And given how long it takes larger manufacturers to bring new products to market, food companies want to be ahead of the curve from an R&D perspective by starting to experiment with cricket powders now, All Things Bugs founder Aaron T Dossey, PhD, told FoodNavigator-USA.
“In the early days we got a lot of inquiries that didn’t really go anywhere, but now we’re starting to get more serious inquiries. People will buy 30lbs, and then they will come back and buy 60-90lbs.
“We’re having conversations with a lot of food manufacturers in baked goods, snacks, protein powders, and even mainstream food manufacturers have been way more open to this than you would probably think.
“Perceptions would change quickly if a well-known brand were to launch a product with cricket powder.”
If you feed insects a lot of Brussel sprouts, they can taste a bit like Brussel sprouts
However, not all cricket powders were created equal, he claimed: “Some people we talk to say we’ve tried cricket flour and it’s terrible, it just didn’t work, and we were disappointed, and I say, have you tried ours, because they are not all the same.
“Some people think all you have to do is roast them, grind them up and crank out the powder. But it’s more complicated than that if you want to make a functional high quality food ingredient. We buy frozen crickets, mill them into a fine powder and then heat treat them, so our powder is a lighter color, tastes different, and will perform differently.”
Indeed, color, texture, taste, performance and nutritional content will vary depending on what the crickets were fed, when they are ground up (before or after heat-treatment), the temperature used in the drying/dehydrating process, how finely they are milled, plus other factors, he added.
“The dark, coarse, roasted ground stuff should probably be called ‘meal’ as it’s a very different product.”
As for flavor, the ‘you are what you eat’ mantra is particularly relevant for crickets, he said, which means getting the diet right will be critical, both in terms of economics and sustainability, but also in organoleptic terms: “If you feed insects a ton of Brussel sprouts, they can taste a bit like Brussel sprouts.”
All Things Bugs is also trying to manage expectations by using new terminology, he said: “We’re trying to move people away from the term ‘cricket flour’, as you can’t just do a 1:1 substitution for wheat flour and expect the recipe to turn out the same; you might replace maybe a quarter or a third of wheat flour, but more than that and you’ll run into issues, as wheat flour is mostly starch and cricket powder is mostly protein [67%+] and oil.
“We use the term ‘finely milled whole cricket powder’ as this is a more accurate description of what it is.”
Scaling up alone without fundamental changes to farming practices could cut costs by 25-50%.
So what needs to change for cricket powder (quoted prices range from $28 to $45/lb depending on order quantities) to move from a novelty to a mass market food ingredient?
Said Dr Dossey: “The major cost is the cost of the insects, owing to the manual, non-mechanized, outdated nature of insect farming.
“But just scaling up alone without fundamental changes to farming practices could decrease costs by 25-50%. If crickets were just 10% the size of soy or whey then that scale alone would deliver cost reductions of around 50% - although that’s just a ballpark estimate.”
To put things into perspective, Dr Dossey – who claims to be the world's biggest manufacturer - made 9,000lbs of cricket powder last year, which in the world of insect ingredients, is a big deal, but in the world of food ingredients, is, well, pretty small fry.
He added: “I always say to people, order 1,000lbs and ask when they can deliver, then you’ll know if they are serious. We’ve got down to $28/lb wholesale for our largest orders, but that will probably come down again.”
The edible insect supply chain
While vertical integration sounds like a great way to drive efficiency, raising crickets, processing them into food ingredients, and then using these ingredients in finished food products, all require very different skillsets, and few companies have expertise in all three areas, said Dr Dossey, who sources his crickets in the south eastern US and processes them in New Jersey.
“We are focused on being an ingredients supplier. We don’t raise our own crickets, we buy them off farmers that raise, feed, kill and package them to our specifications.”
And even farmers with years of experience in raising crickets for the exotic pet food industry are not necessarily ideally equipped for raising insects for human consumption, as aside from the different regulations at play, insects for pets are transported alive, while those for humans are dead on arrival.
But what about the safety and regulatory status of edible insects in the US?
On the one hand, humans have been eating crickets for thousands of years, he said. However, no supplier has yet determined if cricket powder is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), primarily because no one has a few hundred thousand dollars lying around to spend on convening an expert panel to look into this.
As for pathogens, All Things Bugs has not found Eschericha coli, Salmonella sp., Staphylococcus aureus, or Listeria sp. in any shipments of raw frozen insects from the largest US cricket and mealworm farms, while the coliform/total plate count is also reasonably low, he added. "Also, pasteurization appears to reduce total plate count to very low and possibly nearly sterile levels."
When it comes to allergens, as crickets are related to crustaceans, it seems logical that people with a shellfish allergy might also be allergic to crickets, so companies using cricket powder typically add a warning on pack, he said, although this is not required by law.
On sustainability, research is ongoing, he said, but a recent study concluding that crickets are no more efficient at converting poultry feed to protein than chickens should be put into perspective.
“Crickets are not generally fed exactly the same as chickens, and the study didn’t factor in things like water use, land use, pesticides and so on. But even if crickets are about as efficient as chickens on feed conversion, think how much more efficient they could get.
“We’ve been optimizing how we raise chickens for hundreds of years, so I don’t see this paper as a negative.”
Mealworms, the sleeping giant of this industry?
Finally, he said, crickets could just be the beginning: “To date, the industry has been totally focused on crickets, but I think mealworms could be the sleeping giant of this industry; high quality mealworm powder could be more functional than cricket powder.”
Edible insects will be on the agenda at Food Vision USA in Chicago in October: Have you signed up?