Imagine a future where your FreshDirect order included a couple packs of garlic ‘n’ onion crickets. How about sending a gift basket with chocolate-covered locusts to your partner (as an act of love, mind you, not revenge).

Those scenarios are no longer considered impossible and disgusting. In the last several years, an increasing number of groups and individuals are advocating for insects-as-food (entomophagy, if you want the official name).

Italian company 21 bites is the latest to join, having just opened an online store for insect-based food. Right now they only serve Europe and Great Britain, but the combination of insects and e-commerce could go far in making bugs a more mainstream food staple.

Why Insects?

Insects have been food since prehistoric times. In places like Asia, Africa, and Oceana, they’re still a regular part of the diet. In fact, the FAO estimates that around 2 billion people worldwide already consume insect-based food on a regular basis. Currently there are 1,900 species of insects fit for human consumption.

While Western culture has only recently warmed up to the idea of eating creepy-crawlies, there’s already a fast-growing market. And food groups and news headlines alike are compiling a growing list of reasons to embrace insect-based food.

For one, insects a legitimate source of protein, vitamins, and amino acids. According to 21 bites, crickets contain twice the protein found in beef, and three times more iron.

And insect-based food doesn’t have to mean staring at a plate full of fresh mealworms. Insects can be used to make pasta, flour, and bar snacks. In other words, there’s as much room for culinary creativity with insects as there is with seafood.

Whether that means airline flights will offer smoked onion-and-BBQ crickets in place of pretzels in the future remains to be seen, but the motivation to make that happen exists.

Insects are also attractive for their sustainability factor. Crickets, for example, need six times less feed than cattle on average. And researchers have determined that replacing more meat with insects in our diets could significantly cut the amount of farmland needed to grow food. A team at University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College says cutting consumption of animal products by eating more insects would free up 1,680 hectares of farmland. (One hectare is roughly the size of a rugby pitch.)

 Why E-Commerce?

For a product like insects, which has yet to go mainstream, online retail makes the most sense. The bar for proof of concept is lower, and the direct-to-consumer aspect of e-commerce means these companies can get their offerings to customers more easily than would be the case if they had to go through traditional grocery chains.

There’s also the simple idea that consumers willing to buy their food online are often more open-minded when it comes to adventurous cuisine. Online startups in general cater to early adopters, so it makes sense that companies like 21 bites would choose e-commerce.

They’re hardly alone. A growing number of places worldwide are cropping (creeping?) up. Proti-Farm is a Netherlands-based company who acquired one of the world’s leading insect producers, Kreca, in 2014. At online retailer Kreca Food, you can purchase things like buffalo insect powder and freeze-dried crickets. Proti-Farm is one of the loudest advocates for using insects to promote sustainability and address world hunger.

Over in Switzerland, the Coop supermarket chain has partnered with Essento, a startup that develops insect-based products. Right now you can get burgers and meatballs made from mealworms and products containing cricket flour.

There is some activity in the U.S. Edible Insect’s online store carries a huge range of products, from ant powder to water scorpions. You can even send gift baskets. Bugsfeed is also a handy site, as it lists various restaurants and stores around the country that carry insect-based products.

Before insect-based food can become a true craze, though, regulation must be in place to allow for mass manufacturing and selling of these kinds of products. The European Commission is working on those issues currently. In the U.S., the FDA doesn’t have any kind of certification process for insects right now. Without a way to deem products “safe,” it’s unlikely major U.S.-based CPGs will pour money into insect-based food in the near future.

In all likelihood, the “ew, gross” factor will exist for a long time yet and probably hinder growth, particularly in some areas of the U.S. Or maybe not. After all, sushi once upon a time carried an ick factor too, so perhaps insect-based airline snacks and bugs in Halloween baskets are closer than we think.

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Jenn is a writer and editor for The Spoon who covers restaurant tech and food delivery, developments in agriculture and indoor farming, and startup accelerators and incubators. On the side, she moonlights as a ghostwriter for tech industry executives and spends a lot of time on the road exploring food developments in more remote parts of the country. Previously, she was managing editor of Gigaom’s market research department and was once a competitive pinball player. Jenn splits her time between NYC and Nashville, TN.

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