Credit: Adam Blasberg

Sydney Koby has landed a national distributor for her locally made Bite Snacks cricket energy bars

B.C. entrepreneurs hope to take edible insects to the next level of normal

When returning Spanish ships first brought the potato to Europe from South America in the 1600s, the reception was chilly, to say the least. People regarded the vegetable as alien, dangerous and, well, kind of gross, largely spurning it over the next few decades. Then Antoine-Augustin Parmentier—the 18th-century version of an Instagram influencer—made it his mission to popularize the potato, forever changing how Europeans eat.

Now take an ingredient that is standard fare for two billion people worldwide, was greeted in B.C. with disgust, and is finally seeing uptake for its high nutritional profile, low carbon footprint and, for some, an appealing, umami-esque flavour. Although it’s unlikely to become as common as the french fry any time soon, a handful of B.C. entrepreneurs are hoping that the benefits of insect protein will be enough for history to repeat itself. Bugs, as our modern-day potato.

It was the low carbon footprint aspect that inspired Meeru Dhalwala to try to become the Parmentier of insect protein 10 years ago—but it proved a tough trend to set. “Climate change is my No. 1 issue,” says the co-founder of Vancouver’s Vij’s restaurant empire. “I was tackling this in my work and thinking, All right, how does the restaurant industry contribute to climate change, and what can I do to be proactive?”

In 2008, Dhalwala came across a New York Times article that compared eating insects to riding a bicycle and eating steak to driving an SUV: the first improves health and reduces pollution, while the latter does the opposite. “That really hit me, and I thought, Well, that’s it,” she says.

Dhalwala began experimenting with crickets, ordering her first batch from a bemused lizard-food producer in Washington (after researching what they were fed—apples—and conducting extensive food safety tests, which revealed the bugs were less bacteria-prone than chicken). Her first dish was a cricket parantha, a kind of flatbread. “I roasted them with some spices and oil, then cooled them and ground them up into a flour. And it was gorgeous, just beautiful,” Dhalwala recalls. She put the paranthas on the menu at Vij’s, and the media went wild—newspaper coverage across North America, interviews on Nightline.

But in the restaurant? Crickets. “For all the talk, no one was ordering them,” Dhalwala says.

On a typical Saturday, she moved about a dozen paranthas, compared to 40 beef or 60 lamb orders. Preparing the crickets was labour-intensive, and after two years she took them off the menu. She tried again in 2011 at her Rangoli restaurant, going a step further by serving a pizza topped with whole roasted crickets. That flopped big-time—not only did no one want to eat it, but the press triggered a wave of hateful and even racist emails, threatening to turn her in to the health department and accusing her of serving cockroaches.

The disheartening response took the joy out of the experiment, and Dhalwala shelved her attempt to normalize insect protein in Vancouver. “Nobody was ready for it,” she says. “No one was ready to see the real bugs on that thing.”

But the lid of the insect jar was loosened, if only a little bit. Since then, edible bugs have hopped up in forms aplenty: some gimmicky—at restaurants in Victoria as a one-week promotion for a locally produced documentary; an eat-if-you-dare sprinkling on poutine or candy apples at the PNE—but some less so, such as the President’s Choice protein powder that became widely available through Loblaws stores last year. And now crickets are even creeping in again as the real bugs on pizzas, at places like the Hooded Merganser restaurant in Penticton.

Credit: Stewart Stick

Ontario producer Entomo Farms sells its insect powder in B.C.

A great hop forward

Not long after Dhalwala’s doomed original cricket pizza experiment, a 2013 United Nations report on insect protein caught the attention of Sydney Koby, a baker at Lucky’s Doughnuts in Vancouver. Koby, a self-described “learning and research nerd” who has a geological engineering degree from Queen’s University, was struck by the data: insects require vastly fewer resources to produce than beef, they can have twice the amino acids and 30 times the vitamin B12, and, as a bonus, they are high in protein, calcium, magnesium and zinc. (A more recent study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry showed that crickets’ iron content is not only double that of beef but also more absorbable.)

“I had been an on-again off-again vegetarian for years, because I struggled with the impact the meat industry has on the environment,” Koby recalls. “I read that document, and it seemed to make so much sense. It was just a matter of introducing it in the right way.”

Koby looked for a Canadian supplier and found Entomo Farms—a then-new industrial-scale cricket producer in Norwood, Ontario. She ordered her first batch of crickets and began “playing around,” using friends and family as her test market. After a few flops (like Dhalwala, she started with spiced whole bugs but faced the same ick-factor barrier), Koby found that baked foods incorporating cricket powder made for an easier introduction. In late 2017 she launched Bite Snacks, a line of cricket energy bars, each containing the equivalent of 20 to 30 bugs. The bars are produced locally, at a facility in North Vancouver.

“I tend to make decisions and jump right into things,” Koby says. “It was quite naive of me to quit my job and do this. But I think being naive helps in starting a business—you have to be a bit crazy.” A four-week boot camp program hosted by Vancouver Farmers Markets in 2018 helped her refine her products, and today Bite flavours like Chocolate Chirp and Jiminy Ginger can be found in about 20 natural food stores across B.C., and, as of last April, on Amazon.ca.

