If I didn't know any better, I was munching on potato chips. Only that's not what I was chewing. I was really eating crickets.
It was my first time tasting the insect, or any insect for that matter. Entomophagy, or the act of eating insects, is practiced in many countries around the world, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But recently in New York City, among high-tech juice machines, stands of 3D-printed blueberries, and app-controlled veggie grow systems at future-food exposition called Food Loves Tech, I caught a taste of the cricket cuisine-culture of tomorrow.
Ask any of the food vendors here and there's never been a better time to start eating crickets, mealworms, and other protein- and mineral-rich insects. They are in abundant supply as healthy alternatives to traditional meat products, empowering women in third world countries who eat them. Crickets can also be raised quickly—they grow from hatchling to full size in about six weeks—which advocates believe has the insects poised for a more active role in the future of food.
The future, after all, looks bleak: At the rate we're going, by 2050 there will be so many people on Earth that existing farmland productivity will no longer sustain crop yields to adequately feed the global population. The outlook is dire enough thata 2013 UN report urged the consumption of some 1,900 edible insect species as sustainable, environmentally-conscious food sources.
"One of the many ways to address food and feed security is through insect farming," the UN report states. "Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly, and they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint over their entire life cycle."
And let me tell you: Some of those critters are quite tasty!
"For us it's really two things: nutrition and sustainability," said Lee Cadesky, co-founder and COO of Ontario-based food startups C-fu Foods and One Hop Kitchen, which use crickets and four other types of insect to "create products that have the benefits of animal protein but don't harm the environment."
Insect-based bolognese sauces are One Hop's main offering. To taste the difference myself, I was offered a trio of bolognese pasta sauces: one was meat-based and from the supermarket, and the other two, made with mealworms and crickets, respectively, developed by One Hop. It was not hard to tell which had been purchased at the supermarket. What was hard to tell, on the other hand, was a taste difference between mealworms and crickets, and actual meat.
According to Cadesky, a single serving of One Hop's bolognese saves 80 gallons (300 liters) of water compared to meat-based equivalents. "That's about the amount of water that you use in a day, just washing your dishes, taking a shower, the regular things we use water for," he added.
"We use an enormous amount of water," Cadesky added. "We use about a third of our agricultural land just to raise cattle. That is insanity! But with insects we have the potential to make incredible sustainable products that have a tiny, tiny footprint."
To demonstrate the versatility of crickets as ingredients, Cadesky used a textured cricket protein as an egg substitute to make ice cream. In fact, once crickets are turned into flour they can be a base for pretty much anything you'd imagine cooking.
Like cricket protein bars.
"We work with cricket farms to ensure that the crickets are raised to the highest standard, then they are roasted and milled into a powder," said Gabi Lewis, co-founder of ExoProteins, which makes protein bars from insects. "The powder itself has a very long shelf life due to it being so dry. Once we have the powder, we combine it with healthy and delicious ingredients like almond butter, cacao, dried berries, and honey to form the bars."
Crickets farms are not ubiquitous, however. But what if you could set up a farm in your house? That's where We Are Home Grown, another vendor I bumped into at the Food Loves Tech expo, comes in. The idea was developed by Ashley Quinn while working on her MFA thesis in Interactive Design at the School of Visual Arts as a way to address the current livestock problem.
"It's become a lot easier to grow a lot of your own produce in the home, but what about protein?" Quinn said. "Eating insects was a rising popular subject, people had been developing interesting food products around eating bugs and the conversation had started getting rolling so it seemed like it could be a plausible thing."
From there, Quinn designed an initial home-cricket farm prototype. As she pointed out, although there are more and more crickets farms in the US that are raising crickets explicitly for human consumption, the insects still typically are sold dried or frozen. The at-home farm she developed is large enough to house 500 crickets, "which should be enough for a household of two to replace two meals a week with crickets while still being able to breed and replace the population."
I sampled some dried crickets (they tasted, once again, like chips) from her little cricket farm. Why not?
"There really is no reason to not eat them," Lewis from Exo said, "besides a negative cultural bias we have that is completely irrational."