CHICAGO -- After years as a reality TV staple, bugs as food may finally be going mainstream.
With food manufacturers searching for innovative—and sometimes strange—ways to appeal to consumers, bug snacks are slowly becoming a hot commodity.
“Insects are consumed in 80% of the world's countries,” Mohammed Ashour told CSP Daily News.
Ashour is co-founder and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Aspire Food Group, a manufacturer and distributor that sends insect-based, micronutrient-rich foods to malnourished populations. Insect snacks, especially crickets, are trending around the globe and, notably, in areas where eating them is uncommon, he said.
“The tipping point began in 2013," he said, "when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO) published a study about edible insects as a solution to global food security given surging global populations and a rising demand for protein alternatives.”
One notable takeaway from the UNFAO study was that the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms, for instance, is similar to that in fish and meat; and its fatty acids are even higher.
Three years after the release of that study, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said bugs could be the snacking trend of the future.
"Bug-related stuff is big," she said during a conference in October 2016. This cheap source of protein could go mainstream in the next decade, she said. "[Experts] said the hottest thing is eating crickets ... in chips."
Clearly, the hype around bug snacks is for real. But why are consumers suddenly craving the crunchy crawlers?
“Insects are consumed in 80% of the world's countries.”
It starts with the way people think about their food, which has shifted enormously in recent years, said Ashour.
“Now more than ever, people are reading the back of labels and are making sure the products they are consuming are delicious without compromising on being natural, sustainable and nutritious,” he said.
Crickets, although produced differently by each manufacturer, fit the bill. Aspire’s crickets are farm-raised in a facility that Ashour calls “more hygienic and sanitary than any farm you have ever seen.” The company’s crickets are fed organic feed and triple-filtered water to ensure nutritional value and are highly sustainable because they’re farmed with less land, water and energy than most protein sources.
These crawlers also come in various edible forms besides their whole selves. Cricket powder, sometimes referred to as cricket flour, is used to cook various insect-based snacks and whole foods. Although ingredients may vary, most have a base of farm-raised crickets, such as the premium powder from Oklahoma City-based All Things Bugs, a cricket-powder-specific manufacturer and research and development firm. Its powder is gluten-free and high in protein, catering to consumers looking for anything from a protein shake to gathering ingredients for a recipe to make their own insect snacks at home.
“Early adaptors have been people in the fitness area looking for alternative proteins, or folks in general interested in sustainable food sources,” Aaron Dossey, president, founder and owner of All Things Bugs, told CSP Daily News. “Most who try it seem to enjoy it and incorporate it into their diets.”
And product innovation is aggressive. Ashour said Aspire has new high-protein, low-sugar insect bars in the works, as well as new flavors for its cricket items and a protein powder that should be ready by the end of the year.
“We see huge potential with c-stores and are looking forward to building some partnerships later this year.”
But despite recent success, insects are still far from becoming an everyday snack, said Dossey. He believes the key to that is through automating the farm-raising process and garnering attention from multinational companies to buy into the trend.
“Price and scale are key,” he said. “[Insect snacks] are generating interest, but they’re not going to last unless we get our prices down and implement better technology. That’s where we’re at.”
Although odd at first glance, insect snacks certainly align with consumers’ search for healthy alternatives. And as the snack rises in popularity and convenience-store operators look for items to draw consumers into their stores, it’s possible the two may align in the future.
“Once a novelty in gift shops, insect snacks are now being sold in grocery chains, foodservice, retailers and even at major sporting events,” Ashour said. “We see huge potential with c-stores and are looking forward to building some partnerships later this year.”