- Associated Press - Saturday, February 18, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Most food companies hope to keep bugs out of their products.

A Nebraska business is trying to figure out just how many insects it can put in.

Crickets, ground to a powder, are a key ingredient in new pasta and rice products being developed by Bugeater Foods, a startup working from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2lovrHo ) reported.

The goal is to get as much buggy nutrition into the pasta as possible while still making a product that looks and tastes good and cooks properly.

The better it tastes, the better the chance of getting consumers to overcome their aversion to eating insects, which are high in protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, but also, for many people, high in the ick factor.

Along with expanding the supply chain of crickets raised for human and livestock consumption, overcoming people’s aversion to eating bugs is the biggest hurdle for the nascent insect protein industry.

Using insects in staple foods like rice and noodles is a new direction for Bugeater, which launched in January 2015. Taking its name from the pre-Cornhuskers, 1890s Nebraska football team, the company started out with a focus on a protein shake product called Jump.

It sells the cricket-based shake powder online and also distributed samples through a 2015 partnership with Lincoln vitamin and supplement seller Bulu Box. Recently, it secured distribution through Hy-Vee supermarkets and said Jump is now available at some of the Iowa retailer’s stores.

But last fall, it got a big boost with a government small-business grant to pursue a different path.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Bugeater $100,000 to find new ways to turn insects into safe, healthful staple food products that taste good. If things go well in this first phase, during which it’s testing a rice-shaped pasta along with ramen and macaroni noodles, Bugeater hopes to secure a phase-two grant worth an additional $600,000. The money would cover the cost of developing and manufacturing a commercial-ready product.

The USDA grant is Bugeater’s first six-figure investment. Chief Executive Officer Kelly Sturek called it a turning point for the small company, with a team of three. Julianne Kopf is the food scientist, and Alec Wiese handles marketing and branding. The Nebraska Department of Economic Development partially matched the grant with an additional $65,000.

That money comes on top of smaller early investments. Participation in the Lincoln accelerator program NMotion brought a $20,000 investment in exchange for some equity in the company, and the team members, who met as students at UNL, themselves invested a total of about $10,000, mostly from winnings in business plan competitions.

In test space at UNL’s Food Innovation Center, Sturek and Kopf try different formulations of cricket powder in their pasta dough. They try different cooking oils, and rice and wheat flour. The result is something that looks and tastes much like whole-grain pasta - with a bit of nutty flavor.

“You might just think that this is a whole-grain noodle, and not that you’re looking at insect particles,” Kopf said.

They’ll set up taste-test trials this spring, and send their products to chefs for feedback.

Why bugs? Bugeater and its competitors say their product is more sustainable than other animal proteins.

While it says more research is needed, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said raising insects produces fewer greenhouse gases and takes less water and space. Insects efficiently convert feed to protein and can be a key part of the answer to the question of how to feed the world’s growing population, the organization said.

It’s hard to quantify the size of the edible insect industry, said Robert Nathan Allen, a member of the board of the North American Edible Insect Coalition, which formed in 2016 to represent the industry. Allen is also a founder of the Austin, Texas, nonprofit Little Herd, which advocates for the practice of eating insects.

Insects could also be used to feed livestock, Allen said. And for farmers facing low commodity prices, an insect farming operation could be a profitable addition to a traditional farm, he said.

Allen said the industry’s primary goal is public education about eating insects. He envisions a campaign along the lines of the dairy industry’s “Got Milk?” promotion, although expensive advertising is out of reach.

But he said the number of farms raising insects for human consumption is growing, with about a dozen today. Also growing is the number of commercial food products available online and on grocery shelves. It’s not just novelty scorpion lollipops anymore. Consumers can snack on Chirps, chips made with cricket flour, or Exo protein bars, which advertise: “Clean animal protein. None of the concerns.”

Big investors and food manufacturers have taken notice, Allen said. Arielle Zuckerberg - Facebook founder Mark’s sister - was among investors last year in a California cricket farm, Tiny Farms. And PepsiCo. Chief Executive Indra Nooyi said at a conference last year that insect protein will become more popular.

“They’re realizing that there’s potential here,” said Allen, while acknowledging that eating bugs is still a strange idea for western consumers.

Leon Higley, a UNL insect ecologist who is not involved with Bugeater, said insects and their larvae have long been a source of protein in human diets, and still are in southeast Asia and some other places.

“It isn’t much different from eating lobster or king crab - it’s 100 percent a matter of perception,” he said.

If you think you’d never eat an insect, Higley said, you’re wrong - they’re impossible to keep out of the food supply, with bits and pieces already in the things you eat. He said there are few health risks; some people with a crustacean allergy react to insects. But they are largely healthful and safe to eat, he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no special rules for edible insects, a spokesman told industry publication Food Navigator-USA last year. The FDA said insects sold for food must be raised specially for human consumption and must be free from pathogens, and must be packaged and transported in compliance with good food-handling practices.

The FDA didn’t answer questions from The World-Herald about its rules.

Bugeater Foods said it sends both its cricket powder ingredient and its final product to an independent lab to be tested for pathogens.

There is “not a chance” that eating insects will become mainstream in the United States, Higley said, but he sees market niches for it, and the appeal to consumers who believe raising vertebrate animals for meat is inhumane.

Allen, the edible insect promoter, argues that the investments in these businesses show it’s not a passing fad.

“If Americans don’t want to eat it, that’s fine. There are billions of other people around the world who are going to eat it,” he said. And U.S. companies may want a piece of the market.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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