On paper, crickets tick all the boxes. They are low in fat, but high in complete protein (60-70%), packed with calcium, iron, vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3s (which you won’t find in plant protein isolates), and super-efficient at converting feed into food, requiring less land and water than cattle or pigs, and emitting fewer greenhouse gases.*
Cricket powder is also a minimally processed whole food (unlike plant protein isolates and concentrates) that is produced by freezing whole crickets (which is considered humane as the drop in temperature makes them dozy and puts them in a dormant state before they hit the deep freeze) and then roasting and milling them.
While some heavily roasted products can have an earthy taste, the flavor is best described as “like ground cashews with a hint of cocoa,” according to one industry source. Finer powders with a more neutral taste can be achieved by grinding frozen insects into a slurry and then spray drying them, meanwhile.
*According to a 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN
hi! Human Improvement: ‘The parallels between the cannabis industry and the insect industry are remarkable’
So why hasn’t the cricket protein market for human food taken off, given the jaw-dropping sums we've recently seen investors throw at so many other 'alternative proteins' with arguably less going for them on the nutritional front?
There are lots of reasons - from the ick factor, to lack of scale and high prices, to poor timing, a shortage of funds, and plain bad luck - says Josh Campbell, CEO at insect-fueled protein brand hi! Human Improvement – a startup with pretty lofty ambitions (or a great sense of humor) if its name is anything to go by.
“But then you could also say that there weren’t a lot of people with experience in CPG and marketing launching these products," he told FoodNavigator-USA.
"There were a lot of hobbyists, although there were some better funded companies on the manufacturing side [with Aspire and Entomo currently dominating the farming and processing side, with many smaller players coming and going such as Cowboy Cricket Farms, Big Cricket Farms, and Tiny Farms]."
It’s like taking Jell-O and saying, ‘Hey! we've got a bunch of ground up cow bones and sugar. You want some?'
So what gives the team at hi! Human Improvement the confidence to jump into a market that has not, yet, at least, lived up to the hype?
"I like a challenge," said Campbell, who says cricket powder is a minimally processed, nutrient powerhouse.
“But I also see a huge opportunity. Before I got into this, I was running dosist, one of the largest brands in the cannabis sector, and our whole approach was around storytelling to make cannabis – which carries a stigma – more approachable to the everyday consumer, and the parallels between the cannabis industry and the insect industry struck me as remarkable.
“So we looked at what was on the market [in the edible insects space] and said, hold on a second, they are putting insects on the front of the packaging. It’s like taking Jell-O and saying, ‘Hey! we've got a bunch of ground up cow bones and sugar. You want some?'
“Sure there’s a novelty factor, but I don't know why people thought that approach would work. No one had created a great sexy package and said hey, here's a lot of benefits, and by the way we’re using insects, so it was really about inverting the narrative.
“We acquired a Canadian company [Crik Nutrition, which was selling cricket powder in tubs], relocated the business to the US, brought one of the formulators from Moon Juice over to help us clean up the formulation, and put it in a completely novel packaging system [single serve recyclable packets].
The refreshed brand launched direct to consumer at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (“We timed it horribly,” observes COO Jason Brown) and is now available on several sites including Amazon and Walmart.com, but is now pushing into retail.
‘A surprising amount of vegans are buying it’
While hi! Human Improvement doesn’t hide the fact that organic cricket powder is its #1 ingredient (followed by pumpkin, brown rice, fermented yellow pea protein, plus psyllium husk fiber, flaxseed, and MCT oil), it does not put bugs on the front of the pack.
Instead, the focus is on top quality protein, zero added sugar (the product is sweetened with monk fruit and stevia), and a product that “doesn’t give you stomach aches, lethargy and bloating,” said Campbell.
“Often, the nutrition and the superfood aspects of crickets fall to the wayside when, in our opinion, these are actually the most important, most interesting aspects of the product, plus the fact it’s a minimally processed, whole food ingredient, not a heavily processed extract. This is a branding issue, not a product issue. Two billion people on earth already eat insects.
“We’ve also found a surprising amount of vegans buying it, because it’s high in vitamin B12 and available iron. Other people like it because they can digest it very easily.”
