Insects: the newest protein on the North American table?

Entomophagy, or the practice of dining on edible insects, is popular with about 2 billion people worldwide.

Through history, almost 1900 species of insects have reportedly been used as food, the most popular being the beetle. Eating insects is especially common in Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Latin American cuisine—think salsa de chicatanas (flying ant salsa) or lemon-grass-hopper curry.

It’s only just starting to catch on in North America with companies displaying their wares at Natural Products Expo and starting to inch their way in to organic and natural retailers and a few 7-Elevens. The two leaders in the cricket protein bar movement are Chapul and Exo, with their slogan “crickets are the new kale”.

Next Millenium Farms is the Canadian cricket producer now available in the market, with whole roasted crickets and mealworms, some with flavoured toppings like Moroccan Spice or Barbecue—the new crunchy snack to have with beer!

They also carry the “easier-to-incorporate” cricket flour which is just ground up crickets. It has an earthy, nutty sort of flavour and substitutes well in baking recipes for other nut flours, like almond. Cricket flour can also be added to smoothies instead of protein powder—consider complementing the nutty flavour by adding banana and cocoa.

With the recent news about the dramatic water shortages in California and the questionable sustainability of almond farming, cricket flour may be the more realistic long-term option to certain nuts. We need to prioritize crops that conserve more water and rethink the value of putting bugs back on the table.

Water and land usage is dramatically less in producing insects than livestock. They also have fantastic feed efficiency. Crickets for example, only need to eat 2 kilograms of food to gain 1 kilogram of body weight, whereas cows need 12 times more and pigs and chickens need twice as much feed to produce an equal amount of protein.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has been researching the use of edible insects around the world, not just for human consumption but also to raise and use as animal feed and for aquaculture. They see edible insects as being one of the most sustainable areas of agriculture that is currently not being tapped to its full potential and an incredibly viable strategy for feeding our exponentially growing world population.

So are insects as good for you as they are for the environment? From a nutrition standpoint, they compete with our other protein sources, like meat, fish, dairy products and nuts and seeds. They contain protein, including all 9 essential amino acids, as well as essential fats, omega 3 and 6. They are also rich in minerals like calcium and iron, as well as vitamin B12 and fibre in varying amounts depending on the species. One interesting note, for those with shellfish allergies, they may also be allergic to insects due to the similarity of their protein shells to crustaceans, like prawns.

And funny enough, to deal with the hesitancy of many Westerners to try bugs, some have suggested renaming them. For example in Australia, it was recommended that locusts should be called sky-prawns and a cookbook was created to push the new name forward. Consider the highly-prized escargots (snails) of French cuisine—simply call a grasshopper, “sautéed sauterelle” and it sounds delicious!

So do you as a retailer need to add insects in to your HMR program for 2015? Probably not. But consider making room in the snack and bar aisle as more of these products crawl into the market.