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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: These Companies Want You to Eat Bugs

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

The global population is expect to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. Experts the world over insist we must completely revamp our food system if we hope to feed the world's growing population.

Some say organic agriculture is the answer. Others tout the benefits of genetically-modified (GMO) crops. But stakeholder groups including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization are hoping a more unlikely solution will take off: bugs.

While the concept of eating bugs turns up noses in the Western world, we're basically the only ones. Insects are an everyday snack or a traditional delicacy in countries across Asia, Africa and South America. And if edible entomology were explored to its full potential, it could offer sustainable protein to billions while taking pressure off the world's oceans and animal agriculture, says the FAO.

It's easy to see what organizations like the FAO see in insect protein: Insects require far less water, food and land to produce protein. But, all benefits aside, Westerners remain wary of bugs in their food. These startup companies are out to change that -- and they hope their quirky recipes and innovative business models can bring insect protein mainstream.

1. Poquitos

@mattfuntown @safecofield ⚾️🌮🌶🍹#vivapoquitos

A post shared by Viva Poquitos (@vivapoquitos) on

Seattle restaurant Poquitos serves up tacos, tostadas and other traditional Mexican fare. But the menu item generating the most buzz is chapulines: a species of grasshopper that is popular in several regions across Mexico.

The dish became an unlikely hit at Poquitos' flagship location at the popular Pike Street Market in downtown Seattle. But the crunchy snack made the international press after the company opened a stand at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners.

Fans couldn't get enough. They ordered more than 900 servings within three games, and the stand had to limit the quantities it served.

2. Exo

What's your flavor? @laurenbhealth #PerformanceBugs

A post shared by Exo, Cricket Protein Bars (@exoprotein) on

Exo founders Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis concocted their first batch of cricket protein powder in their dorm room at Brown University. After launching a Kickstarter campaign and blowing past their goal within 72 hours, the pair was hooked.

Their startup now counts rapper Nas and lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss among its investors, Fortune reported last year. It also raised nearly $6 million in seed and Series A financing in under two years -- and it's now positioned as a clear leader in the burgeoning edible insect space with its cricket-based protein bars.

3. Chapul

Entrepreneur Pat Crowley introduced America to his insect protein startup, Chapul, with a 2014 appearance on ABC's "Shark Tank." The concept earned him $50,000 from billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

The company's protein bars made from cricket flour can now be found in some mainstream grocers like Publix. And Fortune gave it a rave review last year, predicting four months into the year that the company would rake in $1 million in revenue for 2016.

4. Aspire Food Group

If you've ever run across insect protein at popular Austin, Texas, events like SXSW or SXSW Eco, chances are Aspire Food Group was involved. The company is a pioneer in the edible insect space, and is looking to leverage the unusual protein to combat food insecurity worldwide.

The Texas startup now operates farms in the United States and Ghana. In the U.S., crickets fed a USDA organic diet are transformed into accessible and tasty products that Aspire hopes will normalize insect consumption in the Western world. In Ghana, where the consumption of insects such as palm weevils is far more common, Aspire seeks to empower peri-rural farmers to make a living growing weevils locally and sustainably.

5. Bitty Foods

If foodie trends of years past have taught us anything, it's that cute packaging and intriguing recipes can make all the difference. And San Francisco startup Bitty Foods is testing this theory in the insect protein space.

Co-founders Leslie Ziegler and Megan Miller are out to banish the "ick" factor around buggy snacks with a versatile cricket flour and air-puffed crisps that are basically the PopChips of the insect world. Those who are wary about snacking on bugs may be drawn in by unique flavors like salsa verde, spicy mole and baja ranchero.

“My vision is that we’re going to boost the protein content of all the staple foods that we eat,” cofounder Megan Miller told The New York Times in 2014. “And we’re going to need a really sustainable and plentiful protein source to do that with.”

6. Chirps

Two's Company, Three's wonderful!

A post shared by Chirps Cricket Chips (@chirpschips) on

Chirps, the brainchild of three female Harvard University grads, is another startup looking to make insect protein hip. The founding trio first got their start in the famed MassChallenge accelerator and quickly grew their business to a national profile.

The company now offers classic snacks like chips and cookies infused with cricket protein. Seriously, you can now buy chocolate chip cookies made with crickets. If that's not incentive enough to give insect protein a try, we don't know what is.

7. Entomo Farms

Interested in trying #edibleinsects for your health and the health of the planet? #tastethenewnext

A post shared by Entomo Farms (@entomofarms) on

Entomo Farms sells its own line of insect products including protein powder, toasted cricket snacks and even pet treats. But it also supplies the cricket flour behind both Exo and Chapul's protein bars, Fortune reported last year.

Founded by two brothers, the company operated three 20,000-square-foot barns as of last year. They intend to raise 90 million crickets in hopes of attracting a lucrative Series A round, the magazine reported.

8. Anty Gin

If you thought the rest of these concepts were whacky, hang on to your hats. In partnership with the experimental Copenhagen-based Nordic Food Lab, the storied Cambridge Distillery released a new gin last year with a secret ingredient: ants.

Okay, this will definitely sound strange, but stay with us: The red wood ant, native to forests across the Northern Hemisphere, produces formic acid in its abdomen to deter predators. "Luckily for us," the partners wrote on their website, "these very compounds hold great delicious potential. Formic acid (the simplest organic carboxylic acid, with the chemical formula HCOOH) is a very reactive compound in alcohol, serving as an agent for producing various aromatic esters."

Each bottle of Anty Gin contains the essence of approximately 62 wood ants. Cambridge Distillery insists this odd ingredient creates a flavor never before seen in the gin industry -- and, as the world's first gin tailor, they would know.

Image credit: Flickr/Ben Murphy Online

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni