Getting past the ‘ick’ factor: Ontario acquires a taste for crickets

By the end of 2021, a new facility in London is set to start producing 9,000 tonnes of the insects a year — another sign that the province is increasingly crazy for crickets
By Diane Peters - Published on Aug 06, 2020
Desserts created using products from the Entomo Farms cricket-processing facility in Norwood. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

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Around the world, roughly 2 billion people eat insects as part of their regular diet, noshing on about 1,900 different bug species. Here, where we don’t have a strong tradition of eating beetles, caterpillars, bees, or crickets — some of the most popular dietary insects, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — we eat bugs, too, but by accident. We ingest them via invisible fragments in our coffee, wheat, pasta, chocolate, and other foods and drinks.

But that’s changing: people in Canada are starting to dine on bugs on purpose, with crickets leading the tasty way. “The issue used to be the ‘ick’ factor,” says Jarrod Goldin, co-founder and vice-president of innovation and research for Entomo Farms, which raises crickets in Norwood, near Peterborough. “There’s been a lot of growth. And we’ve seen a definite normalization and validation.”

Entomo runs one of the largest cricket farms in the world: about 100 million bugs live in three barns that span 60,000 square feet. Next month, Aspire Food Group — which was founded by Canadians and formerly based solely in Austin — will break ground on a new facility in London. Set to open by the end of 2021, it’ll produce 9,000 tonnes of crickets a year in its 100,000-square-foot facility and then ship its powders and flours across North America.

It looks as if Ontario is about to become the cricket capital of the world. As well as being home to these big players, the province also boasts a number of smaller operations, including 1,300-square-foot Yes Crickets in Owen Sound (which houses 1 million bugs) and 3,200-square-foot Third Millennium Farming in Mississauga, which also designs cricket farms and offers training.

Most sectors would prefer to keep competitors out of the market, but not this one, says Yes Crickets founder Joe Shouldice: “It’s still small enough a market that everyone’s success helps everyone else at the moment.”

But there are hopes that the market will continue to grow as consumers become more aware of what a cricket-rich diet has to offer. The insects pack a nutritional punch: they contain twice as much protein as beef by weight, plus have iron, calcium, amino acids, and vitamin B12. “It’s an attractive protein for many vegetarians,” as they can lack B12 in their diets, says Matt Muzzatti, who’s doing his PhD in biology at Carleton University and focuses on how to maximize the health and growth rates of farmed crickets.

Then there’s the mode of production: “Millennial customers are gravitating towards things like locally sourced, GMO-free, and environmentally conscious,” says Mohammed Ashour, co-founder and CEO of Aspire.

“Crickets are sustainable superfoods,” says Muzzatti. Indeed, these nutrition-rich bugs can be farmed in a much greener way than most protein sources. They can be raised in just about any indoor facilities — including one’s basement. Shouldice, for instance, farms his crickets in an industrial building on the outskirts of town. They live in so-called cricket condos, which resemble cardboard wine-bottle dividers (basement farmers will use actual wine dividers or egg cartons) and offer ample places to hide. Muzzatti says that crickets require 12 times less water to raise than cows, and nine times less than pigs.

While they like to lay their eggs on peat moss, crickets otherwise don’t need soil and can eat either premade cricket food or kitchen scraps, plus some water — that’s it.

Taste-wise, they get good reviews. Muzzatti got into crickets while an undergraduate at the University of Guelph: starting in 2017, he helped run Guelph Bug Day. The on-campus event featured students sampling crickets, usually for the first time. “When people tried them, they were apprehensive at first. Then, the most common response I got was, ‘Hey, that’s actually good.’”

Shouldice sells his dry-roasted and flavoured crickets — they come in dill pickle, salt and vinegar, barbecue, and other chip-like flavours — at farmers’ markets and to local stores and restaurants. (One place has a cricket taco on the menu.)

Entomo is best known for supplying Loblaws and its President’s Choice label with a cricket powder. You can add it to smoothies, baking, and sauces, and Goldin says it’s been one of Loblaws’ most successful launches in recent years. The company both makes finished products and wholesales to companies around the world that use its powder for edible items such as snack bars.

Ashour adds that cricket powder and flour could also be used in agricultural feed and in pet food: “Even if you are a vegan pet parent, your dog can’t eat a vegan diet, but you might feed them food with insects as a protein source.”

As consumers gradually come around to the idea of eating a crunchy cricket as a snack or seeing it on an ingredient list, the industry is trying to figure out how to raise the insects better.

“They seem to have two gears: they’re either just doing great, or they’re just dead,” says Shouldice, who’s been farming crickets since 2018. But, he adds, since it takes crickets just eight weeks to reach full maturity and they flourish year-round inside, growers can recover quickly if there’s a problem.

“Farming crickets is not hard. But farming crickets at a scale and efficiency and cost-optimized way, that’s the challenge,” says Ashour. Aspire has been growing crickets in Austin in mainly an research and development capacity since 2014, and the Texas outpost will continue to research how to grow crickets better while the company builds out its larger production facility in Ontario.

Entomo Foods, which has been raising crickets since 2014, has recently has been working with Muzzatti to figure out how to optimize production. “There’s no playbook,” Goldin says. “We’re literally inventing the playbook as we go along.” But, he notes, the industry’s prospects are looking good: “Our tagline is ‘The future of Food,’ but we might need to change it. That future is now.”

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