Sustainable Food Consumption

How might we get Westerners to adopt insects into their diet by 2050?

Co-written by : David Meyers , Raquel Meneses & Shailee Rindani

Americans indulge in food like there is no tomorrow. Of course there is a tomorrow and with impending climate change and continued soil degradation that tomorrow is looking more and more bleak. Of course there is tremendous food waste, 30–40 percent according to USDA estimates, but there is also the fundamental problem nutrition efficiency. The food production system in the developed world is unsustainable. There are many contributing factors to this inefficiency, most notably, the types and methods of production. In this project, we have resolved to focus on combating the failures of protein production, as we have determined it to be the least efficient category of production.

Rather than attempt to somehow directly reduce production of inefficient proteins, such as beef, we are seeking to diversify demand, by offering and encouraging efficient alternatives. As the growth of renewable energy continues to diversify the sources of energy production and ultimately reduce the use of less efficient sources of energy — We believe that the diversification of protein sources in the western diet will ultimately decrease the demand and production of their inefficient counterparts. Of course food is a more complicated issue — One unit of energy is more or less the same regardless of source, while food comes in many forms. Despite this inherent difficulty, we have determined to uncover and address these complications and devise solutions to mitigate them.

Feed Conversion Ratios for Livestock

The feed conversion ratio is a performance indicator that measures the efficiency with which livestock converts animal feed into the desired output, meat. Typically, in the United States our food production system requires the following amount of feed to produce 1 kg of live animal weight: 4.5 kg for chicken, 9.1 kg for pork and 25 kg for beef.

Insects, however, require far less feed. For example, crickets require as little a 1.7 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of edible animal weight. This means that crickets are more than twice as efficient converting feed to meat as chickens, at least 4 times more efficient than pigs, and 12 times more efficient than cattle.

People in the West generally perceive insects as unfit for human consumption. This perception makes it unlikely that people will readily consume them on principle alone. As such, we have challenged ourselves to answer the question, “How might we get Westerners to eat insects as part of their regular diet?”.

It is not enough to simply change the perception of insects from disgusting to acceptable, we must make them appetizing and accessible. In the interest of guiding our strategy moving forward we have developed a set of principles. These guiding principles are designed to be cyclically reinforcing and to serve the ultimate goal of sustainability.

Sustainability: Make human-kind more sustainable, by making the nutrition production more efficient.
Efficiency: Measured by feed conversion ratios, waste generation, total energy usage, resource consumption.
Diversity: Measured by tracking channels and sources of nutrients consumed.
Accessibility: Measured by variety of products, relative cost, number and location of channels.
Food Security: Measured by hunger ratio, resiliency of a system while in distress, nutritional health and weight of population.

It is estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people — Including the countries of Mexico, Thailand, China, Brazil, Japan, Africa and some indigenous cultures in Australia. This extensive consumption of insects throughout the globe suggests that it’s possible, given time and the right conditions, that Westerners could be persuaded to adopt insects as a source of protein.

In the search for alternatives we discovered that insects are an extremely efficient sources of protein. However, while they may be one of the most efficient and nutritious sources of protein, they are a particularly difficult one to introduce to western society. Whether the reason is instinctual, social, emotional, or cultural, most people in the West perceive insects as unfit for consumption. There are many barriers to overcome in the adoption of insects as a protein alternative. Nevertheless, given evidence of mass insect consumption around the world and similar cultural paradigm shifts in the past, we believe that it can be done.

Barriers to Adoption of Insects as a Food Source by Westerners

Consequently, we decided to take a closer look at the history behind the foods and cuisines that were once perceived as inedible, but are now considered “classics” and even “delicacies”.

How did Lobster become a delicacy?

Today, lobster is generally considered a delicacy, but this was not always the case. In the 17th century New England, lobsters were much more abundant than they are today. They could be found all along the Eastern coastline and were considered vermin. Lobster was only considered foodstuff by the poorest populations. In some parts of New England, serving lobster to prison inmates more than once a week was forbidden by law, as doing so was considered cruel and unusual punishment.

“Lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation,” wrote John J. Rowan in 1876. They were perceived as disgusting bottom feeders — As insects from the sea. In fact, the word lobster comes from the old english loppe, which means spider. People were eating lobster, but not out in the open. They felt shame.

In the 19th century the price of lobster per pound was about 11 cents, while a pound of beans was 53 cents. At this point, like all the others meats, lobster was cook dead. It is common knowledge today that the only proper way to cook lobster is alive. This is said to affect taste and texture of the cooked lobster and is perhaps a contributing factor to lobster’s negative perception. However, even if a food tastes good, if the cultural consensus is that the food is unacceptable, it will inherently be less accessible. So even if you get a chance to discover it’s desirable flavor, it will be hard to get and there may be shame in its indulgence.

So how did lobster become so desirable? It was at this very same time that railways began to connect the continental U.S. and some savvy businessmen began to realize people outside of New England had no preconception of lobster. Through some clever marketing, the lobster industry was able to convince people throughout the country that lobster was delicious and desirable. By the 1880s chefs had discovered that lobster taste a lot better if they cooked while still alive and Lobster began to be revered as a delicacy.

“Sea Crickets”

Members of the Native American Goshute Tribe were accustomed to foraging for grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. On their first tasting of shrimp, the Goshute reported to have named the creatures “sea crickets”. Christopher Carr and Edward Joshua of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries recently took note of this story and proposed renaming locusts, “sky prawns”. They compiled recipes into a cookbook and called it Cooking with Sky-prawns in the interest of initiating a shift in people’s perception.

Upon reflection of this account we were surprised see how similar grasshopper and crickets are with shrimp and lobsters. In facts they are both of the same biological phylum. They are both arthropods. So why are waterborne arthropods met with desire and their land dwelling cousins met with disgust? We believe the reasoning is subjective.

How was Sushi adapted and adopted by Americans?

Fifty years ago, most Americans had never heard of sushi. A decade after WWII and the Japanese were still considered our enemy. Most Americans were very resistant to Japanese culture and eating raw fish was unthinkable. It seemed very unlikely that Americans were going to be lining up for sushi anytime soon. But now-of-days sushi restaurants can be found in every corner of the US.

Los Angeles has had a large Japanese Community since the early 1900s. In 1966, Japanese businessman, Noritoshi Kanai, opened a nigiri sushi bar in LA’s Little Tokyo. The restaurant was popular, but only with Japanese immigrants. Throughout the 1960’s more sushi restaurants began to open in Little Tokyo.

Americans on the whole were still uncomfortable with raw fish and this exotic cuisine — The proprietors of these early sushi restaurants realized this and in response invented the California roll. The roll used ingredients familiar to most Americans (avocados and crab meat) and hid the unfamiliar seaweed wrapping by shifting the rice to the outside. This innovation had a huge impact on the acceptance and accessibility of sushi in the American culture. This “beginners sushi” acted as a gateway to wider adoption and eventual appreciation for the authentic cuisine.

“In 1977, the U.S. Senate issued a report called Dietary Goals for the United States, that blamed fatty, high-cholesterol foods for the increasing incidence of disease. The report recommended greater consumption of fish and grains. Around the same time, health experts also began to promote the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish. Many Americans discovered sushi as a healthful alternative.”
Trevor Corson, The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

The first sushi bar to open outside of the Little Tokyo was in 1970, near 20th Century Fox Studio. The sushi bar, named Osho, started to attracting Americans from the studio. It was a fashionable, celebrity clientele. Hollywood began to embrace sushi throughout the 1970s. Sushi started to be perceived as a healthy cousine. It’s clear that you must first adapt a cuisine for it to be adopted. So we have to ask ourselves…

— “What’s the California roll, for insects?”

