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Crickets: The gateway bug

The answer to feeding the world may be hopping around your backyard

Growing enough food to feed the planet’s rapidly expanding population has experts worried. Simply put, with more people on the planet, more agriculture is needed to grow enough food – and that, in turn, plays havoc with the environment. But for some, there’s a solution right in their own backyards where insects are hopping to the rescue, offering a sustainable alternative to traditional protein sources. 

In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released a report, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security,” warning that without insects in the human food chain, the planet may be in big trouble. The report says that currently 1 billion people are chronically hungry and it cautions that by 2050, with the world’s population climbing to 9.7 billion people, current food production will need to double.  

A majority of people in many parts of the world already consume insects, with some 1,900 species on the menu including beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and ants. Entomophagy, a technical term describing the practice of eating insects, is also gaining traction in Europe and in the U.S., largely driven by concerns over personal health and climate change. 

But in Canada, where growing conditions support a variety of other meat alternatives like beans and peas, consumers are still reluctant to consider insects. That may be changing, says British Columbia’s Patricia Chuey, a registered dietitian and award-winning food communications expert.

“As we become increasingly aware of environmental protection and food sustainability, many are looking at ways to get equivalent protein in our diet while using fewer resources,” she explains.

Gaining a foothold in Canada’s food chain

Although the industry is still in its infancy, major grocers like Loblaws are helping insects gain a foothold in Canada’s food chain. Last March, Loblaws introduced cricket powder to its line of President’s Choice foods. Loblaws VP of Product Development and Innovation, Kathlyne Ross says, “By making products like cricket powder widely available in our grocery stores, we are giving Canadians the option to not only try something new, but to also make a conscious decision on what they eat and how it impacts the environment.”

In sourcing its cricket powder, Loblaws joined forces with Norwood-based Entomo Farms, which launched eight years ago and is one of the oldest and largest cricket farms in North America. It also recently sold a minority stake in its company to Maple Leaf Foods, yet another sign that six-legged protein is on its way.

According to Jarrod Goldin, Entomo Farm’ s CEO and a company founder, the market is fuelled by the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) consumer, the fastest-growing food consumer segment in North America. He says these consumers are defined by their understanding of the impact that food has on their health, their longevity and the planet. 

Crickets, like other insects, contain fibres, such as chitin, that are different from the dietary fibre found in foods like fruits and vegetables. Fibre serves as a microbial food source, and some fibre types promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics.

Some studies have shown that consuming crickets can help support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, and that eating crickets is not only safe at high doses but may also reduce inflammation in the body. Other studies point to crickets offering more digestible mineral content – like iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium – than even sirloin beef.

Goldin suggests that some insect species may even offer eight times the antioxidants found in oranges. He’s a big proponent of research, and his company regularly engages the scientific community.  

Entomo is currently collaborating in a multi-year study with Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario. Funded by an Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and NSERC grant, the study aims to determine optimal storage and a “best before” date of Entomo’s cricket powder product. In its first year, the research found that the powder did not show any significant signs of deterioration. Goldin believes this may have something to do with certain protein peptides found in crickets and suggests the powder may be useful as a natural means of extending the shelf life of other foods.   

A star of sustainable agriculture

According to the FAO, crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. They require significantly less water than cattle rearing and they emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock. That makes this mini-livestock a star of sustainable agriculture.

Entomo Farms consists of three 20,000-sq.ft. retrofitted chicken barns, each holding cardboard cricket “condos” that house approximately 35 million crickets. With a total cricket count of over 100 million, Goldin believes his farm may be the largest in the world. Plus, he notes, “from an animal welfare perspective, there’s no cruelty associated with how the insects are kept or the husbandry itself.”

And there’s another benefit to farming these little critters: “frass,” a mix of feces and cricket exoskeletons. The crickets in each of the three barns produce about 6,000 pounds of frass per month. For Goldin, it’s a gold mine for a supercharged fertilizer that some studies show can produce exponentially higher harvests. He recalls a study out of Trent University looking at dose responses on hayfields that found the ideal amount of natural frass fertilizer increased their yield by 400 percent.

While many insect-based products source their crickets out of South Korea and Thailand, more crickets entering the Canadian market are coming from growers closer to home. Toronto-based Fit Cricket gets its supply from a farm south of the border. It’s one of only a handful of companies that sell insect-based food products. Company owner Angela Kelly says she prefers her supplier over others because of the taste of their crickets, a common species known as Acheta domesticus.     

She agrees with Chuey, who says that “consumers will initially be more accepting of insect-based flours and protein powders for use in such foods as baked goods and smoothies, before embracing eating dried insects straight up.”

In fact, Kelly refers to crickets and cricket powder as the “gateway bug” – it’s an ideal starter to a cornucopia of edible insects, she says, which her customers have compared to the taste of roasted sunflower seeds or chickpeas. Fit Cricket works out of a food incubator’s space that recently opened in downtown Toronto; it’s run by District Ventures Kitchens, whose founder is Arlene Dickinson, the well-known businesswoman and Dragon’s Den star (interviewed in the Winter 2018/19 BioLab Business). 

