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A bug’s life...on your dinner plate

Edible insects becoming more commonplace

Bullet soldier fly larvae might not be your first choice when you think of a delicious appetizer. But those baby bugs are precisely what chef Meeru Dhalwala is experimenting with.

“From a foodie perspective this is the one insect product that tastes good. It has a nice nutty flavour,” said Dhalwala, a longtime insect-eating advocate and co-owner of Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants in Vancouver. After a beat she added, “The problem is that it’s dark and looks wormy.” Dhalwala envisions serving curried larvae in a spoon, caviar-style, and is waiting for the Canada Food Inspection Agency to approve the insect for human consumption.

Consumers won’t find bullet soldier fly larvae in a restaurant or on grocery store shelves just yet but there are plenty of other insects for  humans to ingest because the edible insect industry has vastly expanded in recent years.

“We know we need healthy protein alternatives as the population expands and resources to farm meat become difficult,” said Jarrod Goldin, President of Entomo Farms, a Canadian company that raises and processes crickets and mealworms for human consumption.

“Kellogg’s and General Mills are looking to being ahead of the curve to have those kinds of insect products for people as a cost effective source of protein.” The conversations, he says, aren’t about the ‘ick factor’ but about environmental and health benefits and how insects are the most sustainable form of protein on the planet. Entomo is in negotiations with Google as the tech giant wants to add insect protein in the form of cricket powder to some foods it serves in its cafeteria at its Silicon Valley headquarters. And UrthBox, a subscription snack box service in the US, plans to add Entomo’s Bug Bistro to its home delivery boxes. They’ll include individual 2-gram packages of crispy, flavoured mealworms to their non-GMO, organic packs. At the same time, chefs like Dhalwala are adding multi-legged crawlers to their menus and food companies are manufacturing cricket protein bars, cricket chips, cricket crackers and cricket cookies for human consumption using finely ground insect powder.

Yes, it’s bad to be a bug when humans are near: crème de menthe popsicles filled with crickets and sticky toffee bug balls sprinkled with mealworm and crickets were the breakout food stars at this year’s Calgary Stampede. Families are crawling all over The Ontario Science Centre entomophagy exhibit, where kids learn about the practice of eating insects and how bugs have more protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats than run-of-the-mill meat and poultry.

On a larger scale, the newly formed North American Edible Insect Coalition is made up of 30 companies that intend to lobby the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to add insect-based foods to its database of Generally Recognized as Safe Foods. Internationally, the Swedish government has committed to fighting climate change and is spending U$261-million to replace conventional meat with edible prototypes with what is described as “good and healthy product from mealworms which are fed on vegetable food scraps to become a climate friendly source of protein.”

Grasshoppers and greenhouse gases

Although humans have been eating insects for thousands of years – in Thailand they eat crispy fried crickets; in some African countries termites are eaten seasoned and fried – it wasn’t until 2013 that the bug bistro movement picked up steam in North America. That was when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report noting that many insects including crickets, beetles, termites, mealworms, and grasshoppers are mega-nutritious; they contain fibre and have as much protein, ounce per ounce as beef, and some species contain more. According to the FAO, some two billion people worldwide currently eat insects regularly. Many insects contain vitamin B, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. The report authors noted that it’s imperative for the rest of us to add insects to our diets in order to feed the estimated nine billion people who will be on the planet by 2050. It’s not just about what goes into our bellies, it’s about the air we breathe. Traditional livestock emit 18 per cent of greenhouse gases, spewing even waste than the transportation industry. And as Goldin noted, crickets produce less greenhouse gases than cattle and also consume far less food and water.

Our government has yet to acquire a taste for multi-legged creatures and isn’t encouraging Canadians to add insect protein to their diets. That said, edible insect producers must meet the same hygiene standards as any other food producer and factories are inspected in the same manner. Until Health Canada has additional safety data and scientific research it will continue to regard bugs as a novelty item.

