Mohammed Ashour isn’t used to having a conventional company. When he first co-founded cricket protein manufacturer Aspire Food Group in 2013, Ashour would receive puzzled reactions from strangers when he told them what he did. But in the past two years, that has changed.
“There's a recognition that our planet is rapidly growing both in population and appetite for meat, while at the same time actually shrinking our resources,” Ashour said, noting the social awareness that has fueled the intrigue of insects as a sustainable human food option. “Now I think there’s just an increased normalization of the idea.”
While Aspire Food Group once sold insect snacks online, the Canadian company now focuses on cricket protein powder, and is reportedly the largest supplier of it in the ingredients space. Ashour said that about 80% of the company’s inventory of cricket protein goes toward pet food, but it is designed to be edible for humans as well, and he sees growing interest in using it as a food ingredient. In October, Aspire, which already has a pilot facility in Austin, Texas, announced that it was building the world’s largest insect protein facility, located in Ontario, Canada. The plant will have the capacity to produce 20,000 metric tons of food-grade cricket protein and frass – cricket waste used for fertilizer – per year.
There is a healthy amount of capital flowing in the insect space, Ashour said. Aspire has raised $21.6 million in funding to date, according to Crunchbase data. And insects have grabbed consumers’ attention too. Startup Chirps, which first gained notoriety after being featured on Shark Tank with its cricket flour-based high-protein chips, is currently sold out of its cricket protein powder and chocolate chip cricket cookie mix.
According to Grand View Research, the global insect protein market was worth $250 million in 2020 and is expected to increase by a compound annual growth rate of 27.4% from 2021 to 2028. Because there is heightened demand from serious consumers looking for new proteins to try, companies that sell insect products no longer advertise it as a freakish novelty item, Ashour said.
“Five years ago, there was still a lot of gimmicky stuff,” Ashour said. “The awareness of citizens on issues of climate change, particularly highlighted by COVID, has really made what we do not only very reasonable, but incredibly timely, almost like an intervention.”
The sustainability surge
Traditionally thought of with dismay among American consumers, there is a growing interest in using insects in everything from snacks to protein powder. According to survey data from Aspire and the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA), an industry trade group, approximately 50% of Western consumers are already or may be willing to add insects to their diets. In an Oklahoma State University study of over a thousand U.S. participants, about a third said that they would be open to food items containing crickets, as long as they tasted good and were safe to eat.
As consumers continue to make purchasing decisions based on sustainability, insect protein has been presented a window of opportunity to expand its customer base. According to cricket ingredient brand Exo, crickets as a protein source are up to 20 times more efficient to grow than cattle, as they require far less land and feed. According to producer Cricket Powder, it takes 8 square meters of land to grow a pound of crickets, compared to 115 square meters needed to grow a pound of beef.
Sustainability-minded consumers are aware of the negative climate impact of animal protein – notably beef – and are more open to trying something they had previously seen with disgust, according to Goggy Davidowitz, a professor of entomology at the University of Arizona.
“Insects won’t replace steaks, but if we can reduce the number of steaks we’re eating, that will make a big difference,” Davidowitz said.
However, while there is significant interest from large CPGs like PepsiCo in the potential of insects as food, the space currently lacks the infrastructure to support the mass development of CPG products, he noted.
"Insects won’t replace steaks, but if we can reduce the number of steaks we’re eating, that will make a big difference."
Professor of entomology, University of Arizona
Jeff Tomberlin is an entomology professor and a lead researcher at Texas A&M’s Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, which opened last year primarily for the purpose of researching insects' application in pet food and animal feed, but also as human food. CPGs including Tyson Foods and Mars have made investments in and are industrial partners of the center, which Tomberlin said is focused on optimizing the process of insect production and making it more cost effective.
“I think a lot of companies recognize the limitations that we have in terms of resources and they’re looking to diversify those feed streams,” Tomberlin said.
According to NACIA’s interim executive director Wendy Lu McGill, the insect as food industry currently employs about 1,000 people in North America, a figure that has quintupled since 2018. And 60% of brands plan to expand their operations in 2022, she said, citing NACIA’s 2021 market research survey.
Entosense, an insect protein company based out of Maine selling cricket, mealworm and black ant snacks, has grown significantly over the past year, according to President Bill Broadbent. The company’s Kickers Crickets roasted snacks feature flavors like orange creamsicle, cotton candy, and mango habanero. He said that the company currently has pending sales deals with several large grocers, and expects its products to be in over 1,000 stores by this spring, and over 2,500 by the start of next year.
While others in the space want to move away from the novelty aspect of insects, Entosense is not as concerned.
“Our attitude is that even if it’s a novelty, it’s getting people to try them,” Broadbent said.
Nutritional benefits of bugs
The most commonly used insects in mainstream products are crickets and mealworms. Both have a mild umami taste that can be masked when stronger flavors are added, which gives a product like Kickers Crickets an earthy tone, according to Broadbent. He said that crickets’ crunch give them an interesting texture, while mealworms are slightly chewy.
Crickets have remained the most popular insect protein because the novelty factor of eating one of the insects is still high, along with their wide availability as an ingredient, according to Tomberlin.
The insects also boast nutritional benefits. Crickets contain high levels of zinc and potassium, with between 12 and 20 grams of protein per 100-gram serving of cricket flour. Mealworms have been found to have many of the same attributes as milk protein, according to researchers at Maastricht University, who were provided with samples by French insect protein company Ynsect.
Other insects also offer potential for brands looking to differentiate themselves in the space. Black ants, according to Broadbent, are the easiest insect to pair with lemon or lime flavors due to their citrusy taste. An up-and-coming insect that is not currently being used in human food, according to Broadbent, is black soldier fly larvae. These bugs are unique, he said, because they grow very fast, eating twice the amount of their weight every day. Their ease of production will make the transition to use in human snacks easy, he said.
On top of insects’ sustainable and nutritional elements, they also have the potential to manage specific medical disorders, according to Roger Clemens, associate director of the regulatory science program at University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy. For example, his research has indicated that the exoskeleton of a large cricket could function as a scaffold for nerve regeneration among patients with spinal cord injuries.
However, Clemens said that scientific evidence should be the basis of commercialized insect products.
“Regulatory agencies need to apply existing food safety standards, and, if necessary, promulgate additional requirements to assure insect-derived food products are safe,” Clemens said.
The question of regulatory approval for human insects in the U.S. remains. Currently, the FDA does not formally regulate insects as human food or food ingredients, but has considered them as "food" in certain contexts. In the European Union, crickets, mealworms and grasshoppers were approved for classification as human food last December. Davidowitz said he believes that approval in the U.S. is inevitable based on the swiftness of growth.
"Like any new industry, there's a lag time before the regulatory entities catch up,” Davidowitz said. “So I have no doubt it'll happen relatively soon. It's too big of a market space to be ignored.”