Senate GOP leaders press ahead on a health care reform bill: What's in it, what's not, and will voters like it any better? Then, lessons learned from the Republican victory in a Georgia special election on Tuesday.
Guest Host: Lisa Desjardins
Some say eating insects could save the planet, as we face the potential for global food and protein shortages. It’s a common practice in many parts of the world, but what would it take to make bugs more appetizing to the masses here in the U.S.? Does it even make sense to try? Many young companies are betting on the potential of crickets; You can now find flour, pasta, cookies, and even cocktail bitters made from them. A panel of experts tackles the arguments for and against eating insects — the practice known as entomophagy — and the cultural and environmental issues involved.
- Michael Pollan Professor of science and environmental journalism, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation"
- Robert Nathan Allen Founder and director, Little Herds: a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about the nutritional and environmental benefits of using insects for food and feed
- Michael Raupp Entomology professor, University of Maryland at College Park
- Megan Miller Co-founder, Bitty Foods: foods powered by high protein cricket flour
We Tried It: Eating Bugs
See guest host Lisa Desjardins eat bugs with Michael Raupp live on our Facebook page.
MS. LISA DESJARDINSThanks for joining us. I'm Lisa DesJardins of the PBS NewsHour sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. In many parts of the world, insects are a normal part of the daily diet. In Southeast Asia, it's common to see street venders selling bugs roasted, fried, seasoned. In the U.S., cultural taboos have mostly kept us from putting bugs on our plates. But there is a newly energized movement to change that.
MS. LISA DESJARDINSJoining me to talk about the arguments for eating insects and what it would take to get Americans to the table are Michael Raupp, entomologist at the University of Maryland, also known as The Bug Guy. From a studio in Austin, Texas, Robert Nathan Allen, goes by Nathan Allen of Little Herds. And by phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts, author, journalist and professor, Michael Pollan. Thank you all for joining us.
MR. MICHAEL POLLANGood to be here.
MR. MICHAEL RAUPPIt's great to be here, Lisa. Thanks so much.
MR. ROBERT NATHAN ALLENThanks, Lisa.
DESJARDINSAnd I am eager to get phone calls, emails, tweets from our listeners on this subject. Please call us at 1-800-433-8850. Send your email to email@example.com or join us on Facebook or on Twitter. Michael Raupp, Bug Guy.
DESJARDINSAll right. Let's put that title to the test.
DESJARDINSLet's start with you. This conversation heated up in 2013 then the UN came out with about a 200-page report saying that eating bugs couldn't just be an option, but it could be vital for the future. What exactly is all this excitement about bugs as food?
RAUPPWell, Lisa, you know, I think we're blessed in this country with abundant protein, number one. We have many food sources that are just very, very healthy, a huge diversity of things to eat, lots of vegetables, whole grains and good protein sources. It's not the same in other parts of the world, in other parts of Africa, sub Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, India, for example. There really is a bit of a protein crisis.
RAUPPIn other words, people simply do not have enough protein in their diets. And I think a lot of people think that perhaps insects, for a variety of reasons, which we can get into later, perhaps, their efficiencies, their numbers, the actual amount of bug you eat when you eat a bug, could be a part of the solution to this particular problem of a global protein shortage worldwide. So I think that's what the UN was aiming at.
RAUPPNot so much here in western culture and I'm sure Michael and Nathan will get into this a bit. But in other parts of the world, I think that's what the concern at the UN report was.
DESJARDINSMichael Pollan, you've travelled the world documenting how people eat, what they eat. And in particular, in "Cooked," it seems to me you look at how we are processing food more, how perhaps some western technology has lead to a real change in our diets that might not be altogether healthy. Can you talk about what the benefits might be of eating insects and have you seen that around the world? Is this feasible?
POLLANWell, it's feasible. I think there's great value to figuring out a way to incorporate insects in the food system. I'm just not sure at exactly what level it should take place. I mean, the other argument for it besides -- and Michael makes a good point about protein shortages around the world, but we also have a meat system, an animal agriculture that is taking enormous tolls on the environment that is a key contributor to climate change and people want to eat protein, but animal protein is costly from every measure.
POLLANAnd so the idea of a more sustainable form of animal protein the form of insects is appealing on many levels. However, we do have some very deep-seated taboos in the west against eating bugs. And, you know, it may be rational to eat more bugs, but food is never really been about rationality. There's a lot of deep emotions. There's a lot of psychological complexity to what we choose to eat and what we just as vigorously choose not to eat. And the fact is, we do -- we are disgusted by insects in the west.
