It’s not unusual to find creepy-crawly things lurking in the closets of college students. In Harman Singh Johar’s apartment, though, their presence is intentional. His closet teems with organically raised mealworms and crickets that his company, World Entomophagy, sells for as much as $40 per pound. “We feed [the insects] only whole-grain oats … and local organically grown vegetables and fruits,” says Johar. “Organic insects are more flavorful, and they have more weight.”
World Entomophagy is one of a growing number of insect suppliers that promote bugs as food. For humans. Encouraged by media attention, TV shows like Fear Factor, and growing concerns about the threat of overpopulation to the food supply, Americans—at least a few—are warming to the idea. “In the past three years, interest in eating bugs has surged,” says David George Gordon, a chef and author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook. The number of U.S. chefs cooking insects has “probably tripled in the past five years,” he says, and new suppliers selling bugs primarily for human consumption, rather than as food for pet fish and reptiles, have popped up in the last two years. “A lot of people … call and ask if they can just buy the bugs in bulk because they want to add them to a stir-fry,” says Kathy Mitchell, marketing manager at Hotlix, a company that has long sold novelty bug products such as scorpion lollipops.
Entomophagy—eating bugs—has many benefits, advocates say. Insects produce far less greenhouse gas per gram of meat than livestock, a 2010 study from Wageningen University in the Netherlands found, and they need less food since they’re cold-blooded and don’t use precious energy to stay warm. Many species live in close quarters, which makes rearing them easy. And insects are often packed with amino acids, fats, vitamins, and nutrients. Stinkbug, for instance, contains about the same amount of protein per gram as steak and six times as much iron.
Johar decided to breed organic bugs because scavenging them can be dangerous. Insects in the wild can be contaminated by parasites or pesticides, and some, like mealworms, will eat their own excrement, making them less nutritious. One day, Johar recalls, he popped the head off a wild grasshopper only to find maggots wriggling inside. “That was the day I decided never to eat anything I didn’t raise myself,” he says.
Johar’s customers (and roommates in his off-campus apartment at the University of Georgia) may be happy to know that the closet—hung with a sign saying “Don’t do drugs, do bugs”—is airtight and controlled for humidity and temperature. His insects live in stacked boxes, each labeled with a harvest date and cleaning schedule. Joshua Baudin, owner of Sweet Whimsy, a bakery in Long Grove, Ill., recently started topping spicy “cake pops” with white Verona chocolate and caramelized mealworms. To get his health inspector’s O.K. for baking with bugs, Baudin ordered from World Entomophagy. Because of Johar’s organic pledge, “I know they haven’t been dug out of some garbage dump,” says Baudin.
Other entrants in the bug business have sought to differentiate their offerings by making them less bug-like. Etom Foods, founded by Matthew Krisiloff, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Chicago, in April won a $10,000 grant from the school to find ways to extract meat from crickets and grasshoppers using technology designed for shelling shrimp. The aim, he says, is to make the insects more palatable by “removing the exoskeleton and other stigmatized parts.”
California-based BugMuscle has a patent pending for arthropod-based nutritional supplements. Founder Dianne Guilfoyle says her recipes may include crickets, mealworms, ants, or even housefly pupae, which she says taste like blood sausage due to their high iron content. Since insects are a legal source of steroids, her products should appeal to “cage fighters, bodybuilders, and extreme athletes,” which could help with marketing, says Guilfoyle, a nutrition supervisor for her local school district. “I thought that if people see bodybuilders taking it, they might accept it more willingly.”