Reporter with Silicon Hills News

The Food + Tech Panel at Capital Factory Monday night on the bug business

The Food + Tech Panel at Capital Factory Monday night on the bug business

Robert Nathan Allen started eating bugs in Austin about four years ago and now he runs a cricket farm to harvest and sell edible insects.

Eating bugs makes sense nutritionally, the insects are protein and iron rich, Allen said. Bugs also use less land, water and produce fewer emissions than traditional livestock, he said.

“It’s a really unique food resource, we’ve completely ignored,” Allen said.

Allen works for Aspire Food Group’s local operations heading up the first farm to grow edible crickets in Austin. He participated in the Food + Tech Austin panel held at Capital Factory Monday night. Other panelists included Rick Lopez, a chef at La Condesa, Jack Ceadel, co-founder of Hopper Foods, Leah Jones, co-founder of Crickers and Dan Von Pasecky, executive director of Little Herds, a nonprofit organization educating people about the benefits of edible insects.

“Farming crickets for food is so new,” Allen said.

Aspire won a $1 million Hult Prize from the Clinton Global Initiative in 2013. It opened a farm in Ghana to harvest palm weevil larvae and another farm in Mexico for grasshoppers. Last year, Aspire chose Austin to open its first U.S. farm. It has a 13,000 square foot warehouse in Austin. The crickets take about six weeks to reach maturity, Allen said. He’s still tweaking temperature, environment, food and more to increase harvests. The crickets eat an organic mix made up of corn and other grains. The facility produces crickets which are then ground into powder and sold to a variety of companies making protein bars, granola, crackers and more.

Aspire supplies cricket powder to two Austin-based startups: Hopper, which makes three types of granola and Crickers, which makes crackers.

Co-founder of Hopper Foods: Marta Hudecova and Jack Ceadel. The maker of cricket granola.

Co-founder of Hopper Foods: Marta Hudecova and Jack Ceadel. The maker of cricket granola.

Hopper launched last summer with a Kickstarter campaign to create an energy bar initially, Ceadel said. It raised $34,523 from 479 backers. But the company moved away from the crowded energy bar market and decided to create grain-free cricket granola instead. It now makes three types of high protein paleo granola made with cricket flour: Cranberry & Almond, Toasted Coconut and Cacao & Cayenne. Each bag sells for around $10.99 and can be found in various natural food stores around Austin and online. It contains about 40 crickets per serving and 10 grams of protein.

Crickers makes paleo-friendly, gluten-free crackers with cricket flour. Jones founded the company with her college roommate in their kitchen last summer. They also participated in a reality TV show on the Food Network and then did a Kickstarter campaign in April. They raised $33,250 from 406 people.

“What we’re trying to do with Crickers is make eating bugs seem hip and accessible and kind of whimsical, not something gimmicky or scary like a giant scorpion sucker you get at the state fair, it’s something healthy, something wholesome,” Jones said.

Other bugs popular for eating include mealworms, wax worms, silk worms, ant eggs, grubs, caterpillars, termites, cicadas, weevils and locusts. But it’s difficult to farm those on a large scale in the U.S. right now, Allen said. And consumers have to start asking for the bugs before farms start to harvest them, he said.

And Ceadel with Hopper said a psychological barrier exists too with U.S. consumers.

“Selling crickets to people is already enough of a challenge,” Ceadel said. “Crickets aren’t sexy but they are a lot sexier than a worm. I’m not going to sell people mealworms right now. I’ll eat them myself. But it’s a bridge too far right now.”

In the last 150 years in the U.S., many food items that were once regarded as disgusting have now become delicacies, Ceadel said. Originally, lobster was fed to prisoners, Ceadel said. It wasn’t until some entrepreneurs from New York marketed lobster to diners that it became popular, he said. Another food that was first met with resistance and has since become widely accepted and popular is sushi, Ceadel said.

“We’re not expecting everyone will start eating bugs overnight, but the sustainability and nutrition arguments are strong enough that enough people will become early adopters that we can build a business and grow over the next ten to fifteen years,” Ceadel said.

Hopper makes three types of cricket-based granola.

Hopper makes three types of cricket-based granola.

Hopper’s tag line is “Crickets are the gateway bug” with the hopes that people will become accustomed to eating crickets and then will want to try other types of insects, Ceadel said. The target market for Hopper’s granola is 18 to 45 year olds with a college degree who are into sports, he said. The crickets are ground into powder so there’s no chance of getting a wing or leg stuck in your teeth, he said.

It’s a big cultural climb to get consumers to start eating insects, but in 20 years, Allen predicts the consumption of insects will be commonplace.

In Austin, at least one restaurant is cooking with insects.

La Condesa, a Mexican restaurant, serves chapulines tacos, which are made with grasshoppers imported from Mexico.

“It’s really cool that people are asking questions about eating crickets and grasshoppers now,” Lopez said.

Already, edible bugs are considered a staple in many international cultures. In fact, two billion people regularly eat insects as part of their everyday diet, according to a 2013 United Nations report.

La Condesa had chapulines on the menu five years ago and then took them off. But Lopez brought them back last October. It costs $10 for a couple of tacos, he said. The restaurant sold 35 orders during a recent Friday and Saturday, he said.

“It’s a serious food,” Lopez said.

Once the popularity of chapulines starts to grow, Lopez said he plans to incorporate more bugs into the menu. He recently tried some ant eggs in Mexico and said they were delicious.