POLLANAnd overcoming that, I think, is gonna be a big problem, which is why I think the most plausible way that we can incorporate bugs into our food system is to turn them into animal feed so that the animals we like to eat, such as -- especially, I'm thinking chicken and fish, they would eat the bugs and we wouldn't have to.
DESJARDINSNathan Allen, I see you nodding so often to many things that Michael Pollan just said, but I think I want to really drill down with you on exactly how this could work. How would insect farms work? I read in the UN report, for example, the UN admitted there's really -- are not large scale industrial insect farms yet, even though there are small insect farms sometimes in sheds around the country. But this hasn't really become its own industry yet.
DESJARDINSHow are insects grown en mass and how -- why does that mean lower environmental impact?
ALLENOne of the exciting things is that this really is a new industry. The practice of eating insects, of course, is thousands of years old and people all over the world eat them on a regular basis, but they've never really been domesticated and that's where the beauty really comes in, in terms of the resource efficiency. And as both the other guests have mentioned, this is something that can be used not just domestically, if we're able to get over our cultural taboo against eating them, but it's also something that can be used in area where it's already traditional.
ALLENYou can take a resource that's traditionally harvested opportunistically and seasonally and domesticate it so that it can be grown by women, children, the disabled and the elderly in a very resource efficient fashion in areas where there isn't a lot of access to high quality animal feed, potable water or arable land. And I think Michael also hit kind of the nail on the head in, you know, this is something that it's perfectly normal for western or American consumers to think of this as something very strange and weird and even, you know, disgusting.
ALLENBut that's something we've seen before and we know that food traits can change and I'd love to broach on that topic later. But the big reason we focus on children's education is that they don't have that taboo built up yet and we can actually normalize the idea for the next generation of chefs and farmers and entrepreneurs.
DESJARDINSI want to get to, though, the nitty gritty. Literally, nitty gritty of how these insects could be grown. And we're talking about a wide variety of species here, anything from worms, beetles, I read, are some of the largest edible -- most eaten edible insect right now. But we're talking about locusts, all kinds of different insects. But generally how are they farmed? How are they grown? Do you just need a pan and, in some cases, some ingredients which might include blood?
ALLENWell, no. And we're talking about eating insects for food, especially. They can be reared on food ingredients, vegetable matter, and a lot of that -- there's a lot of research going into using pre-consumer organic waste that would normally, you know, at best, be composted and at worst, go to the landfill. We can use things like carrot tops, potato peels, apple cores and melon rinds as a food source for these insects.
ALLENAnd yeah, it can be as easy as just having them in a plastic tray. I raised mealworms, which is the larva of a darkling or flower beetle for about nine months in my own apartment in a series of little plastic bins and they just chug along, living in a bed of oats and all that organic matter is where they get their water from. So it's something that can certainly be reared on a commercial industrial scale, as we've already started seeing some companies do, but it can just as easily be grown in an apartment, in a shed, in a closet. And that's one of the great things about them.
DESJARDINSMichael Raupp, I'm guessing that you grow some insects, perhaps at the University of Maryland.
RAUPPWe do. We have a big insect zoo, yes.
DESJARDINSHow do you do that and also, can you talk about the nutritional value? What do we know about the nutritional value of insects?
RAUPPWell, that's a grand question. Most of our insects in our insect zoo at the University of Maryland are simply for demonstration. We don't gobble up our tarantulas nor our walking sticks and things like this.
DESJARDINSThis conversation keeps getting more surprising.
RAUPPI know, I know, I know. Although, I will snack on them occasionally when I'm particularly hungry. But...
DESJARDINSBut what is the nutritional value of insects?
RAUPPWell, the nutritional value can be quite high. For example, it can almost be, for example, I think if you were to put it on a person by person basis, let's say, you might find that insects are anywhere from twice to maybe four times as high -- and I don't want to get into the weeds too far with protein content, for example, but maybe twice as much protein as typical, let's say, a cow or a chicken. In some cases, insects can be incredibly high in protein content, as high as 60 to 90 percent protein.
RAUPPThe other economy here, Lisa, has to do with what you actually do with that animal before it comes to market. So, for example, if we had 1,000 pound cow, we would basically only be able to harvest or yield about 600 pounds of meat from that cow. If you had 1,000 pound cicada, you would be able to eat about 950 pounds...