Gaining consumer acceptance of insects as food is an uphill road (in September, another B.C. cricket effort, Coast Protein, closed shop), but this fall Koby secured her first national distributor, and she plans to release a shelf-stable protein powder in January. “I talk to people and hear, Oh, there are so many opportunities to use cricket protein. Why aren’t you seeing it more in the grocery stores?” she says. “And it’s like, well, someone has to do it. It takes people continuing to persevere, and to introduce it by bringing products to market.”

Nicole Kilburn, a food anthropologist at Camosun College in Victoria, was a media rep for Bite’s major supplier in its first year of business—fielding calls for Entomo about the role of insect protein in different global cultures. For a year after the company’s launch in 2014, “it was all about, Oh, don’t people think it’s disgusting?” she recalls. “But then the questions started to change. It became more about the business, the market.”

Entomo has since tripled its space, to 60,000 square feet, and still sells out every run. Last year saw a significant investment from Maple Leaf Foods, along with a deal to supply powder for the President’s Choice product (which will soon expand from Loblaws to Shoppers Drug Mart). And earlier this year, Entomo partnered with Nestlé Purina Petcare to supply crickets for RootLab, its new sustainable dog food brand.

“That shift was really profound,” Kilburn explains. “By 2015 I stopped working for Entomo—they didn’t need me.” Now she’s fostering a new generation of insect protein entrepreneurs in B.C., through her biennial “Pestival” open house at Camosun. At her first event, held five years ago, seven students participated; by her third, in April 2018, she had 40, the festival sold out, and most participants had already tried—or at least encountered—bug protein.

The range of products showcased at Pestival has grown, too: a mealworm bolognese being developed in Toronto; a cricket tortilla produced in the U.S. And as more everyday products hit shelves, lingering cultural aversions to insect protein will keep falling away, Kilburn says. The next big step, she reckons, is a textured meat product—something that could sit in the cooler next to the tempeh and veggie burgers.

“As consumers, we’re starting to shift into the mainstream, and that’s pretty exciting,” Kilburn says. “It’s like Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.”

Pest intentions

Meanwhile, there’s a back door into the insect protein market, one that doesn’t require the public to accept eating bugs. Since 2012, Langley-based Enterra has been raising black soldier fly larvae for use in agricultural-scale fish and poultry feed—first in a 5,000-square-foot demonstration facility in East Vancouver, and, since 2014, in 60,000-square-foot Langley plant.

Now led by CEO Geoff Gyles after founder Brand Marchant retired in 2016, Enterra recently secured funding to build three new $30-million, 200,000-square-foot facilities—one in Balzac, Alberta, that is expected to begin commercial production this fall, a new head office and R&D facility to be built in the Fraser Valley next year, and, in 2021, a foothold in the Midwestern U.S.

“The idea sprang up around finding a replacement for fish meal in aquaculture,” says Victoria Leung, VP of operations. Right now, most aquaculture feed comes from wild-caught fish, a significant concern as ocean stocks come under pressure and the aquaculture industry continues to grow. “There is only so much we can catch out of the ocean,” Leung says. “So there is a definitive need for a sustainable protein immediately.”

After several years of research, Enterra settled on black soldier fly larvae because the grubs must become rich in fat and energy to survive their adult stage—resulting in a nutrient-packed delight for chicken and salmonids, which are already suited to consuming insects. “The adult fly has no mouth parts—it doesn’t eat,” Leung notes. “So [the larvae] have to eat enough to turn into a fly, mate and reproduce, then after a week they die.”

The larvae feed on recycled food waste from Canadian Food Inspection Agency–regulated facilities, they require no water beyond what’s in the scraps, and the facilities don’t need to be situated on arable land. It also helps that the flies don’t sting, bite or carry disease—“they’re actually a delight to work with,” Leung says. And unlike people, the fish and fowl (and soon, through a partnership with Rolf C. Hagen, pets) don’t have to be convinced.

With just the one facility online before this fall, Enterra has tripled its revenue each year since 2014. “It’s supply-constrained, not market-constrained,” Leung says. “There are large players out there that you can’t even sell to unless you’re making thousands of tonnes a year. The demand is there. They’re just waiting for us to produce.”

And would Enterra ever consider skipping the middleman, so to speak? “Human food has always been dangling there as a potential for us. It’s certainly something we see long-term,” Leung says. “But in the shorter term, it’s easier for us to dive into the animal and pet feed market, where there is greater acceptance and immediate demand.”

Sustainability-minded restaurateur Meeru Dhalwala will also keep biding her time. “I haven’t put it to rest,” she says. “I haven’t closed the door on it at all. I just can’t keep doing crickets. I need to try new things.”

Bugging out

The world is home to plenty of insects that make for good eating—a market expected to surge in the next few years

Recorded edible insect species

Globally: 2,111
In Canada: 3

Insect protein market 2018

North America: $44.1 million
Worldwide: $153.9 million

Projected global market by 2030: $7.97 billion

Consumption: 732,684.1 tons

bug chart