Whether the bugs come from Thailand or from a farm in B.C., regulations governing insects in Canada are still in the early stage of development. Glenford Jameson, a Toronto-based lawyer who specializes in food law and teaches at Michigan State University, explains, “There’s been a really inconsistent response between regulators in the various parts of the world relating to whether insects or certain types of insects are salable.” Because entomophagy is relatively new to Canadian consumers, regulators are being careful to ensure health safety. “There are certain insects or breeds that are very well known and I think we’re comfortable with,” says Jameson. “There are also millions of insects that may not have that history of safe use.” He says that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is primarily concerned with ensuring edible insects do not present a risk to Canadians in terms of how rearing and processing facilities control against microbiological pathogens. It becomes more complex when unusual or novel insects are introduced, he explains, because under the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, all novel foods must be assessed by Health Canada before they can be sold in our country.

For Kelly and Fit Cricket, Canadians have to move beyond the “ick” factor and embrace the health value: “With all of that great taste, nutritional profile and environmental standpoint, I think people are willing to give this a chance.”

Crickets products sold in Canada

New Frontiers in Meat Alternatives

From fast food chains to grocery stores, consumer interest in plant-based protein options is leading to a boom in alternative meats. Long-established vegetarian brands – like Yves Veggie Cuisine, which has been around for over 20 years – are facing stiffer competition from newer alternatives, some of which, like Beyond Burger, are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. In the dairy industry, non-dairy alternatives are also experiencing growth. 

In response to these market forces and consumer concerns, industry leaders are rolling out a range of products and ingredients using different plant-based proteins like soy and pea, “mini-livestock” like insects and lab-grown meats cultured from animal or fungal cells.

Cultured meat

On August 5, 2013, the world’s first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London to some culinary acclaim for its texture and robust flavour. Scientists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, led by professor Mark Post, had taken stem cells from a cow and grown them into strips of muscle, which they then combined to make a burger. In 2017, the Good Food Institute released a map for “clean” or cultured meat, which it says allows consumers to maintain their dietary preferences for animal meat while removing many of the harmful aspects of current meat production. Cellular agriculture, it says, requires far less land and water than conventional meat, will produce exponentially less climate change and eliminates the severe environmental repercussions of animal waste and contamination via runoff.  

Edible insects

Crickets, mealworms, grasshoppers and other insects have been touted as “superfoods” for a few years now – high in protein, they have low environmental impact and can be farmed almost anywhere. The consumption of edible insects has a long history in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in eating edible insects in Europe and North America. Consequently, a growing number of edible insect products have become available to Canadians, such as dried whole insects, insect powder and insect-containing snacks (e.g., chips, crackers and cookies). More research into human consumption of insects is needed to understand the potential health benefits.

Jackfruit

With its roots in the hot, humid climate of India’s rainforest, jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, reaching 80 pounds and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter. The nobby exterior of the fruit is green or yellow when ripe, while the interior consists of large edible bulbs of yellow, banana-flavored flesh that can be cooked in curries, fried or even made into jam. Jackfruit is low in fat and saturated fat. The fibrous flesh has similarities in texture to meat; however, it isn’t a source of protein, so shouldn’t be a direct meat replacement. It’s a source of important micronutrients, such as vitamin C, for immune function, and potassium for maintaining blood pressure and muscle function.

Mycoprotein

Mycoprotein is a unique and nutritious protein that is high in fibre, low in saturated fat and contains no cholesterol. Its principal ingredient is fusarium venenatum, one of the largest groups within the fungi family, which also includes truffles and morels. It is one of a genus of filamentous fungi, meaning it is comprised of a web of finely spun strands. Mycoprotein was created in the 1980s and is produced through fermentation of biological feedstock. Fungi contain approximately 40 percent protein, are high in fiber, have limited carbohydrates and contain no cholesterol.

Seitan

In his blog, renowned chef Jamie Oliver describes seitan as having “a solid, firm texture” useful for “faux meat” products such as mince, burgers and kebabs. Unlike other vegan, soy-based, protein-filled substitutes like tofu and tempeh, seitan is made from the development of gluten in the wheat dough. According to Oliver, “The nutritional profile of seitan depends on the other ingredients within each product. In the case of seitan burgers, this is often wheat flour, pea or soy protein, and flavourings.”  

Soy, pea and chickpea

Widely used in meat-free burgers and protein powders, this alternative is the most popular among consumers – and has been for years. Rich in protein, soybeans can be used to make food products such as tofu, soy milk and various dairy and meat substitutes. Soybean is an herbicide-tolerant crop, which significantly limits the need to plow fields to remove weeds.

Seaweed

Since 2010, researchers like biologist Ronald Osinga from Wageningen University in the Netherlands have postulated that large-scale cultivation of sea lettuce can help reduce acidification of the oceans – and help solve the global food supply problem. Osinga and his colleagues calculated that a “marine garden” of 180,000 km2 could provide enough protein for the entire world population. A sea lettuce bed of such gigantic proportions would raise the pH (acidity level) of the Mediterranean Sea by one tenth. Seaweed is high in protein and contains important micronutrients – especially iodine, which contributes to the normal production of thyroid hormones and thyroid function.   

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