DESJARDINSGod help us.
RAUPP...of that cicada. Well, or a whole bunch of little tiny ones that made 1,000 pounds. So the point here is insects are very, very efficient at converting their food into protein and we basically throw very little of an insect away when we eat that insect.
DESJARDINSInteresting. Michael Pollan, quickly, what do insects taste like?
POLLANWell, I've only eat a few of them. I've had a few crickets on Mexican food and I was recently in Sao Paulo where a chef at a four-star restaurant served me a single ant and the ant tasted -- it was an ant from the Amazon and it tasted like lemon. It was very lemony. I have a feeling there's great variety in how insects taste and my guess is, like other forms of meat, what you feed them will influence how they taste. I agree with Michael about the lack of waste, but that's also one of the problems.
POLLANIf you think about how we eat meat now, we don't even eat organs, let alone heads and, you know, digestive tracts and all this kind of stuff. And I think one of the things that does gross people out about eating bugs is you eat the whole thing.
DESJARDINSMichael Pollan is a professor and author. I'm Lisa DesJardins with the PBS NewsHour on "The Diane Rehm Show." Coming up, more of our conversation about eating bugs.
DESJARDINSWelcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS NewsHour, sitting in for Diane Rehm, usually covering politics, now actually I'm finding this fascinating conversation about what we eat and whether or not we should eat insects. Please join us as part of this conversation, if you, like me, wouldn't mind a break from politics. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. Send us your email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can join us on Facebook or on Twitter.
DESJARDINSI want to go to the phones and this call from David in Charlottesville. David, you're on the air.
DAVIDHello, how are you?
DESJARDINSI'm well, thank you for calling.
DAVIDGood. Yeah, my daughter's in third grade, and in conjunction with a project that she was doing in school, I believe it was on the book "How to Eat Fried Worms," they ate fried worms in her classroom. The teacher brought in a big skillet and fried them up right in the classroom, and everyone who wanted to got a chance to try them. They did sent home a notice, though, to the parents ahead of time, letting them know that this was going to happen in case those who might have been squeamish didn't want it to -- didn't want their kid to participate. But my daughter ate up very well.
DESJARDINSDo you know, David, how many parents, roughly, participated or didn't participate?
DAVIDI don't have a number, but after talking to her, I think most of the students did participate.
DESJARDINSOkay, interesting, and thank you for your call, David. During the break, we heard -- Michael Raupp told me honestly a quote I didn't think I'd ever hear. Termites are flat-out delicious is what Michael Raupp told me. Moving from taste, though, let's talk about the taboo that we've touched on before. Michael Pollan, where does this cultural taboo come from? I see it in a number of emails, people are touching on the idea of disease and whether insects could bring disease. But tell us about this taboo.
POLLANWell, we associate insects with a couple things. One is death. When you -- you know, when something dies, insects descend on it really quickly, maggots and other larvae, and they'll often swarm in places where we see decomposition. And decomposition is a deep taboo in all human cultures that has to be overcome, but they are -- they have been vectors for disease. You know, just think of malaria and insects, but there are others, too. And they're also a sign that your food has been contaminated or spoiled.
POLLANSo when you get insects on your food, it's no longer fit to eat. So we have -- we carry around these ideas in our head, and I don't know how deep-seated they are. They're obviously not universal because some cultures do overcome that taboo. But, you know, no amount of rationality will help people overcome taboos, and if it's going to happen, it's going to happen because some chefs convince us that this is delicious and that, in a way, it's -- you know, we did overcome a taboo on eating raw seafood, we should remember. And we all enjoy sushi now, and I'm old enough to remember a time when that was a pretty outre thing to taste.
POLLANI think insects will be a higher hill to climb than raw fish, but with the right guidance and a pleasure principle, which of course great chefs can provide -- so when you turn Alice Waters on to serving insects, you will have made a lot of progress, and maybe you'll be on your way.
DESJARDINSMichael Pollan. I want to now go to Nathan Allen on this same topic. I see him nodding. And, you know, Nathan Allen, I'm reminded of maybe some of our listeners are thinking about this, too. A few years ago, Starbucks had a strawberry Frappuccino, and it was learned that the food dye, the red food dye, had an extract in it that came from some beetles. There was an outcry. Starbucks reversed itself. They changed what the extract would be. They took the beetle ingredient out of their Frappuccinos, and I think an indication that this country really has a still strong reaction to this concept. How do we deal with this taboo, and is it realistic to think we can?
