When Aspire Food Group first started raising crickets in 2013/14 its globe-trotting co-founders had already traveled the world in a bid to identify best practices. Despite the ubiquity of bug consumption in some parts of the world, however, the tools and techniques to raise and process insects as food on an industrial scale were still evolving, and there were no agreed standards about how to do it in the most efficient manner, co-founder Mohammed Ashour told FoodNavigator-USA.
So for its new, automated facility now up and running in Austin, Texas, Ashour et al went back to basics: “We basically mapped out the entire journey of a cricket from hatch to batch and looked at every opportunity to collect data and apply automation.
“By the end of this year we’ll be able to determine with a pretty high degree of confidence at what time in the afternoon on day 14 of a cricket’s life is it appropriate to deliver food and how much food should there be?”
Ultimately no one cares who is first
When it comes down to it, inefficiency at the farming level is “the primary reason why we have not bridged the gap between the theory that insects should be a far more cost effective source of protein versus the practice that they can be a lot more expensive,” said Ashour.
“When we started in 2013, we were the first company dedicated to farming crickets for human consumption, so we were in the unique position of building not just a company, but an industry.
“But ultimately no one cares who is first. What matters is who is making an impact and growing the space. Netscape Navigator and MSN Messenger beat Google and facebook to the punch, but who was able to carve out a vision that created long term success?
“We’ve established ourselves as the leader in developing the infrastructure for farming insects for human consumption because we have to make this more cost effective and scalable. We could now set up a farm anywhere in the world and be confident that we could produce the same output with the same level of fidelity.”
Aspire was founded 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 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 (president, Ghana).
‘We’re probably only six months to at the very most a year away from being in that sweet spot [for a large CPG company] in terms of price’
Prices have come down with scale and efficiency, he said, making crickets and cricket powder more affordable for some of the entrepreneurial, but small, brands that have pioneered efforts to introduce US consumers to bugs via bars, chips and other packaged foods.
But are cricket powder prices at the level that would interest General Mills, or Unilever, or KraftHeinz? It obviously depends on whether you’re talking about putting bugs in Mac & Cheese vs one of the smaller brands in these firms’ portfolios, said Ashour, “But we’re probably only six months to at the very most a year away from being in that sweet spot [for a large CPG company] in terms of price now.
“It’s kind of like everyone’s playing musical chairs right now, and everyone is watching and watching and no one wants to go in, but once someone does…”
Aspire currently uses a modified form of organic certified poultry feed, but is exploring whether it could in future incorporate a percentage of food waste streams or other more affordable/sustainable options without damaging the consistency of the final product.
The challenge – and the opportunity, said Ashour, is that crickets are the literal manifestation of the ‘you are what you eat’ axiom. In other words, if you want to produce cricket flour with a higher iron content, you can engineer that fairly easily by giving them iron-rich feed. On the downside, if you put junk in, you get junk out. “They are so efficient at converting what they eat into their own biomass.”
What’s the endgame for edible insects?
Right now, Aspire’s crickets are raised on USDA certified organic feed (modified poultry feed) and available online under the Aketta brand in the form of roasted whole crickets, cricket flour (milled whole cricket powder), flavored whole roasted crickets, and granola.
And while the bulk of its business is likely to remain the wholesale supply of cricket powder to CPG manufacturers, where Aspire is seeing “strong and sustained growth” in demand, Ashour says there is growing interest from bricks & mortar retailers in stocking Aspire Aketta branded products – with some announcements on this front likely later this year – and strong interest from large foodservice companies as well as high end restaurants.
Aspire is in the final stages of putting together a GRAS [generally accepted as safe] determination for its milled cricket powders, which when complete, it intends to submit to the FDA [which can then in turn respond with a no questions/objections letter assuming it is satisfied with the data presented], said co-founder Mohammed Ashour.
“FDA will be visiting our facility before the end of the summer purely because they are interested in seeing what we’re doing. We see ourselves as building the gold standard for farming crickets for human consumption.
“We’d like to establish guidelines and then maybe down the road a certification process could be put in place to make certain that only the highest quality insects enter our food supply, which would cause other companies in different parts of the world to have to comply with that standard [if they want to supply the US market].”
Normalizing bug consumption
But what’s the endgame? Transforming the global food supply by heralding a fundamental shift in eating patterns, or providing Americans – most of whom are not short of protein – with yet more protein-packed bars, functional beverages and snacks they don’t really need?
If the edible insect movement is to meaningfully impact the protein market (and the planet) by displacing less sustainable animal-derived protein sources (beef, poultry, dairy), cricket companies will have to move beyond snacks into the center of the plate over the longer term, acknowledged Ashour.
But right now, most players in what is still a pretty embryonic market in the US, are simply trying to make eating insects – in any form – normal, he pointed out.
As the company liked to stress in the early days, however, the fundamentals look good: Eating bugs is not crazy. In fact, it’s not even unusual, if you take a more global perspective: ‘Two billion people eat insects in 162 nations around the world. Why don't you?’
Aspire freezes its crickets and then roasts them whole, before grinding them into an earthy-tasting powder. For customers that want a finer, paler powder more suitable for beverages and other products, Aspire works with a co-packer with spray-drying equipment that can turn a slurry of frozen crickets (ie. not roasted) into a fine pale powder.