The bug in our diet: Throw away everything you think about eating insects; it’s the future of protein and the future is now
|National Post 16 Mar 2018 at 14:41|
“I often wonder if we’re the largest in the world,” Jarrod Goldin says of his 60,000 square- foot farm in Norwood, Ont. The entrepreneurial farmer with a ready smile, steady gaze and soft South African accent isn’t referring to acreage or production, though. He’s talking about the count of his livestock – and he might just be right.
Jarrod and his brothers, Darren and Ryan, founded Entomo Farms in 2013. It boasts 100 million head, but the three barns on the property aren’t filled to the rafters with cattle or poultry. The Goldins are insect farmers. Entomo sells cricket and mealworm powders, and whole-roasted insects via its website. Its first farm was 5,000 square feet, with nine employees producing 250 pounds (113 kg) of crickets per week. Today, as a global leader in the cultivation of insect protein for food, it has a weekly harvest of 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) produced by 30 employees. Jarrod explains that the farm’s core business is that of an ingredient supplier. They sell cricket powder to packaged goods companies for the production of foods, such as insect-fortified chips, crackers and pasta.
For years, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and global thought leaders alike have been championing insects as a sustainable source of high-quality protein (requiring six times less feed than cattle to produce the equivalent amount of protein). However, the perceived “ick factor” of entomophagy (insect eating) still gives some Western consumers pause.
According to Julie Lesnik, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, people in northern regions tend to eschew bugs, in part, because of the diets of their ancient ancestors. Unlike Mexico, and Central and South America, where insects are plentiful and the practice of eating them is well-established, the northern part of North America was covered in ice tens of thousands of years ago. The colder climates didn’t allow for the same exposure.
“When you read books by (European) travellers in the 1700s or 1800s, if they went to Africa or somewhere like Mexico where they saw people eating insects, it would be like, ‘Their hunger’s so great, their access to meat so scarce that they resorted, horrifically, to eating insects.’ That wasn’t the case whatsoever. They were doing it because it was healthy and good for their environment,” Jarrod says.
Ont.-based Entomo Farms is a global leader in cricket farming. Co-founder Darren Goldin is pictured with some of the banded crickets raised on the farm. Stewart Stick
This “othering” mentality persists in the West today. Globally, however, an estimated two-billion people eat insects as a regular part of their diet. In 2016, the worldwide market for edible insects was valued at nearly $43 million, according to Global Market Insights. It’s expected to gain serious momentum, with more than 40 per cent growth by 2023. There are as many as 2,000 edible insect species around the world – including ants, grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars – and the practice of eating bugs is slowly but steadily catching on in the Western world.
As Jarrod puts it, there are three very simple reasons for more people to consider the option: “It’s delicious, it’s nutritious and it’s sustainable.” The same could also be said for many of the plant-based protein products already found in supermarkets. However, foods packing a bug-fuelled protein punch have never enjoyed the same grocery-store ubiquity as the veggie burger. That is, until now.
In Canada, eating crickets has gone mainstream. Loblaw Companies Ltd. is giving credence to the projection that insect protein could be the future of food by adding Entomo’s cricket powder to its PC Insiders Collection for spring. Now sold at every Loblaw grocery store in the country, the immense availability of cricket powder signals a significant shift in attitudes. The fact that you can pick up a bag at your local supermarket firmly establishes insect protein as a choice for Canadian consumers.
“It’s one thing for us to be educating people and telling them, ‘You can get these products from this website.’ It’s another thing for them to see it on their grocery shelf,” says Robert Nathan Allen, president of Little Herds, an educational non-profit group focusing on edible insects. “That legitimizes it so much more. It gives the consumer the trust and confidence to try that product because their trusted grocer is carrying it.”
“This opportunity with Loblaw is massive validation for the category, for our industry,” Jarrod says. “We’re excited to see what comes out of it in that respect. Hopefully it’s just that first step toward further acceptance and normalization.”
Darren adds, “It’s a huge opportunity for us to get out of what has generally been a start-up-oriented business and really affect change on a much, much grander scale.”
