Get used to idea of bug grub

Western palates will have to adjust to insects, scientists insist; sensing opportunity, UA grads help develop a line of cricket bars
2012-06-10T00:00:00Z Get used to idea of bug grubCarli Brosseau Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 10, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Forty years from now, beef could be a luxury on par with today's tiny spoonfuls of caviar.

What will take its spot on Americans' dinner plates? Increasingly, scientists are predicting bugs.

University of Arizona grad Patrick Crowley is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs getting in the game before affluent Westerners are - as scientists foresee it - forced to change their protein tastes.

His company is developing recipes to make insects palatable and even delicious to people who now squirm at the notion.

Early this year, Crowley and three friends launched Chapul Bars, a company that grinds crickets, cultivated to feed pets, into a flour that it uses to make food for humans. Each 50-gram bar contains 7 grams of protein.

The Salt Lake City-based company tested its products in May at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Bug Fair, selling several hundred bars, and it's now preparing to launch its first major sales push.

On Tuesday, Chapul will unveil a two-week Kickstarter campaign that customers can use to pre-order bars at a discount. Kickstarter.com is a website used to gather funding and support for creative projects.

The company plans to use the proceeds of its campaign to buy compostable packaging and bulk ingredients, and lease a commercial kitchen it can use more than once a week, the current situation.

"We've needed some radical changes (in how our food is produced)," Crowley said. "This is one little example of a radical change. It's been fun to be so inspired."

Crowley's partners are also passionate about change. They are Seth Davis, also a UA grad and, like Crowley, a commercial raft guide; Dan O'Neill, a financial analyst and business-strategy consultant focusing on sustainability; and Ruth Arevalo, the company's chef and a women's-rights activist.

So far, Chapul has developed two flavors - a Chaco Bar and a Thai Bar.

Crowley, a graduate of the UA with a master's degree in watershed management, wanted to use the flavors to bring attention to the natural resource issues that make our current food choices untenable.

The Chaco Bar, flavored with dates, peanuts, dark chocolate and agave nectar, is a reference to Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico and the ancestral Puebloan people who lived there, surviving in the arid canyon for 300 years through very efficient agricultural practices.

The Thai Bar, flavored with coconut, ginger and lime, is a reference to a country where deep-fried grasshoppers are commonplace and drought and pollution are serious problems.

Chapul Bars plans to donate 10 percent of the profits from each bar to a water-rescue project in the related region, Crowley said. The recipients have not been selected yet.

The Sonoran Desert and its water-resource issues weren't forgotten. Chapul has two other flavors in development - a Mesoamerican Bar, featuring amerynth, dark chocolate and cayenne, and a Sonoran Bar, using mesquite flour.

Chapul was conceived in January when Crowley watched a TED Talk video called "Why not eat insects?"

In it, Marcel Dicke, a professor of entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, lays out the reasons to eat bugs or, in more technical terms, engage in entomophagy.

Among the most compelling arguments: We won't have a choice.

With 70 percent of the world's agricultural land used to raise livestock and the human population expected to rise by at least 2 billion over the next 40 years, it is impossible to continue to eat meat at the rate we do now, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

For Americans, that rate is about 265 pounds of meat a year, Dicke said.

Another reason? We already do eat bugs - about a pound a year - we just don't realize it. Small quantities of insect parts are allowed under food regulations.

Crowley set out to make a product that did good while tasting good and working against the stigma. But it will likely take more than grinding crickets into flour to completely erase Americans' aversion.

Starbucks came up against that squeamishness in April. Coffee drinkers learned that the company used cochineal - an insect commonly used to dye food and other products - to color some of its drinks red.

They began a Change.org petition that now has almost 6,700 signatures. The protest ultimately elicited an apology from the company and an announcement that Starbucks would change its coloring agent to a tomato-based extract called lycophene.

What got little mention is that people have eaten insects since the beginning, and millions around the world continue to eat - and love to eat - bugs.

"It's a cultural thing," said James Watson, the assistant curator of bioarchaeology at the Arizona State Museum.

The archaeological record in the Southwest suggests that people here have long eaten bugs. Insects are represented in petroglyphs and on pottery, and stashes of insects have been found in caves and granaries.

There are historical reports of the Pima of Southern Arizona eating caterpillars, the Sand Papago eating grubs and the Navajo eating cicadas.

Accounts of "Mormon cricket" harvests include grasshoppers washing up on the shores of the Great Salt Lake by the millions, already salted, and insects caught in similar numbers with baskets placed in ditches while women whipped the grass nearby.

Archaeologists concluded that eating bugs made economic sense. One estimate found that these harvesting techniques meant that on the average, one person could feed four people for more than a month with an hour's work.

Humans did not eat insects just in lean times, Watson said. "As humans are modifying their environment, it's those larger things (like big game) that are affected," he said. "Insects and small reptiles like lizards are more difficult to overexploit."

A change in tastes, Crowley thinks, is a matter of education. At least two of Chapul's first sales involve a teaching element.

Kerry Schwartz, director of Arizona Project WET out of the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Council, loved the idea of Chapul Bars so much that she bought 250 without tasting them.

She plans to serve the bars to teachers attending the program's training workshops this summer and to volunteers at its water festivals for fourth-graders across the state in the fall.

O.A.R.S. Companies Inc., a river-rafting company, also plans to buy some bars, Crowley said. The idea is to give them to passengers during talks about the human history along the Snake River, where there are petroglyphs of insects.

Other entrepreneurs are also working for change along the same lines.

Some top-tier restaurants in Europe and the U.S. have begun serving bugs, and companies that once sold insects only to pet stores are now expanding into selling bugs for use in human food.

Governments are acting, too. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization convened a conference on insects as food in January, and the European Union has sponsored a 1 million euro research project into insects' nutritional value.

Arguments for eating bugs

They're high in calories and protein. And compared to other livestock, insects:

• Need less feed.

• Produce less waste per pound of body weigh and, therefore, less ammonia, a greenhouse gas.

• Use far less water than livestock. Agriculture is the single biggest use of water.

• Need far less space. About 70 percent of the world's agricultural land goes to livestock.

Sources: Wageningen Univ.; U.N. Food and Agriculture Org.; Gene DeFoliart's "Insects as human food"

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at cbrosseau@azstarnet.com or 573-4197.

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