Edible bugs are growing into a global business. By the end of the decade, the edible insect industry is estimated to be worth $8 billion, according to investment bank Barclays.
Advocates say eating insects is not only healthy and nutritious, but it is also good for the planet. Edible insects contain protein, healthy fats, vitamins, fiber and minerals. And the entrepreneurs behind such businesses maintain that bugs can be delicious. Meanwhile, edible insects are raised more sustainably than cattle, chicken or pigs, requiring far less water, food and land.
With consumers increasingly receptive to sustainable protein sources with a minimal carbon footprint compared to traditional beef, pork and chicken, a growing cadre of startups around the world is aiming to corner the market based on creepy-crawlies.
Why the buzz on bugs?
In parts of Asia and Africa, bugs are a regular part of the human diet. In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 2 billion people around the world regularly consume insects.
While Western countries, especially Europe and the U.S., have only recently started contemplating insect-based food for human and animal consumption, the market is already growing quickly.
Part of the reason insects are emerging as a “superfood” of the future is because they can contain more essential nutrients than traditional meat sources. For example, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that on a per-serving basis, the iron content of crickets was a whopping 180% higher than that of beef.
Bugs are also gaining popularity as a food alternative owing to their sustainability factor. A report from the UN’s FAO suggests while cattle need 10 kilograms of feed for every 1 kilogram of body weight gain, crickets require only 2 kilograms of feed.
Additionally, insects need the least land. That means replacing more animal products with insects in our diets could significantly reduce the amount of farmland required to grow food.
Research by the University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College finds that reducing consumption of meat by eating more insects would free up nearly 1,680 hectares, or about 4,151 acres, of farmland, which translates to "70 times the size of the UK."
Trending insect-based startup categories
European startup Horizon Insects attempts to make the bug-eating experience fun for people with culinary creativity. Horizon offers cricket chips in the Czech Republic, bug burgers in Germany and Belgian beetle beer. Founder Tiziana Di Costanzo holds cricket and mealworm cooking classes at her West London home.
New York City-based entrepreneur and chef Joseph Yoon prepares haute cuisine using edible insects, such as cicadas.
Montana-based Cowboy Cricket Farms offers a variety of insect-based snacks, including whole roasted crickets and cricket powder.
California’s Bitty Foods specializes in cricket flour cookies that come in chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger varieties.
Israel’s Hargol FoodTech produces grasshopper-based protein food products for human and animal consumption.
Beta Hatch, a Washington-based mealworm farming startup, is involved in the cultivation and processing of mealworms for supplying poultry and aquaculture feed products. It also sells organic fertilizer made from insect manure.
Atlanta-based Grubbly Farms commercially grows and processes black soldier fly grub to sell as chicken feed.
Spanish firm MealFood Europe provides industrial insect breeding services.
San Francisco-based Ovipost develops tools and technology for efficient insect farming. The startup is also developing tools to help farmers optimize cricket yields.
Startups BeeHero and BeeCorp, located in California and Indiana respectively, provide software support for beehive monitoring. New York-based UBEES caters to the same industry but works to reduce honeybee mortality with pollination, honey collection and pollen extraction services.
Netherlands-based Protifarm produces natural insect ingredients, primarily from whole dried buffalo worms, for human consumption. Products include protein powder and concentrate, and purified oils.
Oklahoma-based All Things Bugs manufactures and sells finely milled and neutral flavored whole cricket powder.
Niche to normal
Despite the proven market for meat alternatives, the efforts of startups to make bugs appetizing faces an uphill battle in Western countries, especially in the U.S. The biggest barrier to overcome is the “yuck” factor about consuming insects, which is really hard to change.
However, edible insects have great potential in animal feed production. It is more likely that Americans will end up eating more insects indirectly, meaning as feed for the animals they eat.
With the Food and Drug Administration already having approved insect protein for chicken and pet food, and the EU authorizing it as feed for fish farms and on the verge of also approving it as feed for poultry and pigs, edible insect startups are set to make the market go from niche to normal.