Giving the Term “Stomach Bug” a New Meaning

Earth’s population is growing at a rate of almost 75 million people per year. This means that by around 2050, the world will have nine billion appetites to satisfy every day. One of the top concerns surrounding this highly populated future surrounds dietary protein sources and their environmental costs.

When we think of protein in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is inevitably the holy trinity: beef, pork and chicken. Other popular protein sources include seafood, nuts and eggs. Worrying evidence, however, shows that the environmental costs of supporting hordes of livestock for rapidly increasing human consumption are too high for us to rely indefinitely on these protein sources. These impending risks have motivated scientists around the world to work on finding new sources of protein that are equally nutritious but gentler on the environment.

In searching for more sustainable protein sources, scientists have landed upon the idea of entomophagy: eating insects. Crickets, in particular, are the bug du jour, and entrepreneurs and scientists alike have begun to view them as exactly the sustainable, nutritious protein source we need.

Chapul cricket bar.
Chapul cricket bar.

The consumption of crickets is not novel. Humans have been eating insects for thousands of years and even today 80 percent of the world’s population regularly eats insects. Tortillas stuffed with grasshoppers are a delicacy in Mexico, Cambodian stir-fry commonly features red tree ants, and in Japan, one can find anything from fried cicada or silk moth pupae, to boiled wasp or aquatic insect larvae. Like Mexicans, Cambodians and Japanese consumers, Americans too eat bugs. In the United States, however, insect consumption is usually inadvertent. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has established laws about what percentage of our food can contain insects. For example, Hershey’s Bars are allowed to have 8 insect parts each while cinnamon sticks can be 5 percent insects by weight according to science writer Brooke Borel. As a result, it is estimated that the average American inadvertently eats 500 grams of insects per year.

Eating roughly 18 ounces of bugs in a year is not necessarily a bad thing. While eating the insects you come across in everyday life, like houseflies and spiders, is not recommended, farm-raised crickets are safe to eat and apparently quite nutritious. Because eating these crickets involves consuming the entire body, including bones and organs, a single bite out of a cricket bar contains all the essential amino acids that constitute a complete protein. Crickets are so protein-packed that they contain twice the protein of beef by volume, 15 percent more iron than spinach and as much vitamin B12 as salmon according to cricket bar company Chapul.

But even with so many nutritional benefits, crickets still evoke strong cognitive dissonance in Americans, especially those who cannot possibly imagine wanting to eat the same things they hire exterminators to eliminate. Upon finding a cricket in their food, most Americans’ would probably immediately file a lawsuit. To get past this psychological obstacle, companies grind up their winged herds into a powder called “cricket flour,” which is either sold in its original form or used as an ingredient in a processed foods like cookies, health bars and breads.

More than 30 startups launched in North America since 2012 specialize in cricket-based products and currently sell cookies, protein bars and even mixed drinks – most of which look no different from their insect-less counterparts. These products have even gained some traction as they have been modified to fit some of America’s more common dietary preferences, like organic, gluten-free and paleo.

Chocolate cardamom cookies.
Chocolate cardamom cookies.

In addition to being versatile and nutritionally sound, crickets are much more environmentally friendly than traditional American protein sources. Today, 92 percent of the world’s fresh water is consumed by agriculture according to Arjen Hoekstra and Mesfin Mekonnen’s global water use analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, while livestock takes up 70 percent of America’s agricultural land. Countless environmentalist groups have publicized the reality that the planet is barely sustaining its current livestock-induced environmental strains much less the expected needs of a magnified population. Crickets are an appealing answer to these problems of limited space and natural resources. They require only minimal water, feed and space, and they produce basically no methane according to cricket food manufacturer Exo. Also, while cattle take two to three years to mature and reach slaughter weight, crickets grow to adult size in seven weeks, making them a much more efficient source of protein for feeding larger populations. Crickets’ sustainability also puts them leaps and bounds ahead of other alternative protein sources like soy and whey protein because while those sources are less harmful to the planet than livestock raising, they still require substantial amounts of agricultural land and fresh water in order to be produced.

With an impeccable record for nutrition and sustainability, one may start to wonder why crickets aren’t already a widespread protein source in the United States? North America even has some industrial cricket infrastructure already in place, since crickets have been sold for decades as feed for pet fish and reptiles. But as of right now the Department of Agriculture does not inspect edible cricket farms, and the cricket food companies and the relevant government agencies have been cooperating to devise new standards of production and regulation as they progress. Besides the issue of Americans being unaccustomed to seeing bugs on their plates and on ingredient labels, much more research on the nutritional benefits, environmental impacts and possible health risks of edible insects is necessary in order to make crickets a popular food item.

In April 2015, a study from the University of California, Davis cast doubt upon cricket’s sustainability as compared to other forms of livestock. The study found that only crickets raised on high-quality feed grew to attain the nutritional value professed by past research, indicating that they might be more resource-intensive or less nutritionally-valuable than previously thought. This is only one study among a collection of academic literature on the subject of edible crickets, and the continued consumption of crickets and other insects throughout human history lends some support to the idea that they must have significant nutritional value. But the claims in the Davis study are worth exploring, and may be the necessary catalyst for more research, as well as for increased interaction between government, industry and academia.

Thai Peanut Crickets on Rice Balls.
Thai Peanut Crickets on Rice Balls.

Producers of edible crickets are going to need to prove the value of their product to consumers and regulatory government agencies alike if crickets are ever going to become a staple in American supermarkets. Popularizing crickets is going to require careful regulation at every stage of production and distribution, as well as innovative advertising to convince consumers to replace burgers with bugs. Crickets are being heralded as a “gateway bug,” but currently their prospects in the American market do not look promising. Cricket-based food companies’ marketing campaigns have not found enough success thus far to break into mainstream supermarkets. Until knowledge about the nutritional and environmental benefits of crickets as a protein source becomes widespread and supported by both academia and the government, cricket-based foods will most likely not be much more than a novelty item eaten on a dare.