Kathlyne Ross, VP of product development and innovation at Loblaw, says that PC 100% Cricket Powder is the first of several insect-based foods the company is planning to launch in the near future. Ross was first introduced to edible insects on a trip to Southeast Asia more than 20 years ago. She sees the relatively recent emphasis on meat alternatives in Canada as “the evolution of food.” The next step in that evolution, “is looking at nutritional bars – a meal- or snack-replacement idea,” Ross says. “We’re actively looking for a supplier that would help make those, and then of course Entomo would supply the raw material.”
In 2017, research published in the journal Global Food Security found that insects and plant-based meats “have the highest land use efficiency.” According to the Guardian, if people swapped half of traditional animal products (beef, lamb) for faux meat or bugs, “the land required to produce the world’s food would be slashed by a third.” Cricket powder’s strong sustainability, nutritional properties, diverse applications and palatability made it the clear choice as Loblaw’s premier insect-based product for the mass market, Ross adds. “The powder made more sense because people could incorporate it into food. … It’s helping bridge people that have a bit of the ick factor,” she says. “You see the powder and it looks quite benign, and looks like something you could add into anything you’re cooking.”
Cricket powder boosts the protein in these strawberry-banana smoothies. The recipe is available on the Presidentâs Choice website. President’s Choice
Abstraction – the fortification of everyday foods without dramatically changing their form, appearance, taste or texture – is considered a non-threatening way to introduce the concept of entomophagy to hesitant Western consumers. From insect-enriched pancake mixes to cookies, crackers, and mac and cheese, these are easily recognizable foods that offer complete protein and additional nutrients.
While some Canadians react with disgust and indignation at the mere suggestion of insect protein figuring into their diet, this needn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition. Rather than the realization of a dystopian future in which humanity must subsist on the cockroach-derived “protein blocks” in Bong Joon-ho’s film Snowpiercer, this is simply an alternative to conventional sources.
“It’s an incredibly wholesome food source that should be available to anybody who wants to utilize it,” Allen says. “We don’t need everybody to eat it, because not everybody eats shrimp, not everybody eats pork and not everybody eats broccoli – but those are thriving industries. We only need to have a very small percentage of the consumer base actually add this into their diet to create a very robust and thriving industry. And to be able to show some very outsized environmental impacts.”
In the company’s test kitchen, President’s Choice Executive Chef Michelle Pennock incorporated cricket powder into a wide variety of dishes. She made a butternut squash and brussels sprouts flatbread with the product in its base, giving it the appearance of a whole wheat crust. As a rule of thumb for savoury or sweet baking, Pennock recommends substituting 10 per cent of the total flour with cricket powder. (Its consistency is similar to nut flours and therefore not intended for 1:1 swaps.)
For a protein boost, she stirred cricket powder into a roasted red pepper and tomato soup topped with harissa-spiced seeds. Hushpuppies made with cheddar cheese and beer had a deep nuttiness due to the cricket powder mixed into the batter.
“The big thing we find, especially with people who are consuming the powder, is smoothies … and we’ve made some amazing different fruit-flavoured ones. We did a banana peanut butter one that was great,” Ross says. “I like (cricket powder) as an alternative. … Throw a scoop in my yogurt in the morning – my Greek or my skyr. It’s versatile.”
Although most Canadians meet their daily protein needs without supplements, protein powder is popular with athletes as well as people interested in weight management. Many turn to it for convenience – a meal on the go – or to balance a meal or snack that wouldn’t otherwise contain an adequate amount of protein. Unlike other protein powders on the market, which are extracted (e.g. whey from milk), cricket powder is a whole food. At Entomo, the insects are harvested at the end of their natural life cycle. They’re then rinsed, roasted and ground – the powder retains the nutrients present in the whole animal.
High in protein (13 g per 2 ½-tbsp/19 g-serving), cricket powder contains calcium, iron and 100 per cent of the daily value for vitamin B12. “From a nutrition standpoint, it is really interesting because not only are crickets a source of protein, but they also have other vitamins and minerals in there,” registered dietitian Vincci Tsui says. “Because cricket powders are still holding the full cricket, you’re getting the iron, vitamin B12 and the calcium that’s in the cricket itself, whereas you might not be getting that with a protein powder.”
