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You May Be Eating Bug Burgers Sooner Than You Think

by Mark Hay

August 10, 2014
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

In the late 1970s, the local steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio, began to evaporate. After decades of subsequent depopulation and stagnation, any kind of innovation that could carve out a new name or niche for the rustbelt town was a welcome development. Enter Big Cricket Farms, a promising new enterprise that popped up in Youngstown this past spring. To the surprise of many locals, BCF was exactly what it sounded like: a bug ranch.       

These days, cricket farming isn’t an entirely novel concept. Companies like California’s Bassett’s Cricket Ranch have supplied bugs to pet food stores for decades. But Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown wants their creepy crawlies to wind up on our dinner plates, not in your pet’s food bowl. Entomophagy, or eating insects, is a widespread practice across the world—from Oaxacan grasshopper tacos to Chinese scorpion kebabs to Japanese wasp rice crackers. Yet in the West, despite the efforts of a few early bug lovers, the ick factor is just too powerful; insect eating has been taboo for far too long to support anything more than a few small novelty stores. Over the past decade though, attitudes have begun to change, and as eaters clamor for more adventurous fare, an ever-expanding array of companies like Big Cricket Farms are riding the wave. The Youngstown startup will partner with likeminded Boston company Six Foods to grind their crickets into flour and sell them as chips called “chirps,” hopefully hastening along the growing acceptance of bug food.

Bug businesses may actually be a good bet in the long term, and have a longer shelf life than most culinary fads. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization even released a report last year suggesting bug ranching was one of the world’s best options for sustainable food. Bugs, it confirmed, are health food. When compared pound for pound to beef, crickets provide almost as much protein, up to twice as much iron, half the calories, and only a quarter of the fat. Additionally, ranching insects releases only a fraction of the greenhouse gases, and requires significantly less land usage than raising cattle. It’s also worth mentioning that bugs can actually taste pretty good: Crickets make a hearty flour and smell like popcorn when roasted, mealworms taste of toasted nuts, and caterpillars have a rich flavor with hints of shrimp and tomato.

Thanks to years of tradition in countries like Thailand, where there are already about 15,000 independent insect farmers, new Western entrepreneurs already know quite a bit about what works. And with about 1,500 known edible bug species, there are options for every climate and every niche consumer. Thanks to companies like Thailand Unique, which markets delicacies like armor tail scorpion vodka, and bugapoop tea bags to Western consumers, we even already know a little about what’s trending in the world of arthropod delicacies.

The FAO’s report was a real eyebrow-raiser for those who still shriek when they see a cockroach scurry across their kitchen floor, but many forward-thinking foodies have been quietly building up a serious entomophagy scene over the last few years. There are already two cricket-based protein bars available in the U.S., Chapul and Exo. Looking to make bugs more palatable to the squeamish, some farmers in Berkeley are experimenting with feeding regimes to naturally imbue crickets with honey and other flavorings. On the DIY side, longtime edible bug farmers World Entomophagy make flours and pancake mixes branded as “chocolate chirp,” and Tiny Farms, a bug outlet in Silicon Valley, now sells Open Bug Farms kits for the enterprising foodie to start his or her own backyard bug food garden. There’s even an Austin-based group, Little Herds, solely dedicated to promoting the insect business in America.

It’s likely that taboos around eating bug-based foods will continue to fall away as they get cheaper and easier to find. One wild night when a friend convinces you to eat a wasp cracker on a dare or order grasshoppers at a restaurant just to see what they’re like can easily turn into a lifetime love of eating insects. Hopping on board with this growing trend would be beneficial for both our health and for our planet.

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