January 17, 2023
A few years ago, chef Joseph Yoon attended a fundraiser at New York’s Food and Finance High School, a culinary public school that focuses its curriculum on the restaurant business and food industry.
As he did what he does best, using his internationally recognized culinary skills to spread the word about edible insects, a rowdy teen approached his table. “He was freaking out, like, ‘Oh, my God!’” recalled Yoon, founder of edible insect advocacy/ambassador group Brooklyn Bugs. “He started shouting, “Look, this guy's got bugs! This is disgusting!”
The cynic’s outcry drew the attention of his schoolmates, who were willing to sample dishes like Silkworm Pupae Japchae and Carmel Covered Cicada Popcorn. To the high schooler’s shock, the other kids ate it up, literally.
“He was flabbergasted,” Yoon continued. “He said, ‘Okay, chef, which one should I eat?’ He tried all the dishes and went from the biggest naysayer to, ‘Yo! You gotta check this out!’
“I have so many examples of people that expect the insects to taste disgusting. And I love the great wonder when they are like, ‘That actually tastes good!’"
Benefits of consuming bugs
Having a taste for bugs doesn’t classify this kid as a vampire’s protégé—or even make him weird, frankly. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security,” over 2 billion people across the globe currently consume over 1,900 species of insects.
Not only are bugs highly nutritious, especially from a protein perspective, but widespread consumption of insects ranging from crickets to mealworms as human food and animal feed could have a major positive environmental impact. The FAO report claims these critters take up less land and emit fewer greenhouse gases than traditional livestock. They can also feed on organic waste streams.
Case in point, the FAO report shows mealworm and beef to have a similar level of protein by volume. Yet, a Dutch study in the journal PLOS ONE concluded mealworms only need 10 percent of the land needed to raise beef. Furthermore, milk, chicken, pork, and beef production all result in higher greenhouse gas emissions than mealworm production, according to the researchers.
The only problem is that, well, it’s mealworm. Modern Western society has yet to completely embrace the concept of entomophagy (eating bugs). A few businesses are making gains though.
Last December, French mealworm producer Ynsect announced it will expand production into the U.S. and is currently exploring “potential synergies” with flour milling and ingredient company Ardent Foods. They’ve also signed a deal with foodservice business Corporativo Kosmos to build an insect farm in Mexico.
In June, British cricket protein producer Aspire received $8.5 million from the Canadian government to level up its commercial facility in Ontario.
‘Who will eat them?’
North America will soon have access to all the crickets and mealworms it can eat. This begs the question, “Who will eat them?”
It’s something the bug biz has been trying to answer for quite some time. Consumers may be familiar with Chapul Farms, whose charismatic CEO and founder Pat Crowley appeared on the TV show “Shark Tank” in 2014, seeking capital to sell cricket energy bars. The company’s messaging was very insect-forward and consumer acceptance was slow. Chapul Farms stopped selling bars in 2019 and pivoted into the farming ventures.
“We were five to 10 years too early,” Crowley reflected. “One of the biggest challenges for us was starting at ground zero. Targeted marketing was very difficult. I don't think Shark Tank helped because such a wide variety of population and demographics watch that show. It didn't really narrow the focus.”
Crowley explained digital marketing and communication tools have since evolved significantly, allowing a new generation of companies to better target their niche. Furthermore, health trends have shifted.
“They’re especially focused on gut health and the need for micronutrients—those are health categories where insects really excel,” Crowley said.
Matt Beck, CEO of cricket protein CPG companies Hoppy Planet Foods and EXO Protein, described a “big balloon moment” that emerged when insect protein started making a splash in 2013 and 2014.
“(Early edible insect CPG companies) were all very heavily focused on making sure that people were very, very, very much bought into eating bugs,” Beck said. “People were purchasing those products just to say, ‘I ate something that has bugs in it.’ That meant that the value proposition was—intentionally or unintentionally—that you’re getting bugs. Unfortunately, a lot of folks didn't feel that was a great reason to keep buying those products.”
‘No silver bullet’
The novelty of eating insects may have worn off, requiring a new marketing approach.