The front of each brightly-colored packet is dominated by the hi! brand, followed by the ‘a better way to protein’ message: ‘A unique blend of sustainably-sourced proteins that’s good for the planet and easy on your gut.’
Pricing will come down with scale
Asked about the price of cricket powder, Brown said: “It's still a gating factor in this market, but it will come down with scale, so Aspire Food Group is building a new facility in Canada [a 100,000 sq ft facility in London, Ontario billed as ‘the world’s largest cricket farm’] to automate the raising of crickets which should bring prices down and Entomo Farms [which we will also speak with next week] is looking to scale.”
Chapul founder and edible insect pioneer Pat Crowley – who introduced many Americans to the concept of eating bugs – pulled out of the bar category a couple of years ago after his co-packer went out of business, and has since focused efforts on raising black soldier flies for pet food, animal feed, and biofertilizer.
“I definitely wouldn’t say it’s an admission of defeat,” said Crowley in 2019. “The original mission was to grow the industry... and it is still growing, even without our participation."
Hoppy Planet Foods: ‘Vital Proteins… they don't talk about the fact that collagen is made from ground up animal parts’
Another new player hoping to succeed in a category where others have failed is Matt Beck, founder and CEO at startup Hoppy Planet Foods, which has a line of cookies and bites featuring Acheta branded cricket protein from Aspire Food Group, and recently acquired the pioneering EXO protein brand from Aspire.
Like Brown and Campbell, Beck is bullish about the edible insects category, and also knows a thing or two about selling and marketing CPG brands (he worked in sales at PepsiCo for six years and then at Google for a further six years helping some major food and beverage companies build data and media strategies).
“I think there’s more interest in health and wellness and a heightened awareness of sustainability today [compared with five or six years ago when many brands in this space started out], and there’s also been a marketing focus shift in the category," said Beck.
“Early on, brands focused specifically on crickets and insect protein because it was different. But our approach is to focus on the benefits, it’s nutritionally balanced, it has vitamins and minerals, it's a natural prebiotic, and by the way, it's also great for the environment too, so you can feel better about yourself.
“We don't focus on a singular ingredient. Look at [collagen-infused brand] Vital Proteins, they don't talk about the fact that collagen is made from ground up animal parts. Look at Danone. They convinced people it was a good idea to eat live bacteria [probiotics] because of the health benefits.”
‘Danone convinced people it was a good idea to eat live bacteria…’
He added: “We have the intention of being the premier consumer packaged goods company featuring Acheta protein.”
EXO – which was founded by Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz in 2012 and sold to Aspire in 2018 – has developed a loyal following online (it’s still primarily direct to consumer, although it’s sold in some accounts such as H.E.B. in Texas), said Beck.
Hoppy Planet Foods, meanwhile, is primarily sold through bricks and mortar channels, because the economics of selling protein bars online vs cookies are different.
“Buying a box of protein bars is one thing," said Beck. "But you have to buy a lot of cookies at a time for the economics [of shipping them out] to work, so the cookies are in retailers such as HyVee in the Midwest, lots of independent natural retailers, but also some 7-Eleven stores as well.”
“Our plan is to expand that footprint and make EXO easily accessible in more places. There are places in the country where Hoppy Planet cookies are available but EXO bars aren't and vice versa, and so we want to help the both of them permeate further in the market. Once a retailer sees success, they are open to seeing what else you have.
“Hoppy Planet has never been removed from any store that's started to sell it.”
So do we mention the crickets?
As for branding, EXO – like many CPG brands utilizing insect protein – has been through multiple packaging iterations, said Beck.
The first bars had a modern, culinary feel and were first pitched as protein bars (bottom left), then savory meal bars (top right), then cricket protein bars complete with cricket graphics (bottom right).
The latest version of the packaging (top left) still positions the product as a ‘cricket protein bar,’ but has ditched the bug pictures.
So should crickets be front and center or not?
“It’s a good question,” said Beck. “It’s something that we're thinking about because this packaging has worked for a certain audience, and we certainly don't want to leave those loyal stewards of the brand out in the cold, but how do we continue to deliver the experience our current consumers like, but also help broaden the horizon and potential of the brand?
“So [new branding] is definitely something we’re considering as we get into 2022, and there will also be more products.”