Oregon Business Serves Up Crickets As A Food Choice
Of all the things you're considering for your next meal today, bugs are probably not on the menu.
But a United Nations agency figures that insects are a normal part of the diet of at least 2 billion people in the developing world - and more than a dozen startups in North America hope at least some of us around here will open our minds and mouths too.
One Oregon company has started selling finely-ground crickets as human food.
The company's name is Cricket Flours. Founder and CEO Charles Wilson said he got interested in crickets as a protein supplement when he found out he had food sensitivities to dairy, gluten and a bunch of other ingredients.
"One of them was actually the protein powder that I was using to build muscle and that I had used for swimming and gymnastics," Wilson said. "I had always used it, but found I wasn't supposed to have it anymore. So I started looking for alternative proteins and alternative food ingredients and I stumbled across cricket flour."
Wilson said he recognized more than a replacement for his protein shakes - he eventually sensed a business opportunity.
The Portland native was in law school, at the time, at the University of Oregon, and he approached a friend who was studying at the business school, Omar Ellis.
Ellis distinctly remembers the conversation: "I was like, 'What's the idea?' He said, 'I want to sell protein powder made from crickets.' You could literally hear crickets at that point, because I am like, 'What? Really? I don't think that is going to work, Charles.' I just spent my first year in business school basically doing market research. My intuition is that is going to fail horribly."
But Wilson was persuasive. Ellis became a co-founder and COO of Cricket Flours. And now he's out and about chirping the reasons to eat food made from insects.
"It's got more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk," Ellis told curious onlookers, as he offered product samples in the atrium of a sustainability conference in Portland.
"Why crickets? They're very sustainable," he said. "They take one-tenth the feed and one-sixth the water to get the same amount of protein that you would get from beef. It's quite amazing."
Ellis and Wilson's business buys dried, milled crickets in bulk from several wholesalers back east.
The Oregon entrepreneurs resell the pure cricket flour online, as well as chocolate flavored and baking mixes. The insect origins of the foods are unrecognizable without a label after processing.
Amy Jarvis and Ben Kitoko, who attended the sustainability conference, were game to try cricket powder mixed into spiced granola.
"It's a little bit disconcerting, clearly not going to work for a vegetarian," Jarvis said. "But ultimately there is a problem finding good protein powders that are not flavored and this isn't."
"In any other form, I would never do this," Kitoko said. "It definitely might be something for the future. You never know."
After that build up, reporter Tom Banse had to try for himself. Ellis offered a tasting cup of the special granola.
"When we get the powder, there are no antennas and no legs on them," Ellis said. "Those things are sifted off even before it is milled. Basically, you're getting the really great part of the cricket, kind of the chicken breast part."
The result: it tasted like granola, nothing unusual or off about it.
"You can't think of it as eating crickets. You have to think of it as, 'I'm just going to take in a lot more protein now," Ellis said.
"It's really a neutral taste, almost slightly nutty," Wilson said, in a later interview. "It really mixes in well with baked goods, with shakes and smoothies."
Cricket Flours is the only Northwest-based startup among more than a dozen we found in the edible insects niche. Others across the U.S. are focused on the cricket farming end or selling energy bars or snacks made with cricket powder.
Ellis said it takes around 5,000 crickets to make a pound of flour. That makes the end product - whatever it is - relatively expensive.
Cricket Flours sells a half-pound package of 100 percent cricket powder for $27.50. Cricket energy bars from makers such as Exo and Chapul retail for $3-4 per bar. The Boston-based maker of cricket flour chips, cleverly named "Chirps," sells three smallish bags for $16.
Ellis observed that the rising demand for food-grade crickets creates a market opportunity for people who may want to raise the insects. But he said he and Wilson are not interested in branching into the cricket farming line themselves for now.
This whole sector got a push from a high profile report on edible insects published in 2013 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The report detailed the potential benefits of using insects for food and feed as part of a broader strategy to achieve global food security.
Wilson said he still asks himself everyday whether America is ready for entomophagy - or human insect-eating.