South by Southwest: Now with cookies made of crickets

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on March 11, 2014

From The News Desk

I unwrap the plastic wrapping, look at the golden biscuit, and slowly bring it to my mouth. It has a crunch to it, hints of peanut butter, sugar, other things too. One of those "other" things is quite extraordinary: the cookie was made with cricket flour. No, that's not a brand name -- this baked good was made with the ground up remains of what were once living, breathing crickets.

This was all thanks to a South by Southwest panel entitled "Hacking Meat: Why Insects Are the Future of Food," which brought together three experts in the bug-harvesting scene. Erm, excuse me" entomophagy.

As wacky as it sounds, these people may be the food leaders of the future. Megan Miller, the co-founder of Bitty Foods which farms crickets to make insect-injected food ingredients, spoke of the upcoming food crisis. "We're going to have an extra two billion people by 2050," she said. "The economics of food are not looking too good, especially when it comes to protein." She sees a market opportunity with these insects since they are filled with protein. The other panelists, Andrew Brentano of Tiny Farms (another insect farm) and Harman Singh Johar of World Ento (a company making insect food products), concurred.

Mind you, this was not some wacko sideshow attraction from the World's Fair trying to frighten people about future prospects. These were entrepreneurs highlighting a problem and positing a viable and potentially lucrative solution. "Insects have the potential to stabilize the global food supply," Miller said.

Not only are they filled with protein, they are easy to farm and require less technical innovation than the growing movement toward artificially grown meat. Besides, bugs new to the world as a source of nutrients. Many cultures in the East consume insects on a regular basis. Miller, Brentano, and Johar are now just trying to sell the idea to the West.

"There's a visual barrier for Westerners," Miller admitted. So eating bugs whole is probably out of the question for most Americans. That's why she's starting with powders that can be added to foods. Her products don't have legs, they are not squirmy, and are pretty much just tasteless. I can attest to this as I tried one of her Bitty products and it tasted like a mediocre cookie.

This is pretty new territory for people in the West. So new that the FDA hasn't enacted regulations specifically about raising and serving insects just yet. "We've had to become the de facto experts about the FDA's regulations," Johar said. So he's had to learn what the FDA expects from normal farmers and translate that into what those in his industry do.

And the movement is actually gaining some momentum. The chef of the two Michelin star has begun to incorporate insects into his cuisines. Other restaurants have begun dabbling in it. Even the New York Times ran a piece about it (although, the Times also said monocles were in, so take its trend reporting with a grain of cricket flour.)

For the panelists, scaling the market wasn't the issue: it's about branding. "We can make insects trendy," Miller said. The name will probably be the biggest hurdle, of course. "We've tried land-shrimp, but we don't like it," Harman told the audience. So, for now, it's still insects.

Will this be the next trend in foods like, say, kale (my namesake)? Miller, Johar, and Harman would say a unequivocal "yes." And given that they were even able to get me to eat a cricket cookie, perhaps. I'd rather have neutral-tasting protein-filled additives in my food than succomb to a zombie-like future sans nutrients.

I just beg of you all to not tell my mother I ate the cookie. I grew up in a vegetarian household and I know it would just break her heart. And the panelists even maintained that their method of killing the insects is ethical and potentially painless. Either way, I had to do it… you know, for research.