict.
Have you considered sourcing ingredients from insects besides crickets?
GOLDIN: We have a pilot mealworm project and we're looking to scale that up. …We've completed our research in terms of all the growing procedures and now it's just a matter of scale. There [are] some other insects that we're examining as well that have different flavor profiles and different nutritional properties and different feed inputs, and so we definitely don't believe by any means that the cricket is where this industry will necessarily end.
Are the flavors and nutritional benefits of mealworms different than crickets?
GOLDIN: Right now we feed crickets a very nutrient-rich diet, which makes it a more expensive diet, but it's reflected in the nutritional profile of the powder that we produce. Mealworms [are] capable of eating much lower-grade, much less nutrient-dense feed ingredients, so it's got advantages for different reasons. They’re very different from one another, and another one we’ve worked with is the greater wax moth. [They’re] very high in fat, and if you fry it up it tastes like a potato chip, which is incredibly delicious. We’re not sure it has the same health benefits… There [are] insects that have more utility producing oil versus protein.
What trends are driving this segment right now? How do you expect it to change in the next few years?
GOLDIN: There seems to be a switch from talking about the protein to talking about the fiber, and there's actually a study… a human trial looking at the effects of the cricket powder on the microbiota, and it was pretty staggering in terms of the positive effects/specific beneficial microbes. And I don't know that I could call it a trend, but certainly from the research side and the health implications of the chitin, which is the exoskeleton of the cricket, I think that we're going to be hearing a lot more about that.
In a perfect world, where do you see your company in five years?
GOLDIN: We are definitely going to be adding a lot more production capability on the cricket side. We're in the process of building a new kitchen to handle high capacity. We definitely are looking into a producing [in] another countries, so expanding outside of North America. And hopefully by then we're doing more than just crickets.
We’re also working with California Academy of Sciences — I'm looking to help to try to start up insect farming in Madagascar to locally produce proteins that will help with severe malnutrition. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, like 80% of the children under 5 are nutrient deficient, and we've found some really cool ways of linking the project to conservation because they've only got 15% of their forest left and they're losing one and a half percent [each] year mostly due to deforestation because they are producing more meat and exporting it to China. It's been a really exciting project and it’s really starting to get some momentum behind it.
For me, the whole reason we got into this project [is]... to have a positive impact beyond North America. It comes back to the beginning. …This was born out of wanting to help [improve] sustainability. …Global warming continues to affect Africa. The way it's affecting Africa [is] food becomes more scarce. The repercussions of that are pretty clear. And so it became clear to me that even if the impact I can have is minuscule, that is my responsibility to my children and to future generations. …If we can be successful, then our model can be replicated.