As Aspire’s new website makes clear, however, the fundamentals look good. Eating bugs is not crazy. In fact, it’s not even unusual, if you take a more global perspective (Aspire has operations in Austin, Texas, Ghana and Mexico), ‘Two billion people eat insects in 162 nations around the world. Why don't you?’
“The whole reason we were founded was to develop an alternative form of protein that could have an impact on the livestock industry such that people could use it as a replacement protein in meals (in burgers, tacos, etc) and not just as a snack [eating more cricket bars won’t likely have much of an impact on global livestock production],” Aspire marketing director Lisa Friedrich told FoodNavigator-USA.
“But you have to start somewhere. You have to get people used to the idea first, and one of the easiest ways is through a bar or a snack [most brands utilizing edible insects are selling snacks - from Exo and Chapul to Bitty Foods, Six Foods (Chirps) - or specialty products such as Critter Bitters (cocktail mixers made with toasted crickets), although crickets are gaining traction in protein powders and shakes].
“We know some people still think this is a fad, but we are in this for the long term, because it’s addressing a long-term challenge, so honestly I think it is going to take a while before eating insects is ‘normal’ in the US, but you have to start somewhere," said Friedrich. "Look at sushi [which has taken off in the US despite the fact that it was never a big part of the food culture here]. Right now, the industry is in a period of transition.”
Aspire was created in 2012 by five MBA students from McGill University who went on to win the prestigious Hult prize (billed as the ‘planet’s largest student competition to solve the world's toughest challenges’) in 2013 (winners get one million dollars in seed capital).
Aspire has since established operations in Mexico, Ghana and the US and is led by three of its original founders (left to right): Mohammed Ashour (CEO), Gabriel Mott (COO) and Shobhita Soor (chief impact officer).
In the US, its crickets are raised on USDA certified organic feed (modified poultry feed) and are currently available in three forms: Shelf stable roasted whole crickets, shelf-stable cricket flour (milled whole cricket powder), and ‘recipe-ready’ whole crickets (sold frozen).
Everyone in this industry recognizes that we have to become more automated to bring costs down
Despite the apparent ubiquity of bug consumption around the world, however, the tools and techniques to raise and process crickets, mealworms, grasshoppers and palm weevil larvae for human food consumption on an industrial scale are still evolving, and there are – as yet – no agreed standards about how to do this in the most efficient manner, said Friedrich.
“It’s been a process of trial and error. Right now, we’re operating out of a 13,000sq ft facility in Austin, Texas, but we’re looking for a new one as the current site isn’t optimal when it comes to having a completely consistent environment for raising crickets. Our processes are also pretty manual, and labor intensive, and I think everyone in this industry recognizes that we have to become more automated to bring costs down.”
From a processing perspective, Aspire freezes its crickets and then roasts them whole. Some are then sold as whole roasted crickets, while a portion of them are then milled down into powders and sold direct to consumers and to CPG companies and local restaurants on a wholesale basis as a food ingredient.
The company is also exploring other processing techniques involving treating the crickets before they are cooked in order to create finer powders with a different taste and texture, said Friedrich, who says Aspire is in the process of putting together a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) determination for its products.
Demand currently outstrips supply
But are there enough customers out there to warrant the investment in - and the media excitement over - bug farming and processing?
Absolutely, insists Friedrich, who says that demand currently outstrips supply, and that there is "no shortage" of customers looking for bug ingredients, despite the novelty of the edible insect food category.
“We have seen a lot of companies entering the market, and sadly some leaving as they don’t have enough capital, but we are being approached on a regular basis by companies that want to use crickets and cricket powders, so we are very confident that there is a growing market out there.”