A generation ago, eating insects, worms and scorpions was the stuff of horror films.
Today, creepy crawlies are a trendy ingredient in food. Touting taste, protein benefits — and the fact that 80% of the world eats insects — more and more manufacturers are making bugs, worms and scorpions available to anyone's diet.
While edible insects aren't yet universally consumed in the United States, consumers nowadays are much more likely to give products made with bugs a chance. And while brands that contain insects are forthcoming about it, some of them do a good job of disguising their buggy ingredients. Other products go to the opposite extreme, making dinner or snack time look like a scene from a B-movie.
In the spirit of Halloween, here are some products that make creepy crawlies consumable.
About two years ago, Bill Broadbent's son asked him why Americans don't eat bugs. Broadbent decided it was time for his son to try some.
Now, Broadbent's family runs the largest edible insect marketplace in the United States — if not the world. At edibleinsects.com, Broadbent, who is president of the company, tries to make every insect that can be sold affordably in the U.S. available.
At this website, you can find anything from crickets to a cricket crunch bar (made with whole bugs – called the "candy that will make you scream") to grasshopper chapulines to giant scorpions that are the size of a plate.
"The other one that's pretty scary – not scary, but people think it's scary — it's called the water scorpion," Broadbent told Food Dive. But it's really just a big water bug. And it's just got these big eyes, and people like that because you just bite the head off. It kind of tastes like pumpkin seeds. Roasted pumpkin seeds."
Broadbent said he sells hundreds of pounds of crickets each month, and that insect is by far his best seller. He said there are three main groups that purchase his products: Athletes seeking protein, preppers, and people on the paleo diet. General consumers also buy products for the novelty factor, but can turn into bug believers.
"It's a whole new palette of flavors," he said. "That's one of the things a lot of people don't realize. They think they will taste buggy, but they don't. Tarantulas kind of taste like shrimp, but everything's just a little bit different. You can't really explain it."
Broadbent said his favorite product is the chapulines, which he said are spicy and reminiscent of Mexican bar food. His second-favorite insects – which he does not carry because there are no farms that raise them – are katydids, which he said taste like pistachios.
He also has recommendations for how to prepare his products. Crickets are a favorite to add to omelettes and salads, he said.
"The giant water bug is great to add to soups," he said. "It will give it that roasted pumpkin seed flavor."
In 1990, the California-based candy maker had a new idea: A tequila-flavored lollipop. Larry Peterman, the company’s president, wanted to go all out with the new sucker, and the decision was made to add a worm.
A picture of the worm in candy was published in a magazine, and sales took off. Twenty-six years later, Hotlix sells lollipops featuring crickets, scorpions, ants and worms. It also sells other insect confections, like chocolate-covered bugs and cricket snacks called Crick-ettes and Larv-ettes.
When Hotlix got started with its buggy candy, they were mostly bought by women between 30 and 50 as a joke, Peterman said. Then kids and teens started buying them.
"Right now, it's just about anybody," he told Food Dive. "As far as a target market, there really isn't. It's all over the board. And people who you think wouldn't be interested in them are very interested."
Peterman, whose company goes through about 300,000 worms and 100,000 crickets per week, said that scorpion lollipops are his most popular item. However, he said, the bugs in the candy don't add to the flavor. They add a texture and crunch, but generally the sweet flavor overpowers that of the bug.
Hotlix has done custom lollipops, like one with corn bores for a weed killer company and one using dehydrated escargot in a garlic and butter-flavored lollipop. Peterman's favorite product, however, is not one of his company's signature lollipops.
"I think the crickets, if you dip them in chocolate, they taste like a Kit-Kat bar, almost."
Peterman said he's always looking for new insects to turn into candy. Hotlix's next big product, due to hit store shelves in the spring, is a real-life gummi worm – an earthworm coated in a flexible gummi candy.
Before they became business partners, Leslie Ziegler and her friend Megan Miller were friends with a taste for adventurous food. When Miller returned from a trip to Southeast Asia, she called Ziegler to rave about the tasty insects she ate. Ziegler was enthused about the idea of cooking insects with her friend.
And so Bitty was born. About two and a half years ago, the company shipped its first products. The cricket flour, cookies and chips are now available at nearly 100 stores across the country.
"It is in no way scary," Ziegler told Food Dive. "In fact it is delicious, and better for you than other options."
With a mission to show consumers how good bugs could be, Bitty's first big product was cricket flour cookies.
"No one said no to a cookie," she said. "Everyone would take a little cookie and say, 'Sure, we'll take a cookie. It's just a cookie' They'd try it and say, 'That's really delicious.' "
In August, the company's savory Chiridos chips became available in stores. They've already won accolades, earning one of the top five food trends at the Fancy Food Show last January and being chosen as a finalist for best new snack at Natural Products Expo West in March. Ziegler said that the cricket flour adds a hint of nutty flavor to the products, making it ideal for chips and cookies.
"We don't think it's a trend. We think it's the future," she said.
Bitty's packaging features the outline of an insect's head, but the products look like baked goods. She said that many customers are moms looking to give their children food with the best nutritional profile. With the high protein content of crickets, she said, Bitty's products are something that parents can feel good about giving to their children.
Ziegler said that at one point, they may have encountered consumers who found their cricket-flour foods disgusting. That time has passed, and she said trying leads to buying.
"Our brand is very friendly. We use bright colors and we certainly make it accessible. There's no ick factor, with our products," Ziegler said.
College roommates Laura D'Asaro and Rose Wang both spent a semester abroad. D'Asaro went to China and ate fried scorpions, and Wang went to Tanzania, where she ate fried caterpillars.
When they returned to the United States, they talked about why the rest of the world eats insects, but not their home country. And they wondered how they could get insects into a form that people would want to eat.
"The answer was crunchy chips," D'Asaro told Food Dive.
Chirps, which have been on the market for two years, are made from cricket flour. D'Asaro said the company is working with large natural food distributors, and attracting a lot of excitement. Over the summer, the company worked with summer camps, providing Chirps to 300,000 children.
Aside from eating insects, D'Asaro is a vegetarian. She said bugs are a tasty and sustainable way to get more protein.
"Honestly, there are a lot of people excited about it," said D'Asaro. "It's bugs vs. world."