Francesco Majno first tried eating scorpions and tarantulas while he was on holiday in Thailand. It was – as Majno quips – “love at first bite”.

Majno, who went on to create insect-based food brand Crické is not the only person to be bitten by the edible insect bug.

It is a rapidly growing food category that is increasingly becoming mainstream. Just last month Carrefour started stocking edible insect-based products like spicy chilli buffalo worms and energy bars made from dark chocolate and crickets from a company called Jimini’s in its Spanish stores and this month SOK – one of Finland’s largest supermarket groups – rolled out products from UK-based edible insect food brand Eat Grub in 400 of its stores.

How big could this nascent food category get, which global markets are ripe for exploitation and what are the biggest challenges edible insect-based food brands need to overcome among mainstream consumers?

Using insects as a source of food clearly is not a new phenomenon. More than two billion people globally currently eat insects such as caterpillars, termites and crickets in countries like Thailand and Mexico. However, in recent years insects have increasingly been eaten by western consumers for a host of different reasons. Firstly, there are a growing number of people who are more well travelled than previous generations and as a result they are increasingly willing to try new things – especially millennials.

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By GlobalData

The popularity of insects as a food source is also being fuelled by growing consumer awareness of issues surrounding the impact factory farming is having on the welfare of animals and on the wider environment. By contrast, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, insects have a much higher food conversion rate than conventional livestock.

For instance, the FAO estimates “crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein”. They also emit fewer greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock and they can be grown on organic waste.

Additionally, insects are an attractive option to people who are looking to eat more healthily or who are on high protein diets as some of them contain high concentration levels of amino acids, vitamins and protein. “Crickets can be as high as 69% protein, which is ridiculously high,” according to Shami Radia, co-founder of UK-based Eat Grub.

Eat Grub grinds crickets into a powder that be used as a protein supplement: it can be used to make smoothies or to create meals (to inspire edible insect lovers, the company has published a cookery book called ‘The Ultimate Insect Cook Book’). The company also produces a range of energy bars and sells roasted cricket bar snacks that come in smoky BBQ and chill and lime flavours.

“Consumers start with bars, then they move onto roasted crickets with a beer and then start cooking with the powder. That’s the journey to normalise it.”

“We feel that it’s a bit of a journey for consumers,” says Radia. “So they start with the bars, then they move onto roasted crickets with a beer and then they start cooking with it [the powder] at home. To us that’s the journey to normalise it.”

This normalisation process appears to be going well for Eat Grub at the moment. As well as enjoying strong sales growth through its e-commerce platform, the company has seen strong take-up in the foodservice sector and has gained good traction with retailers in London, with the likes of Planet Organic and Budgens stocking its products.

“Our focus is to get our products into retailers and get them into people’s hands because that’s the best way to build awareness. We could probably easily sustain the business on an e-commerce platform, but we really want to see them on-shelf. We want to see that acceptance,” says Radia.

While it may have scored a number of listings domestically, Eat Grub’s biggest growth area at the moment is exporting to European markets.

“We were recently listed in Finland’s largest supermarket called SOK,” says Radia. “They trialled us in around 70-80 stores in January this year and now they are rolling us out to 400 stores this month [May]. We are also speaking to other retailers in Scandinavia and Holland and a few other countries dotted around Europe.”

Radia adds the company was also recently approached by a distributor in Japan who wants to sell Eat Grub products. Japan has a long established culture, particularly in rural areas, of insect eating.

Fellow edible insect-based food brand Crické is also starting to gain traction with retailers, according to company co-founder Francesco Majno. In addition to direct-to-consumer sales via its website and food festivals, the company is rolling its product out with independent retailers in the London area over the next few months.

Majno says the idea for the business occurred to him when he sampled scorpions and tarantulas in Thailand but he recognised the idea of eating these creepy crawlies might not be palatable to many western consumers.

“Thus the challenge has been how to produce insect-based food attractive for people,” says Majno. “We believe that the best way to achieve it is to fuse insects into a familiar and reliable form: the Italian culinary tradition. So we have been working on the right mix of tradition and innovation.”

The company’s main product is Crickelle, a savoury cracker, enriched with 15% of cricket powder which significantly increases the product’s protein content. The cricket flour also contains micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.

“The taste is great and consumers can easily overcome the yuck factor munching crackers instead of whole insects,” says Majno. Pasta and biscuits will follow soon, he adds.

Another company that has taken the powder route is US-based Exo. The brand, which is owned by Aspire Food Group, farms its own insects and them converts them into protein powder that is used as the primary ingredient in consumer products that are sold direct-to-consumer, as well as through numerous retailers in North America.

According to Mohammed Ashour, co-founder and CEO at Aspire, the company has enjoyed “triple-digit growth year over year” since it launched in summer 2014, with sales growth strong in Europe and North America. He says there are three typical consumer profiles for Exo’s products.

“Adventurous eaters, health-conscious consumers, and sustainability-minded eaters,” he explains. “Most of our consumers are between the ages of 18-35, with a significant interest from children between the ages of 4-8.”

To date, looking at the sector more broadly, many of the insect-based food products that have gained the highest levels of traction have been made from crickets.

“We’ve done a lot of market research and we found crickets are the main one in terms of consumer acceptance,” says Eat Grub’s Radia. “They’re probably the most nutritionally complete and they’re directly related to prawns, which we use quite a lot in our literature and during talks or when we are doing samplings.”

