If you’ve never eaten bugs before, here’s an interesting tidbit: fried crickets are a lot more substantial than you might think.
The first bite is crunchy, which isn’t much of a surprise. But where you might expect a thin, empty shell, the bug offers up a thick, chewy little nugget, not unlike a small hunk of beef jerky. The flavor is faintly nutty, with an herbal aftertaste that carries a tinge of mustard.
These particular crickets, which I sampled at the Harvard Innovation Lab, were cooked up by Boston-area chef Geoff Lukas for startup Six Foods. After being tossed in a bit of hot oil, soy sauce, and teriyaki, they were tucked into little avocado-and-rice “sushi” rolls.
As a part of the sushi, the bugs themselves disappeared into the mix of flavors—if not for the very crickety looking ingredients poking out of the center, I’d have never known that I was eating an insect in the first place.
That bit of food psychology is at the heart of what Cambridge, MA-based Six Foods is hoping to accomplish. The young company, founded last year by three recent Harvard graduates, is on a mission to help Americans replace some of their mass-produced animal protein with healthy, more environmentally friendly insect sources.
One thing they’ve found already: people who don’t usually eat insects are less apprehensive if it doesn’t look like an actual bug. Besides, in our least healthy moments, most people have probably chewed on something a lot scarier.
“I mean, who knows what’s in a hot dog, for example? Or chicken nuggets?” Six Foods co-founder Laura D’Asaro says. “But people love them and eat them.”
Six Foods started as a result of overseas adventures by former roommates D’Asaro and Rose Wang, another co-founder. While on a trip to Tanzania, D’Asaro munched on a caterpillar for the first time, an experience that she says was “kind of love at first taste.”
After doing some research into insect eating worldwide, she e-mailed Wang—”You test out your crazy ideas on your college roommates,” D’Asaro notes—to wonder why more people in the West couldn’t be convinced to do the same.
“She didnt think I’d be into it,” Wang says. “But I actually had just come back from China the week before, and I was on the streets of Beijing when someone dared me to eat a fried scorpion. If you dare me, obviously I’m going to do it. And it was really good—it tasted like shrimp without the fishy taste to it.”
Soon, with third co-founder Meryl Natow on board, they were experimenting with different ways of cooking up insects into foods that regular Americans might eat. And that’s where the entrepreneurs made their first big discovery about the visual factor in convincing people to try insect foods.
In preparation for a new-business pitch competition at the iLab, Harvard’s dedicated space for entrepreneurial student teams, the Six Foods crew whipped up a batch of tacos made with ground green caterpillars instead of beef. They stowed them in the communal refrigerator without a label or warning sign, figuring they were safe on a Sunday.
“Two hours later we come back. We made 50 of them, and only five were left,” Wang says. “It was the perfect accidental social experiment. Everyone’s like `You did that on purpose didn’t you?’ And we’re like `No, I swear!’”
That led directly to Six Foods’ first product, a range of snack chips made with ground, roasted crickets blended into the bean flour base. The fact that there are crickets inside is not hidden—the name is “Chirps,” after all—but they’re also meant to look and taste like any other tortilla-style chip.
Without having to chomp on something that looks like a bug, the founders say, Americans will “pay much more attention to the actual facts of why you should be eating insects and the taste of the chips, rather than focusing on the fact that there are insects in it.”
Early experiments with their own boxes of escape-prone crickets have given way to a more professional process: insects are sourced from farms around the country, including Ohio, Louisiana, and California. The food itself is produced at contract facilities that work with experimental products.
“There are plants around the country that are really interested in food innovation, so they’re willing to work with really cool products, do recipe development, and help with small runs,” Wang says.
That might seem like an awful lot of infrastructure for something as out of the ordinary as insect foods. But outside the U.S., eating bugs isn’t always an odd idea—and there are compelling environmental reasons to think about expanding that trend.
The United Nations, which last year issued a report calling for greater worldwide insect consumption, says pigs can produce up to 100 times more greenhouse gases per kilogram than the simple mealworm. The UN also notes that some 2 billion people worldwide already eat about 1,900 different species of insects, which can be remarkably high in protein and other nutrients.
Six Foods is not the only company hoping to bring insect alternatives to the American market. As we noted last year, there is a solid group of startups in the San Francisco Bay Area also tackling this opportunity, including companies that make mealworm brittle and cricket-flour protein bars.
Six Foods is using Kickstarter to get its first widely produced product in consumers’ hands, an increasingly popular method for entrepreneurs to pay for projects that require validation from a consumer market before attempting to grow to a much larger scale. That campaign is focused on the “Chirps” chips, which come in three flavors (although the startup’s “Chocolate Chirp” cricket cookies are also offered as an enticement for early supporters).
The longer-term vision for Six Foods is to make insects more than a snack. “We realize that people aren’t there yet—they’re just not ready for meats. So we’re starting out with snack foods,” Wang says. “Our roadmap is first, the insect as ingredient. And then, processed as meat. And then, it’s whole insects.”
So don’t be too surprised if, sometime in the next few years, a version of those early green-caterpillar tacos are available somewhere besides the shared fridge in a college co-working office.
“Each insect is as different as chicken is to pork in terms of taste,” D’Asaro says. “It’s this whole undiscovered food group.”
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