Two billion people around the world consume insects on a regular basis, from Mexico and Venezuela to Cambodia, Thailand, and sub-Saharan Africa. For centuries in the Western gastronomic world, the notion of eating bugs was seen as a dire last resort. But consuming insects is — albeit slowly — making its way into the mainstream for its health benefits, sustainability, and novelty.
The latter, however, is unique from the former. The fine-dining circuit has seen insects being utilized in dishes like ants on live shrimp at Tokyo's Noma pop-up, and Britain's Grub Kitchen appeals to thrill seekers with its cricket falafels and "worm fudge" ice cream. But for the average consumer seriously considering adding insects to their diet, the practice has less to do with the novelty factor and more to do with health, sustainability, and taste.
"Edible insects have a huge culinary potential that we are only beginning to explore in the West."
"Edible insects have a huge culinary potential that we are only beginning to explore in the West," says Meghan Curry, founder of Bug Vivant, a culinary website devoted to edible insects. "The rest of the world has been eating edible insects like gusanos [worms] and jumiles [stink bugs] for centuries. It's time to play catch up; not only to experience something new, but to help preserve tasty traditional entomophagy practices."
For many, the idea of eating insects is a challenging notion, which is partially why cricket flour — made by milling whole crickets into a coarse or fine powder — is serving as a gateway ingredient to full-fledged bug-eating. Essentially, cricket flour is a supplement for traditional flour that allows consumers to steer away from a dining practice that involves biting off the head of an insect or swallowing a wing. But no matter how physically different cricket flour is to the actual insect, more needs to be done for cricket flour to truly take off. The pivotal players in fighting the existing cultural bias are chefs — who have also put garbage-to-plate dining and trash fish on the map — since they have the capacity to further jumpstart the ingredient's popularity and navigate how it is used.
"Chefs play a critical role in the entomophagy movement," Curry says. "Like any ingredient, insects can be mind-blowingly delicious or very disappointing, depending upon how they're prepared. The more we, as an industry, can get edible insect ingredients into the hands of influential chefs, the sooner we can reach the dinner plates of food bloggers and media sources that set trends."
That is not to say all chefs are unaware of cooking with it, as many have already hopped on the cricket flour bandwagon. In 2008, restaurateur and chef Meeru Dhalwala pioneered the use of cricket flour in her Vancouver restaurant Vij's after reading a New York Times magazine piece about the health benefits. She incorporated whole crickets on naan pizza and used ground crickets — which would be mixed with oil, salt, and red cayenne; baked in the oven; and ground once cooled — to make the dough for parathas, a South Asian flatbread.
"Reality is that if it doesn’t taste good, it won’t last or take off with the mainstream."
Dhalwala says eating insects cannot become mainstream until they are prepared correctly. "Reality is that if it doesn't taste good, it won't last or take off with the mainstream," Dhalwala says. "Kale took force because we started making it taste good. I notice many people approaching insects as a new business idea, but who is cooking delicious insects besides a few people and restaurants? Eating insects is intellectually popular right now, and it's a great conversation piece, but more chefs need to experiment with insects."
A few years after Dhalwala's menu launched, startups like Exo and Bitty Foods started bringing cricket flour to market by mixing the finely milled crickets with starches. Both brands work with chefs to create a line of ready-made products — Exo, for example, has a line of sweet and savory meal bars with acclaimed chef Kyle Connaughton, and Bitty offers a range of cookies created with chef Tyler Florence.
For a chef, there are several incentives to incorporate cricket flour in food. First and foremost, it creates hype and gets people talking. But there are more practical applications as well. Cricket flour is healthy and sustainable. Nutritionally, one of the biggest selling points for crickets are made up of 65 percent protein — which is needed to build and repair tissues, stabilizes blood sugar, keeps metabolism active, and holds energy levels high. Crickets are low in fat and contain amino acids, iron, calcium, unsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. "Bugs are great sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, and Omega-3 fatty acids," says David George Gordon, also known as the "Bug Chef" and author of the Eat-a-Bug Cookbook.
