For Bay Area techies attuned to the latest trends, kale is no longer cutting it and quinoa is passe. Instead, many are opting for a six-legged snack.
In startup offices around the region, people are munching on crickets.
Proponents say the tiny, chirping bugs are high in protein and iron and can serve as a sustainable alternative to beef or chicken. It?s a movement that has people buzzing, with companies such as San Francisco-based Bitty Foods baking the bugs into cookies and chips, Tiny Farms in San Leandro breeding crickets for mass consumption, and New York-based Exo using them in protein bars. The products are showing up in Silicon Valley break rooms, and investors and entrepreneurs are paying close attention.
?I would say there?s a new company that launches every six months, maybe even more frequently than that,? said Exo co-founder Greg Sewitz.
Eating insects is nothing new. Fried grasshoppers, or chapulines, are a favorite in Mexico, and pushcarts offering everything from crickets to silk worms line the streets of Thailand. But companies trying to market them in the U.S. must confront the squeamishness most Westerners feel about bugs.
?The very first time I had crickets it was a little bit weird. And you always have in the back of your mind, ?I wonder if there?s an antenna in this bar,?? said Bridget Sauer, who works in the San Francisco office of Teespring, an online custom T-shirt making platform. Sauer, a triathlete, now is hooked on peanut-butter-and-jelly-flavored Exo bars.
Companies like Exo and Bitty are part of a larger trend of food startups that are replacing meat, gluten and dairy in everyday products. Investors have poured more than $500 million into companies such as plant-based imitation meat maker Impossible Foods of Redwood City and meal replacement Soylent, according to venture capital database CB Insights. Impossible Foods has raised $183 million from big names including Bill Gates and Google Ventures, and Soylent raked in $21.5 million from backers including Andreessen Horowitz. Investment in these next-generation food startups is on track to hit record growth this year, CB Insights analyst Zoe Leavitt wrote in an email.
Chocolate-covered insects and lollipops with bugs suspended in transparent, sugary candy have long been available as novelty items, but the crickets-as-protein movement began picking up steam in 2013 with a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The report touted the nutritional benefits of insects and introduced them as a potential solution to a rapidly approaching problem ? the world will house 9 billion people by 2050, forcing humans to nearly double their food production using a limited supply of land and water. Crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle and half as much as chickens to produce the same amount of protein. They require less water and space to farm, produce minimal amounts of greenhouse gases and can be fed organic waste, according to the report.
?Edible insects are one of the most sustainable forms of protein on the planet,? said Megan Miller, co-founder of San Francisco-based startup Bitty Foods.
But whether they can be used as a more environmentally friendly alternative to other meats will depend on how the insects are farmed and what they are fed. A report published last year by researchers with the University of California at Davis found more study is needed to evaluate the long-term potential of bugs as protein, and concluded ?the potential for crickets to supplement the global supply of dietary protein appears to be more limited than has been recently suggested.?
Of the world?s 2,000 types of edible insects, crickets seem to be gaining the most traction in the U.S. They have a neutral flavor ? ?sort of nutty and toasty with a bit of earthiness,? Miller said ? and aren?t as frightening as spiders or scorpions.
Bitty products use cricket flour, which is made by freezing a batch of crickets, dry-roasting them and grinding them into powder. The powder, which Miller says contains 70 grams of protein per cup ? twice as much as beef ? is mixed with coconut and cassava, a starchy root, to make a gluten-free baking flour.
Next month, snack delivery service SnackNation will ship thousands of Bitty?s cricket flour chips to offices around the country, including to Bay Area tech companies notorious for keeping their kitchens loaded with free food. Among the offices soon to be receiving cricket snacks are Palo Alto-based HP, San Francisco-based online real estate platform Opendoor and Southern California-based Walt Disney Animation Studios.