In Food + Drink

Why Insects Could Be The New Superfood (Seriously)

Trying the local food is a vital part of the experience for many travellers, and Channy Sandhu is no different.

While travelling through Thailand in 2017, he saw locals cooking insects on the side of the road and decided to stop and give them a try. He was so pleasantly surprised by the flavour of the roasted crickets that he began to wonder if this was something that could work in Australia. From there, things moved quickly.

“Within just a few months, I was collaborating with local cricket farmers to come up with a range of products including protein powder, baking powder and pastas,” he says, and earlier this year he launched Hoppa, a company dedicated to making crickets a more mainstream food.

Image: Grilo / supplied

But there’s not a whole insect in sight in Hoppa’s current product range, which includes pasta and ‘flour’ from ground Thai crickets, and that’s entirely intentional.

Overcoming the “ick” factor

Sadhu may have been convinced with one taste, but getting Australian consumers used to the idea of eating insects was always going to take time. “The “ick” factor was one of the challenges we were looking to overcome when we launched,” he says.

He chose not to include whole insects because “we wanted to ensure that our products were not just seen as a delicacy or a novelty but were consumed as part of an everyday healthy and sustainable lifestyle.” Other companies working in the same field had similar concerns.

“The market shows that people will be more open to trying crickets in powder form,” Grilo co-founder Lucas Becker says, “especially in things that they are used to eating on a regular basis.” Based in Byron Bay, Grilo unsurprisingly has a strong focus on wellness and specialises in energy bars and protein powders. As a chef, Becker is always on the lookout for new ingredients and now incorporates insects into all of his dishes.

Image: Grilo / supplied

Unlike Hoppa, Grilo also sells whole crickets. Becker describes them as “just like peanuts but with much more nutrients” and cites nutritional benefits like high levels of protein, iron, calcium, amino acids and vitamin B12. He calls crickets the “gateway bug” and has also experimented with using green ants, mealworms, caterpillar and even scorpions but at the moment says that “there are challenges sourcing those ingredients with an organic certification at a commercial scale.”

A more sustainable protein source

That’s not a problem for Louise Morris. As the founder and director of Rebel Food Tasmania, she grows crickets, wood roaches (“woodies”) and mealworms (which she calls tenebro because, as she points out, they’re not worms).

Like many Tasmanian producers, being part of a low impact local food economy is central to her philosophy and she uses renewable energy and low-density stocking to make her produce as sustainable as possible. Morris also makes other producers more sustainable by using waste from farms, cafes, breweries and wineries to feed her insects (and the wide variety of businesses she works with is why she hasn’t sought organic certification).

Image: Rebel Food Tasmania / supplied

She even turns the frass (insect poo and shed exoskeletons) into compost for the garden that ensures the insects have a regular supply of fresh fruit and vegetables to keep them “plump, well hydrated and extra sweet”.

Estimates on just how sustainable insects are vary significantly, but one of the more eye-catching figures is that they use as little as 0.0005 per cent of the water required for the equivalent amount of beef protein. Add in reduced greenhouse gases and land usage, and there’s a compelling argument that they are the ethical protein choice.

But Morris urges caution when making such sweeping statements, pointing out that “many large scale commercial cricket farms use commercial chicken feed as their feedstock.” That means globally sourced corn, soya, grains and meat-derived proteins that may not be sustainable, which is why she keeps her business conspicuously small scale.

“Waiter, there’s a bug in my soup”

Insects in a fine dining restaurant used to be a punchline, but Rebel Food Tasmania’s focus on tasty, sustainable insects has allowed them to supply high-end Hobart establishments like Mona’s Faro and The Source restaurants, Wrest Point Casino and Government House.

Morris launched the company at last year’s Dark Mofo Winter Feast and found the sustainable ingredients that were both local and exotic a perfect fit for innovative chefs looking for new ideas.

Image: Rebel Food Tasmania / supplied

From the “subtle cheesy” flavours of tenebro to the “deep, earthy umami” woodies which lend themselves to fermentation, she’s worked with those chefs to create the insects with rich, complex flavours.

That’s possible because of her small scale. “We farm for taste, not tonnage”, she says, and during peak season, her output is 8 kilograms a week. Where possible, she prefers to work with the whole insects, and uses a simple analogy to explain why. “Imagine if the only thing you’d ever eaten containing prawn was a prawn cracker…and then one day you were served fresh prawns, cooked just right.”

insects

Image: Rebel Food Tasmania / supplied

Working with chefs who will treat her produce well is vital to Morris’ role as an ambassador for low footprint, high-quality edible insects, and it’s why she puts so much effort into her job. “What the insects eat over their lifetime dramatically impacts their health, and taste,” she explains. “That directly impacts how nutritious and enjoyable they are as a food source for us.

“After all we are what we eat.”

(Lead image: Grilo / supplied) 

Published 24 September, 2019