ALLENWell yeah, and Michael framed it perfectly. Dangerous and disgusting was raw fish. And it took intrepid chefs really tailoring that to the American diet, and it took 20 years for that to become more normalized and mainstream. The biggest difference, though, as opposed to 30, 40 years ago, we're now living in a time with the Internet and social media and the ability to exchange ideas in real time with cultures around the world.
ALLENChefs can trade traditional recipes, and insects opens up a culinary vista that's completely untapped in our Western culture.
DESJARDINSMichael Raupp, you have a restaurant recommendation you just handed me.
RAUPPYeah, Oyamel here in Washington, D.C., just down the road has one of their main dinners actually serves grasshoppers. This is a pretty traditional insect to eat in Mexico, parts of Mexico. They're harvested in great numbers when they appear on the crops. And they've taken advantage of this. So again, I think as the -- as Nathan and Michael have pointed out, there are many cultures around the world where bugs are definitely very much on the menu.
DESJARDINSAnd we're getting tons of emails and calls from our listeners. I love it. We're hearing from Stan, as a kid I had chocolate-covered ants, grasshoppers. He says that's the way to introduce insects, chocolate always a way to many people's hearts. We have a tweet from Michael. He's asking, compare the resources needed to produce one pound of crickets versus producing one pound of beef and the impact on the environment. And Nathan Allen, what do we know about that?
ALLENWell depending on where you're getting your numbers, the data can vary, but generally speaking, insects are going to be able to use, you know, tens if not more times less water, roughly eight to 10 times less feed, drastically less space because they can be farmed modularly and stacked vertically. And they produce almost no greenhouse gas emissions, like 2,500 times less. And so even if -- even if these are all very optimistic estimates, it's still astounding how many fewer resources it takes to get the same amount of what's called meat, but then when you really look at the nutritional qualities of it, compared to something like beef, like Michael mentioned, we're getting a higher quality protein, we're getting more iron, we're getting more calcium, vitamins and minerals, omega-3s and -6s, poly- and monounsaturated fats, instead of those saturated fats, and fiber.
ALLENSo we're not just getting more bang for our buck, we're getting a better bang for our buck.
DESJARDINSSusan in Nashville, Indiana, raises another side of the nutrition question. She sent this email. She writes, as the mother of a person with serious multiple food allergies, this topic immediately makes me wonder about the safety issues for the acutely allergic. For instance, some years back during our last cicada hatch-out, there were news items about people with shellfish allergies eating cicadas and reacting. Michael Pollan, what do we know about potential allergies and insects?
POLLANI don't know what we know, but I know nothing. I'll be quite frank. Also it's important to realize that you can develop an allergy to any kind of protein and that the fact that we haven't been exposed to insects that much would argue for the fact that initially we might not see any allergies. But we might over time. But I'm speculating.
DESJARDINSMichael Pollan, have you had many insect dishes yourself? Have you eaten many...
POLLANYou're asking me?
DESJARDINSYes, Michael Pollan.
POLLANNo, no, and I don't -- you know, I would not order them off the menu.
DESJARDINSYou have a cultural taboo?
POLLANHowever -- I do have a cultural taboo. However, I have had eggs from chickens who have eaten insects, and they're the most delicious eggs you will ever have. So I think that we're just not the best species for this experiment and that if we can put our chickens on a diet of more insects, because they're -- you know, when you see vegetarian feed on a chicken package or an egg package, that's all wrong. They love -- they're omnivores. They love to eat insects. And ditto with many kinds of fish.
POLLANAnd if we could take the pressures off the world's fisheries by switching aquiculture to a basis of insects, from now they eat bi-catch and little fishes, which is really, you know, destroying the world's fisheries, that would be a tremendous contribution to the climate change problem and to the fisheries problem.
DESJARDINSFascinating. Michael Pollan, we're going to let you go at this point. Thank you so much for joining us. Michael Pollan, of course, is a professor of science and environmental journalism at UC Berkeley and author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and of "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." Thank you for joining us, Michael.
POLLANThank you, Lisa.
DESJARDINSNow I want to get an answer to our mother about allergies. Nathan Allen, I saw you raise your hand. Are -- is there a potential for allergic problems? And is there an overlap between cicadas and shellfish allergies?
