PORTLAND, OREGON —
An American businessman is hoping to add pulverized crickets to the American diet.
Americans are generally squeamish about eating bugs even though insects are a normal part of the diet for at least 2 billion people worldwide, with delicacies like fried caterpillars in Tanzania, chili-toasted grasshoppers in Mexico or crunchy giant water bugs in Thailand.
Charles Wilson, the founder and CEO of Cricket Flours - that's flour as in the white, powdery foodstuff - became interested in crickets as a protein supplement after learning he had food sensitivities to dairy, gluten and a variety of other ingredients, including a protein powder he was using to build muscle.
"I had always used it, but found I wasn't supposed to have it anymore,” he said. “So I started looking for alternative proteins and alternative food ingredients and I stumbled across cricket flour."
Cricket Flours Co-Founder Omar Ellis offers product samples in Portland last month. (Tom Banse)
Wilson saw the potential for crickets to be more than just a replacement for his protein shakes, he also sensed a business opportunity.
At the time, Wilson was attending the University of Oregon's law school where he approached Omar Ellis, a friend studying at the business school.
Ellis distinctly remembers the conversation last year. "I was like, 'What's the idea?' He said, 'I want to sell protein powder made from crickets.' You could literally hear crickets at that point, because I am like, 'What? Really?’”
But Wilson was persuasive and Ellis became a co-founder and executive of Cricket Flours. These days he's out and about chirping about reasons to eat food made from insects and was recently offering product samples at a sustainability conference in Portland, Oregon.
"It's got more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk," Ellis said. "They're very sustainable. They take one-tenth the feed and one-sixth the water to get the same amount of protein that you would get from beef. It's quite amazing."
Reviews from conference attendees were mixed. One admitted with a laugh, "In any other form, I would never do this. It definitely might be something for the future. You never know."
Another pointed out that cricket flour would not be acceptable for a vegetarian, "but ultimately there is a problem finding good protein powders that are not flavored and this isn't."
Crunching on the spiced granola with cricket flour, another adventurous diner offered, "I'm getting mostly the granola taste here. There's really nothing off or unusual about it."
Wilson describes the pure ground-up crickets as having a neutral taste, maybe in the "slightly nutty" direction. Ellis suggests consumers don't think of it as "eating crickets. You have to think of it as, 'I'm just going to take in a lot more protein now.'"
Ellis and Wilson's business buys dried, milled crickets in bulk from several U.S. wholesalers. The entrepreneurs resell the pure cricket flour online, as well as chocolate-flavored and baking mixes. The insect origins of the foods are unrecognizable without a label after processing.
Cricket Flours is one of more than a dozen North American startups in the edible insects niche. Others are focused on cricket farming or selling energy bars or snacks made with cricket powder. Ellis said it takes about 5,000 crickets to make a pound of flour. That makes the end product - regardless of the form it takes - relatively expensive.