Packaged foods with bugs as ingredients have been a popular topic in Western countries during the past three years, and now the conversation is creeping into Asia.
In Thailand, edible insects are now poised on supermarket shelves. Bugsolutely, founded in 2015 in Bangkok, is part of the rapidly growing market of 'bug food' with its cricket pasta product—the only pasta in the world containing 20 percent cricket flour, it claims.
Marketing it as a "superfood with high protein content" and "very low environmental impact", the cricket pasta has the same selling point as Exo’s cricket protein bars, which Kotaro Sasamoto of Dentsu Ventures described as "a granola bar with a hint of cricket".
“It may sound a bit strange, but it’s one of our ‘next big thing’ projects," Sasamoto said last year at a Cannes Lions seminar. "Processing protein from crickets is more efficient than doing the same from pigs and cows, and alleviates food shortage issues in the world.” Dentsu Ventures is an investment arm of Japan's advertising giant that last year staked an undisclosed sum in New York-based Exo.
Massimo Reverberi, founder of Bugsolutely, speaking at the Food and Beverage Innovation Forum 2017 in Shanghai last week, made a similar case for insects as an alternative source of protein, and insect-based consumer packaged goods (CPG) being the next big market.
Citing a 2013 report from the United Nations, he said edible insects may be a solution for the lack of protein to feed the world's population of 9 billion people come 2025.
The global edible insects market size is set to exceed US$522 million by 2023, as per a report by Global Market Insights, with Thailand, China and Vietnam of note within Asia, though the projected figure also includes using insects for animal feed and not just human sustenance.
Oft-mentioned Exo is at the forefront of bug-based food, and was successful in convincing VCs, including Dentsu Ventures, to invest US$5.6 million from two rounds of financing. But being an Italian by birth, Reverberi does not consider it as "real food that can be put on the table".
"I think this energy bar is a very strange thing from the United States," he said. Europeans, like himself, "do not want to eat this kind of rubbish", but pasta is different. Pasta is a staple food, he categorised. What's fancy about cricket pasta is the cricket flour mixed into it.
Of course, it is hard to expect whole insects to enter the mainstream food industry, but with industrial-scale processing, insects can be incorporated with other ingredients to produce food for the mass market, he pitched.
Even if bugs are not visible in the end-products, getting consumers accustomed to the "disgusting" idea of eating insects in general is still a hard sell. In Africa, Asia or South America, eating insects is a natural thing, even a culinary tradition, he pointed out.
That cultural point of view only applies to certain regions, however. In Thailand, where Reverberi spent the past four years working, the upper and middle classes in Bangkok feel that eating insects is linked to "countryside people" such as farmers, and is something the educated will not do, he said.
It is clear that insect consumers are still a minority, he said, but the attitudes of non-eaters have little logic. "Why do you not feel sick when you eat shrimp?" he asked, indicating that the creatures look quite similar to crickets.
"When you ask some people why they do not eat insects, they actually have no explanation," added Reverberi. "They say they just do not eat insects."
Among the 2000 species of insects (including beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, cicadas, plant hoppers, termites, dragonflies) proved to be edible, Reverberi choose to process crickets for his company Bugsolutely for the same reason: crickets and widely-accepted shrimps are very close in anatomy.
While we may not see 'Bug Macs' sold in McDonald's restaurants anytime soon, he said, weight-loss aspirants and fitness enthusiasts may be willing to pay higher prices to buy special 'bugged' food for their high protein and low-fat advantages.
Assuming that these niche target groups want so-called "perfect meat" that is very healthy but also does not impact the environment as much as raising cattle, insects are "definitely" a good choice, he said.
According to United Nations research, cows and chickens are more polluting than mealworms, but sustainablity is not enough to immediately persuade consumers to gobble down seemingly unpalatable bugs, he acknowledged. Consumer behaviour is still dominated by self-interest and ingrained habits, he stated.
Market acceptance is not impossible if insect-based food can be packaged to look good and be eaten "elegantly", said Susie Liu (刘笑乾), marketing manager from China-based design agency Pesign, speaking at the same food forum.
"I am a Northerner in China, and at home we eat silkworm pupae. It's very popular among elders for its nutritional value," she shared.
Such snacks buzz in a considerable amount of sales on ecommerce platforms and has maintained sustained growth, she said, to the tune of tens of thousands RMB per month from a relatively small minority of consumers.
Given there is little advertising or promotion for such fried silkworm snacks (like the one pictured above), this is very rare, she said.
Pesign's own consumer research found dichotomous attitudes to the notion of insect food: either love ("I simply like the taste; it's very crispy") or hate ("There is no way for me to stomach this; even if you let me eat feces I will not eat insects") in an extreme way.
It is undeniable that many younger consumers, even in adventurous China, are resistant to critters and larvae, and cannot fathom opening their mouths to touch such "weird" and "strange" food, she said. It is precisely because of this that Liu recommends insect-food manufacturers to "turn the foreign into the common" through creative packaging.
Because eating habits are often developed since childhood, any resistance is in fact a psychological barrier against "foreign" concepts of food, she said. To remove that barrier, detailed shapes of insects should not be visible on packaging.
However, completely avoiding the shape of insects has a drawback, she stressed, as it diminishes the core advantages of insects containing more protein than beef, more calcium than milk or more iron than spinach. After all, the most important purpose of packaging is to be a bridge of communication between the brand and the buyer, she said.
Rather, a very "intuitive" design in a form of a sketch or a cartoon (pictured below) is best, she advised. Liu gave the example of how the mouse, before the emergence of Mickey, was reviled by everyone.
Similarly, if insect-food brands create "a sense of intimacy" by "visually anthropomorphising" their ingredients, she said, that at least reduces the strong discomfort certain consumers feel.
It is disconcerting for many to see all the tentacles and six legs of a bug before one munches on it. "Although they are the most representative parts of an insect, we do not need too much emphasis on them." The design goal is not to divide "food" and "insects" into two distinctive areas, she explained.
Commonly available food types are in the path of least resistance—a nod to protein bars, biscuits, or potato chips laced with bug powder or flour.
The above advice may work up an appetite for the haters. On the other hand, for consumers who "love" insect food, visibility of the entire bug is encouraged. "Whatever I put into my stomach, I want to see it clearly" sums up their preference, she revealed.
Bugs for thought?