Edible insects seek a taste niche

TERENCE CHEA
Associated Press

San Francisco – — They hop. They crawl. They squirm. And they could be coming to a dinner plate near you.

An increasing number of “entopreneurs” are launching businesses to feed a growing appetite for crickets, mealworms and other edible insects.

These upstarts are trying to persuade more Americans to eat bugs, which can be produced with less land, food and water than other sources of animal protein.

The United Nations has been promoting edible insects as a way to improve nutrition, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and create jobs in insect production. At least 2 billion people worldwide already eat insects as part of their diet, according to the 2013 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

But it could be a tough sell for Westerners who are more likely to squash bugs than savor them.

“Insects are viewed as what ruins food — a roach in your soup, a fly in your salad. That’s the biggest obstacle — the ick factor,” said Daniella Martin, the “Girl Meets Bug” blogger and author of “Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet.”

Inside San Francisco’s La Cocina, a commercial kitchen for food entrepreneurs, Monica Martinez empties hundreds of live mealworms, each about 2 inches long, into a plastic container. She uses chopsticks to pull out dead ones before pouring the squirming critters on a tray and sliding them into an oven.

Martinez started Don Bugito PreHispanic Snackeria to entice American consumers with treats inspired by popular snacks in her native Mexico.

“The idea is to offer another type of protein into the food market,” said Martinez, an artist and industrial designer who launched Don Bugito as a street food project in 2011.

Don Bugito snacks are sold online or at a La Cocina kiosk in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, where retail workers recently offered free samples of chocolate-covered crickets and spicy superworms.

“No!” said a young boy when asked to try one.

But more adventurous eaters gave them a try.

“It doesn’t really taste like a bug. It tastes like crunchy spices,” said Leslie Foreman, who works at a medical technology firm, after sampling a chili-lime cricket.

Big Cricket Farms, one of only a handful of North American companies producing crickets for human consumption, is struggling to meet fast-growing demand for the chirping insects, said CEO Kevin Bachhuber, who launched the warehouse farm in Youngstown, Ohio, last year.

Bachhuber’s startup currently produces about 8,000 pounds of crickets a month. He hopes to increase capacity to 25,000 pounds per month, but still doesn’t think that will be enough to meet demand from restaurants and health food makers.

“We’re constantly slammed by orders. We simply can’t keep up,” said Bachhuber, a Wisconsin native.

“The speed at which people have been willing to eat bugs is crazy. It’s cool.”