What’s Up With That Food: Cricket Protein
Paste uncovers the background of foods you've always wondered aboutFood Features
People often joke that the bug that falls into our water glass, or the one we swallow accidentally while on a run or a bike ride just adds some extra protein to our diet. That’s actually true. Many people believe that eating insects will be necessary in order to feed our hungry, growing population. Cricket protein, in particular, is leading the way.
Type of food: Insect
Name: Referred to as the tropical house cricket, Indian house or the banded cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus
Origins: Humans have been eating insects for thousands of years as part of our hunter-gatherer diet. According to Shami Radia, a co-creator with Neil Whippey of Grub, a UK-based company that sells edible insects and flours and the co-author (along with Whippey) of Eat Grub; The Ultimate Insect Cookbook, says “Insects are commonly eaten throughout Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Basically, everywhere but here in the West,” he says.
Crickets specifically have long been consumed in southern parts of Asia such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, where they’re commonly deep-fried. “They have thriving cricket markets with many small farmers rearing them for consumption,” says Radia.
Why/how did we start eating it: Among others, you can thank Jarrod Goldin, D.C., from Entomo Farms in Norwood, Ontario, who along with his brothers Darren and Ryan, have been farming insects since 2010 at Entomo Farms in Norwood, Ontario. (Darren and Ryan have ten years of experience on top of that.) About 90 percent of their business is wholesale, which means they are supplying cricket protein to many manufacturers and brands, including Exo and Chapul, he says.
“It makes sense in terms of nutritional value, especially when we can predict that in the near future, meat and fish proteins are going to be affordable only to the few,” Martin Matysik, chef at Pangea restaurant at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, said. “Every customer is offered candied/spicy crickets to try, served with either popcorn or with fried chickpeas.”
In 2013, the United Nations issued a report called Edible Insects, urging more people to turn to entomophagy as a way to combat world hunger, meet a growing population and not further overtax our resources—land, water, and so forth. Two million people worldwide already consume insects as food.
Other advantages associated with insects include the fact that they are more sustainable and humane to harvest and process than even vegetables. “Countless field mice and insects are lost in that process, but that’s another story,” says Goldin. Crickets are frozen, a process that happens very quickly, he says. Then, they are cleaned and roasted before being processed into various forms, the most popular of which is powder for protein bars and other products, along with flour, which is being used even for desserts like the cricket flour cheesecake below.
Aaron Dossey, Ph.D., runs Griopro (www.cricketpowder.com), which has received both Gates Foundation and USDA grants and funding toward innovations in insect-based foods. Dossey’s aim was to create an insect-based food to help tackle the issue of malnutrition in children; an ultra-fine powder was the best way to go. Griopro sells wholesale and retails its products, and is known for its innovative approach that Dossey pioneered. “It is the only powdery and fine 100 percent pure cricket powder available,” he says.
“All the traditional moral issues of livestock farming are obsolete when farming crickets. They aren’t cramped in unnatural conditions with poor hygiene,” says Alex Drysdale, founder of the Winnipeg-based business Crik Nutrition. In fact, they don’t take up that much space at all. According to Goldin, approximately 100 million crickets occupy three barns, totaling about 60,000 square feet.
As for why crickets have become the go-to insect? “There’s a saying in our industry that crickets are the gateway insect,” says Goldin.
There’s also tremendous potential for insects to be used as livestock feed—that’s something Entomo Farms provides, too.
How it’s used/purchased: Well, it’s not incredibly likely that you will encounter bags of cricket flour in the supermarket right now, but it’s becoming increasingly easier to find what you need on the Internet with a quick search. And if these manufacturers are persuasive enough and the market demands it, you can bet there will be more room on the shelves for cricket-related products in the near future.
One of the more widely available products is Exo, a protein bar made from crickets. Founded in 2014 in New York, Exo’s protein bars come in innocuous sounding flavors: cocoa nut, blueberry vanilla, apple cinnamon, and peanut butter and jelly. Their products are paleo-friendly, as they are soy, grain, dairy and gluten free. (Cricket-related products are alternately grain free, gluten free, traditional or organic; it depends on what the crickets eat, naturally.)
