By Nicole Lyn Pesce
The latest health food trend might make your skin crawl.
Edible insects such as dried crickets, winged weaver ants and gourmet worm salt are popping up as restaurant dishes, supermarket snacks and protein supplements.
La Newyorkina , a Mexican eatery in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, is dishing a $12 vanilla-chili ice cream sundae topped with mezcal-laced caramel, candied orange - and chili-coated crickets.
Chef/founder Fany Gerson told Moneyish that noshing crickets is par for the course in her home country, particularly the southern region of Oaxaca, where she buys her stock. The critters add “a bit of spice, crunch, and have a bit of an herbal yet slightly nutty flavor,” which compliments her rich, creamy dessert. Gerson has also whipped up paletas (ice pops) seasoned with worm salt for “a delicious smoky, earthy flavor.”
She’s not the only chef that’s totally buggin’. The Black Ant in the East Village garnishes cocktails with salt made from its namesake bug, and serves roasted grasshoppers (called chapulines ) seasoned with spices as an appetizer and as a garnish on entrees. In Denver, Linger restaurant serves cricket empanadas, while local competitor Comida hawks fried-cricket tacos. In L.A., Typhoon offers Singapore-style scorpions on shrimp toast, or Guelaguetza sautés crickets with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions, which gets scooped into a tortilla and topped with avocado and string cheese.
And Swiss supermarket chain Coop will begin stocking shelves with $9 mealworm burgers and meatballs starting Aug. 21.
New York food writer Rachel Wharton told Moneyish she first tried insects - “amazing” grub worm hush puppies, to be exact - at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science’s Bugfest 20 years ago. “The worms were whole and mixed up with the dough, so when they fried them up, they got really crispy and poked out of the hush puppies in a cool way, like an asteroid,” she said. “Frying an insect in dough is the way to go, if insect-eating is not already part of your culinary heritage.”
Since then, she’s also eaten tacos with escamoles (ant larvae), which she likens to “insect caviar,” and has acquired a taste for chapulines . “They are super crispy and toasty and crunchy, and usually dusted with chile powder,” she said. “They are really good, as in I would buy them anytime I see them good and eat them straight up.
These places are really just returning to our roots. Our ancestors ate insects as a high-protein food source (and packed with amino acids, good fats, iron, magnesium and zinc) that were easy to find. And there are more than 1,700 insects that scientists have deemed edible, and 80% of the world’s population - about 2 billion people - across South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, still pick on these so-called pests as a regular part of their diet.
The U.S. food industry has remained squeamish about eating anything with more than four legs, however - unless it’s shrimp, crab or lobster. “We have had a somewhat sanitized approach to eating, and so insects continue to have that ‘ick’ factor,” Dr. Kantha Shelke, a principal at the Corvus Blue food science and research firm, explained to Moneyish.
She pointed out that Americans weren’t wild about eating raw fish at first, either, but now you’d be hard-pressed to find a city without at least one sushi restaurant in it.
“We’re still very much in the early stages of eating insects,” she said. “But the chefs that are introducing insects are finding ways to integrate it in a style that would work well in this country - like making a milkshake or a snack bar where you can’t even see that insects are there, or presenting them in a beautiful restaurant dish.”
And there are signs that consumers are starting to bug out. In 2015, the edible insect market was valued at $33 million, and it is expected to exceed $165 million by 2023 in the U.S. alone, with some international sites like GMI Insights predicting it to hit more than $523 million globally by 2023.
And if you’re hungry for an exotic and sustainable protein alternative, this is your golden cricket.
“Millennials are the ones that are really driving the edible insect market forward because they are the ones that are more health-conscious, and they are looking for products raised in a sustainable way, and they are also a little more adventurous than older generations to try new things,” said Juan Manuel Gutierrez, cofounder of Merci Mercado , which raises edible grasshoppers and worms in Oaxaca, Mexico that are served by La Newyorkina , Dos Caminos and Serenata restaurants in New York City. “We expect our company to see a growth rate of between 400% and 700% over the next three or four years,” he told Moneyish.
Guitierrez describes his grasshoppers as having a “unique, green, herbal flavor, because they feed on grass.”
Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst, recently noshed crickets for the first time while he was visiting Mexico. “I remembered Salma Hayek eating a bowl of crickets on one of the late-night shows, and you heard moans and groans from the audience, but really, most of what I was tasting was the salt and the spices, and there was a nice crunch,” he told Moneyish.
“A well-prepared fried insect, like a cricket, is an excellent topping alternative to bacon, and you don’t have to worry about your cholesterol,” added Dr. Shelke, who recalls trying fried termites as a child in India - and loving them. “It was kind of like salted peanuts - crispy on the outside, and it just melted in your mouth on the inside. Delicious,” she said.
The rest of us may also need to get over the “ick” factor, and fast. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that with the global population expected to hit 9 billion people by 2050, the only way we’ll be able to feed everyone is by eating bugs.
Bugs are a much more sustainable food than burgers. It takes 2,600 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, for example, but less than two cups of water for a pound of crickets. Dr. Shelke added that it takes about 17 pounds of feed to get two pounds of beef - but you can get the same amount of crickets for less than four pounds of feed, and crickets eat the agriculture waste that we toss out, so it’s not like we’re competing with them for food sources.
They’re still somewhat pricey. Merci Mercado ’s grasshoppers run up to $175 for just under two pounds, and their worm salt starts at $18 for 2.3 ounces at retail, although they run much cheaper if you buy bugs in bulk. A four-ounce bag of Entomo Farms crickets (in flavors like chili lime and honey mustard) runs $24, and BBQ mealworms start at $12 for two grams. “These are specialized ingredients that require a lot of manual labor,” noted Dr. Shelke. And the supply of farm-raised insects is still low, even as demand is starting to grow. Many gourmet critters are also imported: Merci Mercado ’s come from Oaxaca, Mexico, and Entomo Farms ’ from Ontario, Canada.
But the expanding market has encouraged entrepreneurs to get ahead of the curve by repackaging insects as protein powders for shakes and smoothies, baking powders for breads and cookies, or dried and fried whole as salt & vinegar or chipotle-flavored snack crisps . And as more people buy into eating bugs, prices should drop.
“Producers need to target adventurous eaters and foodies who are always looking to try something new,” suggested Seifer. “And if they play up the health benefits and the sustainability, Millennials will continue to eat it up.”