Going forward, Radia says the company’s NPD efforts will continue to focus around crickets as for the time being at least there appear to be barriers in terms of the widespread acceptance of some insects and bugs.

“Grasshoppers are a little bit bigger so consumers get freaked out by the size and meal worms and buffalo worms have the word ‘worm’ in them so that’s a hard thing for people to get around,” says Radia. “We can’t call them something different because we want to be transparent about what we’re doing. We did talk about maybe rebranding them and calling them something like ‘buffalos’ but it’s hard to do that because you want to be up front, you don’t want to shy away and you want to be brave with your messaging. We don’t want to be apologetic about what we are trying to do.”

At Crické, Majno also thinks crickets and mealworms, due to their “nutritional values, unique taste, easiness to farm and low environmental footprint” are “more likely to be used than other insects” either as raw ingredients or in other products.

Aspire’s Ashour believes there is “significant potential for meat analogues using insect protein, including burgers, sausages, and other products consumed like meat”.

The other big opportunity for insects in the food chain, meanwhile, is their use as animal feed. It is an area that has already attracted a lot of interest and significant investment, according to Simon Billing, principal sustainability advisor in the food team at UK-based Forum for the Future.

“Chickens will eat insects in the wild and they are a good protein source,” says Billing. “Chicken consumption is ballooning as people move away from red meat for health or environmental reasons and that industry is heavily dependent on high protein feed like soy at the moment, so I think there is a big opportunity [for the use of insects as a livestock feed] around poultry and fish.”

Canadian-based Entomo Farms actually started out farming crickets to be used as bait by hunters or to feed reptiles, while it also took part in a trial using insects as feed for tilapia. However, in 2014 it opened a 5,000 sq ft “human grade cricket farm” and today it sells its cricket powder to businesses around the globe.

“We supply Eat Grub [in the UK], we’re shipping to Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US, a couple of spots in South America and across Europe,” says Jarrod Goldin, president of Entomo Farms. “Our core competence as a company is our business-to-business business. We are an ingredient supplier primarily. We do put our powder and our roasted crickets in a bag and we sell those to grocery stores, supermarkets and health food chains, but at this point we’re not looking to do any more consumer packaged goods.”

Although insect-based food brands have managed to make some inroads in countries that do not have a long-standing cultural history of eating insects, the main challenge to the sector’s future growth remains overcoming the negative perception many people associate with insects.

“A lot of countries eat insects as delicacies – they don’t eat them because they can’t get hold of chicken – so how do we get people in the West to change behaviour? That’s essentially a marketing challenge,” says Eat Grub’s Radia.

We may get some idea of how big this challenge actually is over the coming months based on the sales performance of Eat Grub in SOK and Jimini’s products in Carrefour, which are the two biggest roll-outs of insect-based food brands into traditional supermarket retailers in Europe to date.

“This could be the first reliable market test to understand if the yuck factor is still stopping European consumers from eating insect-based food”

“This could be the first reliable market test to understand if the yuck factor is still stopping European consumers from eating insect-based food,” believes Majno.

A similar barometer will be provided by how Entomo Farms’ cricket powder performs on shelf over the coming months in Loblaw – one of Canada’s biggest retail chains. The retailer started selling the powder as part of its President’s Choice range this spring and according to Goldin it is already selling well.

“A national grocery chain putting the powder under a nationally trusted brand is the greatest platform to test the idea of whether their is pent-up demand from western consumers for an ingredient like this,” he says.

In fact, the biggest challenge Goldin identifies for this nascent category is the ability of suppliers like Entomo to keep pace with growing consumer demand for insect-based products.

“We can’t grow our business fast enough,” he says. “We are sold out for months. We are having to double the size of our processing facility and we are having to triple the size of our farming footprint.”

To this end, the company recently completed a series A round of funding and attracted a minority investment from Canada’s largest protein consumer packaged goods company Maple Leaf Foods.

“Our vision at Maple Leaf Foods is to be the most sustainable protein company on earth,” says a spokesperson for Maple Leaf. “It’s an ambitious goal, but [it] reflects years of investments we have been making. Our investment in insect protein is consistent with that ambition. Environmental impact from the food production system is significant, and while we have a goal of reducing our footprint by 50% by 2025, we see insect protein playing an increasing role in the world’s need for more sustainable food system in the future. Insect protein is an established part of the diet in parts of the world, and we believe that will emerge in developed parts of the world over time. Our interest in Entomo Farms stems in part from that, along with increasing consumer interest in additional forms of protein.”

Goldin says Maple Leaf’s investment brings further validation to the category. “These very real businesses are taking this very seriously. They are investing in the space, they are launching products in the space and this is no longer a novelty. Our slogan is ‘it’s the future of food’ but it’s hard to say it’s the future of food when you can buy it in a Canadian grocery store today.”

Despite consumer acceptance growing all the time, Goldin concedes insect-based food brands are not going to convert huge numbers of people to consume their products overnight.

“There is still a big hill for us to climb. We are at the bottom at the moment, but we have a lot of momentum on our backs right now,” he says.

It’s a view shared by Radia at Eat Grub, who has noticed the dialogue around insects as a food source has changed significantly in a short space of time.

“We don’t expect to see insects on sale in Aldi in Bradford because that’s not going to happen straight away and it probably won’t happen in ten years’ time, but we don’t need it to,” says Radia. “There is a particular audience out there of innovators and trend setters who have really bought into this idea in terms of the nutrition and sustainability and that’s who we are targeting. They are a big enough audience for us.”