There's also the sustainability component. Farming insects requires less space than other forms of protein, and thus, the entire process is a more viable practice. "They're much more environmentally friendly to raise than cows, pigs, chickens, and other more 'conventional' forms of protein," says Gordon. This, in turn, can help chefs build their brand into one that attracts consumers looking for greener options.
While some are referring to cricket flour as the new "it" protein supplement, others are quick to categorize it with protein alternatives that are dismissed by the culinary community. Take Soylent, for example, which is a meal replacement beverage that promises to provide the consumer with all their nutritional requirements. The key ingredients of this supplement are soy protein, algal oil, and isomaltulose. Despite receiving $20 million in funding, chefs are largely skeptical about the supplement.
"We’re trying to make delicious products, as chefs, and we are using cricket flour as the base."
There is, however, an inherent difference between the demographics of Soylent versus cricket flour. Soylent is being catered to the consumer who wants to streamline their day by eliminating all food prep. Simply put, it does not enhance food in any capacity. Cricket flour, on the other hand, can be supplemented into almost any dish that requires traditional flour.
"It's a very easy product to work with," says Connaughton, who directs Exo's product development and recently launched three savory flavors for the brand's protein bars. "It's not like we're trying to find ways to make crickets taste delicious. We're trying to make delicious products, as chefs, and we are using cricket flour as the base for creating delicious things with particular nutritional profiles." Connaughton recommends using it as you would use a protein powder. "Cricket flour is very easy to use in that it does not have the functional properties that are, in any way, inhibiting its use," he says. "There's no gluten in there. There's no starch, so it's not hydrating or gelatinizing or thickening in the way that starch does. It's fairly neutral, so you can supplement recipes with it."
Taking the initiative to test cricket flour supplements is where chefs can make all the difference. According to Gordon, further chef involvement will be a "major step forward," since culinary experts will know how to combine ingredients in a palatable fashion. Mealworms, says Gordon, have been paired with ice cream in the past, which is a major culinary faux pas: The combination would be counterintuitive to an experienced chef since mealworms apparently taste like mushrooms.
Changing the mindset may seem like an uphill battle, but it is far from impossible. It's happened once before with lobster: the marine crustacean was once considered to be food worthy only of prisoners, the destitute, and cats. Things took a turn in the 1880s after chefs learned how to properly prepare lobster — which was then referred to as the "cockroach of the sea" — and almost a century later, the lobster has secured its reputation of being a culinary delicacy.
Connaughton even parallels the early stages of cricket flour to how sushi was initially perceived in the United States — first it was gross, and now it's available in almost every corner of the country. "At first, people are accepting to something that's in an easy and familiar form," Connaughton says. "Little by little, people graduate. If you see the trajectory of sushi in this country, you barely saw it [on menus], and then people got into it through gateway rolls, like California rolls. And now you can go to any small town in the country and people are eating sushi and sashimi."
"Three years ago, if you wanted to cook with insects, you had to go to a pet store to buy nasty reptile feeder crickets."
One solution, according to Dhalwala, is toying with the names. "Perhaps we need to come up with a better name than, say, 'crickets, mealworms, and fly larvae,'" she says. "Kind of like how we order beef and not 'cow,' or pork and not 'pig.'"
But there has already been a noticeable shift in how people are viewing insect-based products. "Three years ago, if you wanted to cook with insects, you had to go to a pet store to buy nasty reptile feeder crickets," says Curry. "Today a whole industry has evolved to meet the rising demand for sustainable insect protein." At Exo, says Connaughton, the demand has been higher than anticipated over the past two years as the normalization of cricket-based products continues.
"I'm finding that most young people are much more accepting of this than their parents — in fact, it's become kind of a cool thing to do, especially among college-agers and members of the foodie communities," says Gordon. "In general, I try to ‘friendly' people into trying some of the easier, more acceptable bugs, such as mealworms and crickets, before introducing them to the more challenging items like scorpions or tarantula spiders." He's not kidding.