To answer this question we started looking into methods of preparation for consumption. These methods range from the insect being completely abstracted to being prepared entirely whole. We realize that adoption of this magnitude doesn’t occur overnight. These things take time — A lot of time. Lobster took the better half of a century to be widely adopted after efforts were made to propagate its consumption. Sushi took about 40 years to become mainstream throughout the US.

Through strategic positioning and the incremental adaptation of the method of preparation for consumption, we believe that we can get Westerners to adopt insects into their regular diet by 2050.

Where do we start? — Curious people and early adopters

We realized early on that Westerners will not choose to eat bugs on principle alone. We also established that the majority of food choices are based on cultural norms and taste. As such, we must be strategic in our introduction of insect based food goods. The right product must be offered to the right consumer at the right time for this paradigm shift to be ignited.

We recognized three potential target audiences for early insect adoption — Foodies, weightlifters and children. After much consideration, we determined that while there may be opportunities to persuade foodies and weightlifters to adopt insects into their diet, they were not the appropriate early target audience for our vision of broad adoption. We saw that existing efforts in high end cuisine remained isolated to the five star restaurants and excused as fads.

An insect based protein shake powder might be a relatively easy sell to those looking to pack on muscle, but it’s unlikely that it would spread a taste for insect based food products beyond the gym.

We found children between the ages of 3 and 13 to be the best candidates for early adoption, as they have no preconceived negative notions about insects. They also best serve the goal of broad adoption, because they’re good promoters and they eventually become adults. The assumption is that if a child recognizes insects as suitable for consumption, they will become an adult with the same conviction — And perhaps even more accepting of unmasked consumption.

Because children do not make consumption decisions on their own, any solution would not only have be attractive to them, but also appealing to their caregivers.

Children would need to find the insect based food products desirable and enjoyable. Their caregivers would have to approve of the products. Kids are generally concerned with their food being tasty and fun, while their caregivers are generally concerned with the cost and nutritional value of the item.

We decided to focus on developing snacks fortified with cricket protein. We chose snacks because they are highly accessible and have well established distribution channels. The also have a long history of nutrient fortification. We chose to fortify them with cricket protein, because there is an established and growing supply chain of cricket flour — A protein packed powder that can be used as a flour substitute.

In the interest of appealing to both caregiver and child we surveyed the market for insights into potential product categories and brand aesthetics that met the needs of both stakeholders.

This survey led to the development of YUMMY — A brand that serves to overcome perceptions and break conventions by offering great tasting snacks that are fun, playful and a great source of efficient protein. We chose three items for our introductory product family: Cricket flour fortified gummies, cookies and peanut butter.

Kids love “gross out” gummies and “Gummi Worms” have been on the market since 1982. So it’s only natural that you would have gummy bugs made with real bugs!

We are seeking to position our YUMMY gummies between the ever-loved fruit snack and the gummy multivitamins that have become so popular in the past decade.

“Yummy Bugummies”come in a reusable sliding matchbox style package for delightful discovery upon opening. The box design is meant to encourage the child's imagination, sense of play and sharing.

Just imagine a toddler asking for some Yummy Bugummies. Who could deny a child their Yummy Bugummies!

More a cookie than cracker Crawly Crackers are inspired by traditional animal crackers, but with a twist. Rather than enriched flour they’re made with cricket flour. So they’re packed full of protein.

The packaging for the Crawly Crackers not only has the same reusable sliding box as the Yummy Bugummies, but features a string handle reminiscent of the classic Barnum’s Animals. This feature comes in handy for those little snackers on the go.

A main ingredient in the beloved PB&J — Peanut butter is a staple food for many children. With added cricket protein, YUMMY offers a fun twist to this premier pantry poster-child.

Let Crawly Crackers take a dip in your Peanut Bugger.

We believe that this product family is a formidable first step in our mission to get Westerners to adopt insects into their diet by the year 2050. All in the interest of making humankind more sustainable through dietary diversity, food accessibility, security and efficiency. We hope that this project can serve as a model for others seeking developed sustainable alternatives that require cultural paradigm shifts.