Enthusiasts — and their financial backers — say tiny, chirping crickets are high in protein and iron and can serve as a sustainable alternative to beef or chicken.
SAN JOSE, Calif. —
For Bay Area techies attuned to the latest trends, kale is no longer cutting it and quinoa is passe. Instead, many are opting for a six-legged snack.
In startup offices around the region, people are munching on crickets.
Companies cashing in on crickets
Crickets have become popular snacks in Silicon Valley, where they are viewed as a nutritious and sustainable alternative to other proteins. Here are two Bay Area companies jumping on board.
What it does: Makes cookies and chips with “cricket flour” — a gluten-free mixture of ground-up, dry-roasted crickets, coconut and cassava.
Based: San Francisco
What it does: Farms crickets for human consumption. Founders hope to bring their bugs to market by the end of September.
Based: San Leandro
The Mercury News
Proponents say the tiny, chirping bugs are high in protein and iron and can serve as a sustainable alternative to beef or chicken. It’s a movement that has people buzzing, with companies such as San Francisco-based Bitty Foods baking the bugs into cookies and chips, Tiny Farms in San Leandro is breeding crickets for mass consumption, and New York-based Exo using them in protein bars. The products are showing up in Silicon Valley break rooms, and investors and entrepreneurs are paying close attention.
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“I would say there’s a new company that launches every six months, maybe even more frequently than that,” said Exo co-founder Greg Sewitz.
Eating insects is nothing new. Fried grasshoppers, or chapulines, are a favorite in Mexico, and pushcarts offering everything from crickets to silk worms line the streets of Thailand. But companies trying to market them in the U.S. must confront the squeamishness most Westerners feel about bugs.
“The very first time I had crickets it was a little bit weird. And you always have in the back of your mind, ‘I wonder if there’s an antenna in this bar,’ ” said Bridget Sauer, who works in the San Francisco office of Teespring, an online custom T-shirt-making platform. Sauer, a triathlete, now is hooked on peanut-butter-and-jelly-flavored Exo bars.
In the Seattle area, Central Co-op on East Madison Street carries Chapul energy bars and Chirps — chips that contain cricket flour.
Central Co-op also usually carries organic roasted crickets and cricket flour from Ontario, Canada-based Entomo Farms, but is currently out of stock on those items and awaiting the next shipment, said spokeswoman Susanna Schultz.
The co-op first brought in cricket products in July 2014 because “we thought that they were an exciting development in food,” Schultz said. “Crickets can be raised and harvested sustainably and are very high in protein and other nutrients.”
The co-op was unsure of the demand, “but we have had great response since we introduced these products and they sell quickly,” she said.
Town & Country Markets, which has several locations in the Puget Sound area, does not currently carry cricket products but intends to do so once it lines up the brands and flavors it wants, said spokeswoman Becky Fox Marshall.
“Crickets are ‘trending,’ as they say, as a new source of protein,” she said.
Companies like Exo and Bitty are part of a larger wave of food startups that are replacing meat, gluten and dairy in everyday products. Investors have poured more than $500 million into companies such as plant-based imitation meat maker Impossible Foods of Redwood City and meal-replacement maker Soylent, according to venture-capital database CB Insights.
Impossible Foods has raised $183 million from big names including Bill Gates and Google Ventures, and Soylent raked in $21.5 million from backers including Andreessen Horowitz. Investment in these next-generation food startups is on track to hit record growth this year, said CB Insights analyst Zoe Leavitt.
Chocolate-covered insects and lollipops with bugs suspended in transparent, sugary candy have long been available as novelty items, but the crickets-as-protein movement began picking up steam in 2013 with a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The report touted the nutritional benefits of insects and introduced them as a potential solution to a rapidly approaching problem — the world will house 9 billion people by 2050, forcing humans to nearly double their food production using a limited supply of land and water. Crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle and half as much as chickens to produce the same amount of protein. They require less water and space to farm, produce minimal amounts of greenhouse gases and can be fed organic waste, according to the report.
“Edible insects are one of the most sustainable forms of protein on the planet,” said Megan Miller, co-founder of San Francisco-based startup Bitty Foods.
But whether they can be used as a more environmentally friendly alternative to other meats will depend on how the insects are farmed and what they are fed. A report published last year by researchers with the University of California at Davis found more study is needed to evaluate the long-term potential of bugs as protein, and concluded “the potential for crickets to supplement the global supply of dietary protein appears to be more limited than has been recently suggested.”
Of the world’s 2,000 types of edible insects, crickets seem to be gaining the most traction in the U.S. They have a neutral flavor — “sort of nutty and toasty with a bit of earthiness,” Miller said — and aren’t as frightening as spiders or scorpions.
Bitty products use cricket flour, which is made by freezing a batch of crickets, dry-roasting them and grinding them into powder. The powder, which Miller says contains 70 grams of protein per cup — twice as much as beef — is mixed with coconut and cassava, a starchy root, to make a gluten-free baking flour.
Next month, snack-delivery service SnackNation will ship thousands of Bitty’s cricket flour chips to offices around the country, including to Bay Area tech companies notorious for keeping their kitchens loaded with free food. Among the offices soon to be receiving cricket snacks are Palo Alto-based HP, San Francisco-based online real-estate platform Opendoor and Southern California-based Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Cricket products have become especially popular among many Silicon Valley techies. Exo bars are available in the San Francisco break rooms of Nurx, an on-demand birth-control delivery service, and Beyond Pricing, a service for home-sharing landlords. The bars and Bitty cricket products also have fans at startup Nootrobox, which makes brain-boosting smart drugs, and ride-hailing giant Uber. San Francisco-based financial tech startup Truebill gave Exo bars a try, but they didn’t catch on.