Beetles for breakfast? Montreal students promote insects as protein
Published Wednesday, March 26, 2014 12:17PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, March 26, 2014 1:40PM EDT
Did you eat a bowl of grasshoppers, weevils or moth larvae for breakfast this morning? No? Well, in about 80 per cent of the world's countries, there's a good chance they did.
Insects are considered a delicious delicacy in most of the world. And now a group of MBA students from Montreal’s McGill University is working on ways to turn the world's love of cicadas, beetles and moths into a routine meal.
The five students recently won the prestigious Hult Prize, which is awarded to groups working to solve "the most pressing social challenges on the planet."
In September, the students who call themselves the Aspire Food Group, beat out 11,000 competitors from 350 universities to claim $1 million in seed capital to invest in their plan to bring more insect foods to more of the world.
To most North Americans, slurping down bugs sounds disgusting, something they've only ever seen on reality TV. But around 2.5 billion people around the world eat insects. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, caterpillars, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets are seen as delicacies, packed with protein and other important nutrients.
Jesse Pearlstein, one of the Aspire team winners, says bugs can be eaten raw, but they are typically toasted or fried in oil along with spices for flavouring.
"They're often prepared with chili and lime in Mexico, garlic is also popular," he told CTV's Canada AM Wednesday.
Pearlstein's colleague Gabe Molt says he's tried many kinds of insects since beginning this project but his favourite is the palm weevil larvae.
"They're eaten everywhere in the world, equatorially, and they are delicious. They are definitely the tastiest insect I've ever tried," he says.
If eating insects sounds disgusting, remember that just a few decades ago, the idea of eating raw fish sashimi sounded awful. And 100 years ago, lobsters were seen as garbage fish to be eaten only by the poor and by prisoners.
Tastes can change. And with the Earth's population expected to hit 9 billion people by 2050, current food production will need to almost double, notes the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
And in a report the UN group released last spring, it advocated insect protein as an unexplored nutrition source that can help address global food insecurity. It also noted insect food production has a much lower impact on the environment than other forms of livestock farming, such as cattle ranching.
The Montreal students say they think there could be a great market in insect cuisine, but right now, bugs are just too expensive.
"They're a power food, high in protein, iron, and calcium. They're better than beef or chicken for us, but they're also more expensive than beef or chicken," says Molt.
"What our model does is seek to bring the price down so the people who are already eating insects can consume then in higher volumes."
Monetizing the business of bugs
The problem with insects is that most are harvested from the wild by hand and are often available only seasonally. For example, toasted grasshoppers called chapulines are popular snacks in Mexico but are available for only three months a year. The Aspire group wants to change that by turning insect production into a real industry.
"We recognized that these markets are very informal and fractured and we decided to apply some management to it and help fine efficiencies, and bring more insects to people who love to eat them every day," says Pearlstein.
The team has created a business plan that includes plans to distribute “micro-livestock” growing kits to allow insect farmers to raise bugs in controlled conditions all-year round.
They also have a plan to take some of the harvested insects and grind them into a high-protein flour and are working on a recipe to use ground cricket powder mixed with cassava, corn, or wheat flour, depending on the region where it would be eaten. Other food products include cricket snacks, such as roasted pepper and lime cricket chips.
Since winning the Hult Prize in September, the group has been working to establish operations in a number of global areas, including using their insect-based flour in tortillas made in Mexico. Eventually, they'd like to be able to feed 20 million people by 2018.
"We have operations in southern Mexico and we're looking at opportunities in West Africa and in the U.S.," says Pearlstein, who adds they're fitting in their project in between their studies.
"We're still full-time students."