“While most of the popular insects used as food around the world have a history of safe use for human consumption, the sale of certain edible insect species may be considered a novel food as defined under the Food and Drug Regulations,” wrote Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette in an email.

She added that the Canada Food Guide provides guidance on the amount and type of food Canadians should consume daily for a healthy diet, but “it does not recommend specific sources of protein other than selecting lean meat and alternatives prepared with little or no added fat or salt.” So don’t go looking for insects and insect-like alternatives in the CFG. Where you might find them, though, is in health food stores online like Gryllies, One Hop Kitchen, Ento Eats, or in restaurants.

Bug bistro movement

Fears about climate change inspired Dhalwala to cook with crickets in 2008. After she read an article about the environmental and health benefits of eating insects, she reached out to entomophagists David Gracer and David Gordon, who helped her with the basics of bug eating (entomophagy) and sourcing edible insects.

After additional research, she decided to add them to her menu: there was the aspect of environmental sustainability as well as the nutritional value. And unlike pigs, cows, or chickens, there’s very little risk of disease transfer between humans and insect, she noted. Her goal was to create a new kind of comfort food using crickets. 

“For me it’s not about elevating, because that puts a distance between the customer and the food,” she said. “I’m always thinking how do I make my customer feel comfortable? I want my customers to fall in love with my food and not an infatuation.” 

After some experimentation she roasted, then finely ground the crickets into a powder, mixed the powder with buckwheat flour, then added numerous spices including leafy cilantro and green jalapenos to make a traditional Indian flatbread called a paratha.

“If you eat a roasted cricket with no salt, no cumin, no cayenne, no coriander, you’re going to think you’re tasting a piece of bark,” Dhalwala said. “It’s not like tuna or salmon sashimi that tastes great on it’s own. The cricket needs help.”

The cricket parathas got a lot of attention at her restaurant but didn’t sell as well as the well-known lamb dishes. “Considering it was a bug, it did OK,” she said. The dish remained on the menu until 2010.

In the future, “insects will be a necessity. It’s what we choose to do with that necessity,” she said. In light of global water scarcity and droughts, Dhalwala believes the future of food sources in five to 10 years lies in cricket powder, insect products, in vitro meat, as well as in seaweed. She’s experimenting with the latter.

Rise of the insects

Entomo produces approximately 24,000 to 36,000 pounds of raw crickets a month and, as such, is the largest supplier of cricket powder in North America. That cricket powder is purchased by start-ups in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. The U.S. company Chirps, for instance makes popular cheddar chips, sea salt chips, and BBQ chips using Entomo’s cricket powder. Canada’s Gryllies makes pasta sauce as well as cricket flour. Since launching in late 2013 Entomo’s sales have increased to seven figures from five figures Goldin said, declining to share exact numbers.  

The wholesale price of human grade cricket powder can be as low as $18 per pound, says Goldin, but he’s seen it as high as U$40 on Amazon.

Cricket powder seems pricey but Goldin responds that one pound of cricket powder can’t be compared to one pound of beef because, nutritionally, they are very different. Cricket powder is 65 per cent protein while beef is 17 to 40 per cent protein. In addition, cricket powder contains fibre where beef does not. A meal with beef would be more expensive if you bought all the nutritional components that make up cricket flour, he says, such as whey powder, B-12 and fibre. And then Goldin becomes very animated. “Although meat may be less expensive on the front end, agriculture is destroying the planet on the back end. There’s the cost of destroying our rain forest and the water table and the ozone layer and polluting the oceans.” Goldin takes a breath.

Let them eat bugs

Cricket powder can be used in many ways. Goldin suggests tossing some into chili or soup or oatmeal for a surge of protein. He infuses it into butter and mixes it with pasta. Another suggestion is to add whole roasted crickets to a vegetable stir-fry or put them atop a salad. Or fold them into a tortilla.

Goldin’s dream? “It would be great to see on every counter, in every kitchen, your salt, your pepper and a little bowl of cricket powder. They are pretty much staples in every recipe and all kinds of cooking so cricket powder can be the same.”