“Market development needs to come in stages,” said Crowley, whom Beck respectfully referred to as “an OG” in the edible insect space. “At the time, we got a lot more impressions with highlighting the insect and trying to validate the differentiating factors between the 10,000 other nutrition bars on the market. I think the next phase of marketing is to amplify the health benefits and talk less about the novelty element of it.”
Hoppy Planet and EXO Protein do exactly that, playing down the insect aspect, marketing their products as containing “acheta” (as opposed to “cricket”) protein, and focusing on nutrition.
As Beck explained, “The value proposition to consumers is that you have these delicious, nutritious and sustainable products because that's why you buy food, right? It just happens to come from cricket. When you showcase it in a way that people find valuable, it doesn't really matter that it comes from insects. It becomes appealing to a far wider base of people to incorporate into their diet every day.”
Yoon said he supports Beck and Hoppy Planet, but he doesn’t see their approach as the only solution.
“I also support other companies that are very insect forward,” Yoon said. “There's no silver bullet in changing hundreds of millions of people's minds. It requires all the things.”
North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA) Executive Director Aaron Hobbs also sees the benefits of integrating “all the things” into a marketing strategy.
“Every opportunity to engage in North America is on the table—from a cultural perspective, from the adventure perspective, etc.,” he said.
Hobbs also understands Beck’s concern regarding the need for some moderation.
“However, we want to find that balance between enough flash so that people notice without becoming a flash in the pan,” Hobbs said. “You'll likely hear the analogy of sushi and the growth of that as a staple in American diets. It wasn't always that way. It started slowly and it grew as people became more comfortable. How do we switch from a novelty of crickets on the menu at José Andrés’ restaurant in (Washington, D.C.) to ‘Hey, let's go out for cricket tacos tonight’?”
Hoppy Planet Foods markets its products as containing “acheta” (as opposed to “cricket”) protein, and focusing on nutrition.A handful of fried crickets smothered in pico de gallo on a corn tortilla with a dollop of guac may sound tempting—and either Andrés or Yoon would certainly make it delicious. Yet, while such showmanship can play a role in public acceptance, ingredient suppliers and CPGs continue to lean more toward a subtle approach.
“It goes without saying that we in the West are not yet ready to find whole insects on our supermarket shelves,” said Antoine Hubert, CEO and co-founder of Ynsect. “That is why we are developing ingredients in the form of oils and flours, which can then be incorporated into recipes: pasta, pastries, burgers, cookies and protein bars.”
Mohammed Ashour, co-founder and CEO of Aspire, expressed a similar opinion.
“Where insects are prepared and presented in whole form, the motivation for consumption is often novelty,” he explained. “As such, once this proverbial box is checked, there is typically little incentive to further consume the insect in the same format. We learned absolutely nothing new that isn't true for any consumer good: The recipe for success is to create a craveable product at a great value to the consumer. Gimmicks will always find a niche following, but great products reach scale.”
‘A long (and) hard road of work’
Regardless of strategy, anyone entering the edible insect space needs to understand it’s a tough racket, requiring passion, patience and commitment.
“There's not going to be one company, one bite of food, one dish, one event, or one chef where, all of a sudden, 320 million people are going to be like, ‘Oh, wow, yeah, obviously we should do that,’” Yoon warned. “It takes consistency. You better be damn sure that you love the product and are ready for a long, hard road of work.
“It's a mistake to say there is one road map to success for selling insect products. It's like any other product—only harder,” Yoon continued. “You need to be even more tenacious, more creative, more innovative and have more passion to be successful.”
Hobbs observed “a handful of companies” in the insect market have achieved “great success,” thanks, in part, to a clear focus and message. Hoppy Planet and EXO Protein arguably fit into that category, considering their sales doubled in 2022 and they’re expected to double again this year.
“I see us as a champion of acheta protein,” Beck said. “We found that cricket-based proteins have a far higher level of understanding, acceptance and knowledge in the market, so that's probably the best way to introduce folks to a much deeper and wider world of edible insects. We've got this phenomenal superfood ingredient that we're going to help people understand.”
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