When I was in kindergarten I had one enemy. His name was Travis, and he was disgusting. Every day at recess, Travis would poke around in our schoolyard's leaves, branches, and garden debris until he found his prey, a patch of wriggly, squirming earthworms he would swallow with intense pleasure. Like clockwork, as soon as we all returned to our classroom, he'd become queasy and barf all over the floor. Travis was repulsive to us, but when I think of him now, I realize that he was ahead of the curve. Eighty percent of the world regularly consumes insects.
Just last year, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization issued a comprehensive report on the benefits of incorporating insects into the Western diet, recommending that we all up our intake of the more than 1,900 edible species of critters on the planet, because our population is skyrocketing. The bad news: Our food resources are rapidly in decline. By 2050, the 7.2 billion human bodies on earth are expected to increase to 9.6 billion. And besides, every year, we all unwittingly ingest about one to two pounds of bugs that cling to the produce we eat, from the wheat that makes up our pasta to the grapes that become our raisins and the canned tomatoes that are destined for marinara sauce. Crunchy.
Enter a growing number of small entrepreneurs who are cooking and baking snacks made out of roasted, ground insects. One of those people on the forefront of this rogue cuisine is Megan Miller, founder of Bitty Foods, a baking company that uses "sustainably raised" crickets. You didn't hallucinate that sentence. Megan's actually building a forthcoming line of cookies, muffins, and other treats using cricket flour, which Miller describes as "nutty" and "neutral-tasting." Bitty has only just begun production in San Francisco, but will be available nationwide within the next year. I spoke with Megan to hear her perspective on why she thinks Western society should get over the "ew factor" and embrace consuming bugs of all kinds.
Megan making cricket-flour muffins.
VICE: How do you turn crickets into a baking form? Seems complicated. Megan Miller: I turn them into a fine powder that can be used like any other gluten-free flour, and then I bake things with that "flour." For now, common things that I'm making are items like cookies and muffins, but I'm also working on a pizza-crust recipe, pasta, and savory foods as well.
Why did you start this company? I got the idea about a year ago when I was traveling in Southeast Asia and Central America, where insects are a common part of the diet. I started thinking that there really wasn't any reason why they shouldn't be in the Western diet. I think it's mainly because bugs have a branding problem, because they're actually really tasty, but they look disgusting. And if we could figure out how to change the form factor and package them into delicious products that are beautiful and accessible for people to eat, then they could actually become a popular food here too.
Do you believe we can save the world by eating insects? Eighty percent of the world's cultures already eat bugs—if anything, the US and Europe are the only holdouts. By 2050, there's going to be an extra few billion people on the planet, and economists are concerned that we're not going to be able to keep up with meat production and supply everyone with adequate protein. There are problems with vegetable protein sources as well, because their production is equally as intensive in terms of land and water usage. Insects breed very quickly, can grow in small spaces with limited water resources, and they have a very high feed-to-meat conversion rate—like ten times higher than beef—so they're extremely efficient and ecologically friendly.
In terms of nutritional value, how does one of your products compare to a steak or a chicken leg? Insects are nutritionally comparable to meat and contain the full range of amino acids that meat does. At their dry rate, crickets are about 68-percent protein, and the rest is comprised of fat and fiber, so it's a really healthy blend of nutrients. There's also a lot of iron and potassium and other major nutrients in them. What's interesting is that I first went down the road of trying to extract the insect protein—my boyfriend is a biochemist, and we worked on a protein isolate, but I actually think that the whole insect is lovely. There's no need to throw out any part of the insect. Humans can digest chitin, the compound in the insect's exoskeleton that is very fibrous, which means that there's been a long history of humans eating insects, because our digestive systems are evolved to digest the whole insect.
When was the first time you willingly ate an insect? I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, about ten years ago, drinking a michelada, that cocktail that's sort of like a Bloody Mary, but it's made with beer instead of vodka. It had this amazing, spicy powder rim around the glass, and I asked, "What is this? This is the most amazing stuff." My friend was like, "Oh, that's maggots."
Oh, my god. But as you said, your products use milled roasted cricket flour. Why crickets? In my travels in Southeast Asia and Mexico, I've eaten grasshoppers, locusts, lots of types of larvae, and scorpions, but I actually think that crickets are the most culturally appealing for Westerners because they already have positive cultural associations. When we think of crickets, we think of nice chirping on warm summer nights. Some cultures even believe they're good luck. Another common insect used among entomophagists—which is the term for people who eat insects—is mealworms. I've milled them into flour, and they work beautifully as well. I think that mealworms will catch on at some point, but they're a little bit more problematic, because I think some people associate them with other larvae that we wouldn't want to eat.
All of this was made with cricket flour.
How would you describe the taste of crickets? Crickets are neutral in taste, but they're kind of nutty. When you start to get into the culinary applications of insects, there is a lot of more interesting flavors that can be explored. Chef René Redzepi at Noma, which has been one of the top restaurants in the world for a number of years, serves a lot of insects. They work with certain species of ants that have a sort of arugula or citrusy flavor to them. For my baking purposes, I'm trying to create a neutral, earthy, high-protein ingredient that can be used in a broad range of products. Crickets are the only bug for now.
Do you think that you could convert vegetarians? Vegetarians seem to be interested. It depends why people are vegetarians, but I've talked to a number of people who are vegetarians for sustainability reasons, and they're like, "Yeah, you know what? I'll try it."
Why do you think the Western world has an associated aversion to eating insects? I think it's the fact that eating insects has been associated with human strife for a long time throughout history. When you think of eating insects, you think of eating them during a famine or those stories from the Bible of people surviving on locusts and honey. Insects are primarily eaten by people who are very poor in a lot of developing countries, and there's often a sort of cultural aversion towards things that are associated with a low socio-economic status. I'm trying to turn crickets—cricket flour specifically—into foods that will be beautiful, aspirational, and trendy, because I think that one of the important factors in getting these foods widely adopted is to get them into the hands of higher socio-economic classes so they will become desirable.