Cricket powder adds a hit of protein to these no-bake bars. The recipes is available on the Presidentâs Choice website. President’s Choice
Foods rich in B12 are of particular interest to vegans and vegetarians, as animal products are the primary dietary source of the vitamin. But as insects also belong to the animal kingdom, cricket powder is unlikely to appeal to many (if at all) in the plant-based consumer segment. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around because if you’re using cricket, you’re not a vegan or vegetarian anyway,” registered dietitian Amanda Li says. “In my opinion, if you’re going to be eating fish, chicken or turkey … you probably don’t need to add more protein on top of that unless you’re trying to be more sustainable.” She adds that, much like the Meatless Monday movement, an omnivore might choose to swap poultry, fish or meat for insect protein at regular intervals for reasons other than a strict dietary need.
According to Allen, early adopters of insect protein tend to be people who are health- and/or environmentally-focused. As more Canadians adhere to specific diets, the timing of cricket powder’s increased availability is advantageous. A recent poll conducted by Dalhousie University found that 32 per cent of adults “observe some sort of committed dietary regimen.” While products like cricket powder provide a gateway for consumers who might otherwise be wary of eating bugs, Allen points out that there’s a variety of entry points for different consumers.
For people who like to cook, and are looking for ways to add unique properties to homemade dishes, cricket powder is a good choice. Others may be interested in eating insects but have no desire to make their own bug-fortified foods. For this segment, a cricket protein bar or cricket tortilla chip might fit the bill. “There are a variety of different applications and, as the industry has grown – even in the last two years – the diversity of applications has grown,” Allen says. “So we’ve seen more and more ways that these start-up companies are looking at using the insects in their products and ingredients.”
He offers the example of Toronto-based One Hop Kitchen, and its cricket and mealworm Bolognese sauce. When Little Herds taste-tested the cricket variety on roughly 800 people at Earth Day Texas, only one in 10 people could tell the difference between it and a beef version. “Pretty much everybody preferred the flavour and texture of the cricket pasta sauce,” Allen says. “And their value statement is: every jar of (insect protein) pasta sauce saves 18 bathtubs (1,900 L) of water compared to the beef. To be able to put that impact into perspective for consumers after they do a blind taste test and can’t even tell – that’s really powerful.”
There’s a growing body of research supporting insect protein as a nutritious and sustainable choice. Star chefs such as René Redzepi, Alex Atala and Sang Hoon Degeimbre are well-versed at presenting insects, enticingly, on the plate. With celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie openly partaking in entomophagy, will increased availability have a significant impact on consumer demand in Canada?
Jarrod highlights the need for a shift in point-of-reference when it comes to what we choose to eat: “Food that’s healthy is not icky and food that’s unhealthy is icky.” In the West, we have the opportunity to live longer and better than ever before, but “to some degree, we screwed it up by how we chose to go about food,” he adds. Reframing what makes food desirable is essential, but not at the expense of deliciousness. According to the University of Cambridge, rationally acknowledging healthful benefits is not enough to affect food choices. The adage is accurate: people go with their gut. Food can be perceived as “healthy” but it must also be considered tasty.
“It’s using that Homer (Simpson) brain, Spock brain duality to get that first try. And get that first try in a positive environment,” Allen says. “If your first experience is at a restaurant, if your first experience is one of these products that are designed to be delicious and are extolling those virtues, then you have a really positive experience to draw on the next time someone else says, ‘Ewww gross! Bugs!’ You’ll be, ‘Actually, I tried some and it was pretty good.’”
Breaking the initial fear factor is one barrier, but the cost of insect-eating remains prohibitively high for many Canadians. A 113-gram (quarter pound) bag of PC-brand cricket powder retails for $13.99. A 473-mL (16-fl oz) jar of the aforementioned cricket Bolognese sells for $9.99. The price is reflective of this being an emerging industry, Allen explains. The economy of scale achieved by other products on the grocery-store shelf doesn’t apply because insect farming is so new. This underscores why normalization is so important, he adds.
It’s a fact that hasn’t escaped the Goldin brothers on their farm in Norwood. They see their innovations supporting the idea that food should be functional and healthy; both good for you and good for the planet. “It’s up to us to do it efficiently and bring the cost down so that everybody can afford it, or find other ways to subsidize it,” Jarrod says.
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