The UCSB Bren School grad students behind the insects-as-food project called Slightly Nutty weren’t the first people to realize that ground-up crickets make for a nutritious treat, as a handful of companies have grown the domestic market from nothing to more than $20 million in just a few years. But Tyler Isaac, Jacob Skaggs, and Megan Miranda may make this fast-growing trend truly sustainable, which is likely to trigger a new global industry and put the protein-rich cricket powder into everything from cookies and pasta to pet food and fish farms.
“It’s really versatile,” said Isaac, 25, of the insect “flour” while overlooking a white box of about 5,000 brown crickets hunkering down on egg cartons in their lab last week. “If this does take off, it’s going to be a commodity rather than a mom-and-pop thing.”
A native of West Hartford, Connecticut, who got his undergrad degree at Boston University, Isaac was initially drawn to insects as an alternative aquaculture feed while working at a fish farm in the Bahamas. He decided to pursue a master’s in environmental science and management at UCSB because of the Bren School’s innovative Eco-Entrepreneurship, or “Eco-E,” program, which encourages students to tackle environmental challenges by building economically viable businesses. That’s where, in fall 2013, he met Skaggs, 34, a Peace Corps veteran who still works on East African initiatives, and then Miranda, 25, a Big Island of Hawai’i native with a background in agriculture who joined the team in March 2014.
After an initial test of black soldier fly larvae, the team switched to crickets, which had emerged in 2010 as an insect protein of choice because of the plentiful pet store infrastructure that existed for feeding pet lizards and frogs. Better yet, the nutritional and sustainability impacts are staggering: cricket flour offers at least twice as much protein as beef, more iron than spinach, and as much B12 as salmon, yet you can grow six times as much of it than beef with the same amount of feed. But in these days of drought, the water savings are most appealing: the six grams of beef protein you can reap from 100 gallons is dwarfed by the more than 7,000 grams of protein you get from crickets. “They are astronomically more efficient,” said Isaac, noting that they even do better when grown en masse. “You can, in a sense, factory farm them, even though that’s an evil word.”
With such a wise wind at their backs, protein bar companies like Chapul (whose founder Pat Crowley appeared on the TV show Shark Tank in 2014) and Exo continue pushing cricket flour into a premium category, and there seems to be less “ick factor” associated with ground-up bugs. Plus, thanks to Jiminy Cricket, Americans aren’t so freaked out by them. “It doesn’t sound as scary as, ‘Would you like a fly larvae burger?’” said Isaac.
The team’s next step, as dictated by the Eco-E program, was to investigate the current market and identify the environmental and economic problems. In the crickets’ case, the main sustainability hurdle was the type of feed being used — the current companies rely on chicken-feed-like meals that use water-sucking base ingredients like soybeans and whey, not to mention animal byproducts. And economically, the price of $20 to $25 a pound for wholesale cricket flour remains too high to be anything other than high-end people food, as whey, for instance, remains nearly half as cheap.
So they contacted BrewLAB in Carpinteria, and the brewery started giving their boiled grains —traditionally given to pigs and other livestock — to feed the crickets, which go from “hatch to harvest” in just six weeks, before they mature, grow wings, and start chirping. The team, according to Skaggs, steadily used “scientific rigor” to develop a to-be-patented feed recipe (now also with spent juice pulp from the Juice Ranch) that resulted in “nutritionally consistent” crickets, which they’ve done both in the lab and up at the Santa Barbara Aquaponics facility. “It’s pretty easy to grow crickets,” said Skaggs, “but it’s difficult to grow crickets well.”
Processing is comparably simple, as the crickets are frozen, flash-boiled, baked, and ground up, resulting in a dust that smells like wood pulp but tastes like sunflower seeds. (They’re also good whole, said Miranda, explaining, “My favorite is to fry them with a little salt. They taste like potato chips or popcorn. They’re very savory.”)
The team is most proud to be turning trash into food. “I think this is the beginning of a global shift for using waste streams as a source of protein,” said Skaggs. “We want to be part of that first wave.”
That’s the kind of comment commonly overheard in the Eco-E lab, where green-earth concepts like “closed-loop system” and “conservation planning” appear in the same sentences as green-money ideals of “opportunity analysis” and “first-mover advantage.” Upon graduation this June — and a hopeful win at UCSB’s New Venture Competition at the end of April — the Slightly Nutty team plans to incorporate the company, put their research into work, get some money in the bank on crickets (Chapul and Exo both indicated they will buy the flour), and then expand into other insect proteins to fulfill agriculture and aquaculture needs.
With that head start into what’s projected to be a $350 million industry by 2018 in the United States alone, Slightly Nutty looks soberly sane. Not even the competition scares them. “More than anything, our goal is to see this become the norm,” said Isaac. “If someone copies us, then we’ve done something right. In our opinion, the more the better.”
UCSB @ Earth Day
Recently named the “Greenest Public University” in the country, UCSB makes quite a presence at the Earth Day celebration this weekend at Alameda Park. Among more than a dozen programs with booths, watch out for these:
Salty Girl Seafood: Another Eco-E project, Norah Eddy and Laura Johnson’s company tracks seafood from the ocean to your plate. saltygirlseafood.com
Gaucho Certified Farmers Market: Didn’t know there was a market in front of Campbell Hall every Wednesday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.? facebook.com/gauchocertifiedfarmersmarket
UCSB Sustainability: Working to reduce water usage, support regional farms, and more on campus. sustainability.ucsb.edu