Exo’s bars are formulated by a three Michelin-starred chef Kyle Connaughton, formerly of the Fat Duck in London, founded by powerlifter Gabi Lewis and science writer Greg Sewitz (pictured above), and backed by investors such as Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and chef Tom Colicchio. As they describe it, their bars provide “a non-intimidating intro to entomophagy—it’s like a California roll for insects,” says spokesperson Jessica Tran. Each bar contains approximately 40 crickets.
You may have also seen Chapul mentioned on the show Shark Tank—Mark Cuban invested $50,000 for 10 percent of the company. (The name comes from the Aztec word for cricket or grasshopper, chapul. It launched in 2012 after a successful crowdfunding effort with “the original cricket bar,” which are available in globally-driven flavor permutations: Chaco (peanut butter and chocolate), Matcha (tahini, goji, matcha powder, sesame seeds), Aztec (dates, coffee beans, cocoa, cayenne) and Thai (coconut, ginger, lime, date, almond butter.) All of their products are gluten-free, non-GMO and contain no soy, dairy or gluten. Chapul also sells a cricket protein powder, and Chapulina, a gluten-free, high-protein baking flour with a blend of tapioca, rice, sorghum, garbanzo bean, hemp, and rice flours, along with potato starch.
Another recent start-up is Crik Nutrition, which makes protein powder for your morning smoothie. The product contains 18mg of protein, no added sugars or preservatives and 1000mg of omegas (a combo of both 3 and 6). It also contains rice, pea and hemp protein.
Chefs like Matysik are using cricket flour for cricket and teff flour crepes and cricket smoothies. “Generally, these have been much appreciated with most customers willing to give these a try,” Matysik said. “The feedback has been great and this has set us apart. It is also a great conversation piece at the table. We are still in the beginning stage in the of use of crickets as an alternative protein, but the interest is there.”
Elsewhere, an array of insect-related products are available from EntoMarket.com, a business run by Bill Broadbent, his sister Susan, and his son Sam. They sell edible insects, as well as products derived from insects such as cricket powder and chocolates made from cricket powder. He, too, talks about the sustainability aspect. “In the next 50 years our population will grow by 50% and our food needs will nearly double,” says Broadbent. From his site, you can order and snack on things such as Sriracha crickets or fried silkworm chrysalis, with BBQ flavor—a hot item that’s sold in grocery stores throughout Thailand.
I had to ask about the ick factor—if people have trouble with the idea. “Close to half of adults will try roasted crickets or mealworms whole. Most kids will eat and enjoy bugs without a problem,” says Broadbent. Furthermore, they’ve launched EndoEducation.com and free “Entomophagy Ambassador Packages” to teachers and group leaders. This gives them “entomophagy talking points and enough cricket powder to bake cookies for their class.”
Goldin takes it a step further. “Five years ago, the conversation with journalists and the general public was about the ick factor. Now the conversation has shifted to the health benefits and environmental impact. And people now understand that what’s on the grocery shelves is what’s icky.” (He’s referring to processed foods, of course.) “This is a shelf-stable super ingredient that can be infused into lots of products.”
Sensory experience: Some say it’s nutty, some say there’s no decipherable taste, especially in the protein powder. “A spoonful of straight ground up cricket powder tastes to me like almond flour and grass,” says Drysdale.
Nutrition and other benefits: Well, there’s the protein angle—it’s a complete protein source, containing all the essential amino acids. They have about three times the amount of protein as chicken. But crickets also contain lots of iron—twice as much as what you’d find in spinach. Goldin notes that cricket flour is a “healthy source of prebiotic fiber.”
Trivia: According to Exo, crickets produce 100 times fewer greenhouse gases than cows.
Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.
Photos courtesy of Entomo Farms by Stewart Stick