Start-up focus: Taking insect protein into America’s snacks pantries

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19 Mar 2018 --- Most Westerners shudder at the prospect of eating insects, but attitudes towards them vary dramatically across the globe. In fact, around two billion people already eat bugs as part of their diet. As the global population continues to rise, more and more people are looking for insect protein as a sustainable food source. Not only do many insects, including crickets, contain all nine essential amino acids, this type of protein is also sustainable, especially in comparison to traditional meat sources. It takes one gallon of water to produce one pound of insect protein. Almost two thousand gallons of water, by contrast, are poured into every pound of beef that lands on a plate. US-based start-up Chirps Chips is on a mission to educate Western society on the benefits of insect protein in a corn snack.

Rose Wang was a student from the US, traveling abroad in China when she ate her first bug – a scorpion, which had been fried and skewered on a stick in a similar way to a kebab. Much to her surprise, she found it to be delicious. When Wang returned to the US, she and her roommate Laura D’Asaro started experimenting with crickets that they bought from a local pet shop and soon formed the start-up venture. The company is now manufacturing the first of what the women hope will be a long line of bug-based snacks: a chip made with cricket flour called Chirps Chips.

To shed some light on the challenges of their start-up introducing Westerners to the practice entomophagy, FoodIngredientsFirst caught up with Wang who discussed the evolution of their business.

FoodIngredientsFirst: Why was it a good time to get into this field of insect protein when you did?

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Rose Wang, CEO and Co-founder of Chirps Chips
Chirps Chips: We weren't very strategic about it when we first started. It was very much down to luck. We had both traveled abroad and eaten bugs, my business partner Laura was in Tanzania and had a fried caterpillar from a street vendor and she said it tasted like lobster. I also had a similar experience in China, where I had a fried scorpion and thought it tasted like shrimp. So when we both came back to the States and talked about it, we were wondering why people were eating bugs in other parts of the world and not here. That was the turning point, we did our research and found out that insects are one of the most sustainable protein sources and also one of the most nutritious protein sources that are a complete protein. So from there, it was just a personal interest and when we first started off it was just a fun project. We then bought some bugs from a pet shop and tried to give them to our friends as an experiment – we found that half of our friends were into it and the others hated it. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating experience and super interesting. It didn’t matter which side you fell on, but everyone talked about it for days afterward and we changed the perception of eating insects.

After that our small business went from strength to strength. We got funding in 2013 but didn’t get on shelves until 2016, because of manufacturing and recipe development which took about two years. We are still a fairly new company learning on the job and continuing to change people’s view on eating insects. 

FoodIngredientsFirst: What were the main challenges you faced?
Chirps Chips: In food, nothing is easy. There have been challenges at different stages and we have had challenges at every stage – I think that’s what happens when you start a completely new food category. Firstly, we had to approach 400 manufacturers before finding one that would work with us. We had to work with the State Health Department for nine months in Massachusetts before they gave us the go-ahead to use cricket powder. It also took a while to get the formulation right; ultimately it has to be a great tasting product. For smaller companies like ourselves, this can be tough; there are so many of these large companies who can spend millions of dollars formulating delicious food recipes. I also think there is also a lot of consumer education around a new brand and then on top of that; we are educating people about an entirely new protein source. So to begin with, there were many hurdles, but I think what makes this industry so compelling, it’s the people who are genuinely in it for the mission because that’s what keeps you going. We were one of the first companies in the US to set up a company like this, at a time when eating insects were frowned upon, so were experienced a few knockbacks on the way.

FoodIngredientsFirst: What was missing in the snacking category and why did you think this would be appealing to people?
Chirps Chips: I think it makes it easier to accept when a snack has a good crunch. The fear of eating insects comes down to the thought of a slimy, wriggling bug, and when you take that initial fear away, by making the food crunchy and great tasting that disappears. Consumers also have this image of if something is healthy, it won’t taste good, or if something is unhealthy, it will probably taste good.  With this, I think we have found a happy medium, where we can still have a salty, snack. Essentially it is just a corn chip with added and cricket powder or insect protein which doesn’t have a bitter flavor and you also get an added nutritional benefit without having to take away the taste.  I think that that is what makes our product so compelling. We use the cricket powder as you would with soy or whey protein. So we use the same levels as most other manufacturers do, regarding substituting part of their flour with protein powder. Chirps Chips are just a regular corn chip with chia seeds, pea flour and bean powder, so the ingredients are healthier, but it still tastes good taste.

FoodIngredientsFirst: Have you considered using other insects for protein?
Chirps Chips: Not yet, we are only using cricket powder at the moment. Ideally, we want to do one thing well before expanding into other areas and I don’t think that cricket powder has had its’ heyday; it’s only the beginning.  We want to build on what we can do with cricket powder and do that well before we move onto other insects. I think a lot of people just assume that this is a novelty factor but with cricket protein, we don’t want to move beyond that because this is the mission right now. There are 1,900 edible insects in the world, but first things first we want to make sure that we are making a huge impact on cricket protein and then we will think about expanding later on.

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FoodIngredientsFirst: What flavors of Chirps Chips are you offering or working on?
Chirps Chips: To begin with we didn’t want to come up with any unusual flavors when already we had a food that was different, so we chose some popular flavors such as BBQ and Cheddar. Since then, but we have heard back from our consumers that they want a regular BBQ chip, so we are in the process of reformulating. It will still be a BBQ and Cheddar blend. But we are going to do a slight variation on the flavor, so we are looking at a variant of these flavors which will come out in a couple of months. 

FoodIngredientsFirst: How did you go about getting funding for a project like this?
Chirps Chips: We were funded through Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects. We won a lot of pitch competitions, but we are at the point now where we do have quite a few investors. One that is most public is Mark Cuban after we were on Shark Tank, whom we have a good relationship with. There is a lot of interest in cricket protein and I’m positive that we are the cricket product with the largest distribution in North America. We are in around 900 stores in the US, so we have a good presence to define the industry which we are excited about.

One of the most important things to remember is that this is the beginning of a new trend. We see ourselves as opening the door and we hope that more players will come into the market in this space and we want to be around to create this industry for however long it takes. We look for partners who believe in the whole food system change that we are building. Our consumers do understand that and our best early adopters are millennials who are behind this because it is a sustainable protein. I think that is encouraging for us that people believe in what they are trying to do and through our early adopters and their networks that this starts to become a more mainstream protein source. Every day we have the option to vote with our food choices and how that affects the environment is something that we should think about. And with crickets, it begs the question why, and that’s when you can start talking about it. I think it’s a beautiful entry point in talking about the future food and sustainability.

FoodIngredientsFirst: Where do you see yourselves in five to ten years from now?
Chirps Chips: We would like to have all sorts of insects and brands under our company. If there are some calories eaten by the population and we can displace a percentage of that with alternative proteins that are sustainable, then we are creating a more sustainable food system. If we can get people to eat our chips once a week, then even that makes a huge difference in how the world will shift. Our planet and our resources are important and we are going keep fighting no matter what.

By Elizabeth Green

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