ALLENYes, and just like any other food, if you feed it to a billion people, someone's going to be allergic, milk, soy, nuts, shellfish. And because insects are crustaceans, they're similar in a lot of ways to shellfish like shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and there's still a lot of research going into exactly what could trigger these allergies. For instance crickets, there's not a lot of research that shows a causation. There's certainly some correlation.
ALLENBut for other species that have been studied more in-depth like the mealworm, the larvae of that beetle, we have seen that there's some pretty definitive causation between people who have that shellfish allergy to a specific -- I believe it's triple-myosin, a specific protein in shellfish that is also present in the shells of the insects. And as Michael mentioned, you know, these types of allergies can be gained over time, and so there's still a lot of research into the gut biomes of people in cultures that do eat them on a regular basis and have been exposed to this chiton, these proteins on a regular basis, versus someone in the Western culture who's never been exposed, at least intentionally because it's important to remember that we're all eating insects all the time in all of our food, we just don't see it.
ALLENBut as more research is coming out, we want to make sure that there's safety things that people know about this new food that are, you know, common sense for other foods. You should ask your doctor if you can try it if you have a shellfish allergy, or if -- even if you have a dust allergy because dust mites are also very similar. But evens safety things like don't eat a raw bug, you know, always cook your insects. We don't have sushi-grade bugs yet. Don't go out in your backyard and pick a bug up off the ground and eat that. That's not the bugs we're talking about eating.
ALLENThose are meant to stay there.
DESJARDINSMichael Raupp, the question, the idea of sushi-grade bugs makes me want to ask you, quickly before we go to a short moment here, is -- is there an issue, perhaps, though, with some microbiological properties on bugs that could be dangerous for people?
RAUPPSure, that's always the case. Food safety, again at Nathan points out, is critical. I will tell Nathan that I am a free-range bug eater. So cicadas on the wild and when we take our undergraduates down to Belize for a study abroad, we always have them sample termites and things like this. But...
DESJARDINSBut is that a concern, pathogens, potentially, that could come with some insects?
RAUPPWell, you know, something -- for example, something like a cicada that has fed on nothing by xylem sap of a tree for 17 years underground, I would have very, very little concern about pathogens like this. I think the critical thing, and I think the point Nathan makes is very well-taken, is you have to be very careful as to where your source of meat is coming from. So I never would eat any insects which I didn't know something about the history, something about the life cycle, something about where that came from. So -- and many caterpillars are chemically defended. I don't think it's a great idea to go out and simply start gobbling down caterpillars.
RAUPPIf you happen to eat a monarch caterpillar, for example, they're loaded with cardiac glycosides, and you would pay a severe price, I think.
DESJARDINSI'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS NewsHour. You are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And continue to send us your tweets or emails. That's @email@example.com. Or call us at 1-800-433-8850. And I want to go to the phones now, and we're going to talk to Cathy in Michigan. Cathy, you're on the air.
DESJARDINSHi, thank you for calling. What is your question. Well, I've been interested in this conversation. I'm really glad that your guests are part of carefully thinking ahead about what the implications could be and what the positives could be. I'm thinking about how ethanol and corn, things that are changed on a large scale, can whack out food prices, and things that are changed on a large scale with bugs could affect the bird population, and that's my question. How could this negatively affect the birds, or would we be growing our own bugs and not stealing from the birds? Thanks.
DESJARDINSCathy, Cathy, thank you for your question. Nathan Allen, I'm going to send that to you, and I want to broaden out that question, as well, not just about the bird population, we've touched on the possibility of farming that probably would leave the birds to find their own bugs, as they do now. But what possible implications could this have if we start eating more insects for the ecosystem as a whole? What do we need to be concerned with, even as this may have some benefits?
ALLENWell, we discuss this very thing on our website, farming versus wild harvesting. And there are certainly benefits to both. For instance if you're farming the insects, you're able to raise them, you know, in a very specific condition that prevents the problem of, you know, bacteria, parasites, chemical or heavy metal exposure. You can raise them and harvest them in a way that's more humane than other livestock.
ALLENBut we certainly don't want to say that everybody should be eating farmed insects. There's plenty of cultures around the world where there's a longstanding tradition of wild harvesting these insects and utilizing those natural resources. But we want to make sure that, in instances where that's becoming more popular, those insect populations aren't being over-harvested. And in fact the Slow Food Ark of Taste project has started to actually identify species that are commonly consumed in cultures around the world that are now being over-harvested to the point of becoming endangered.
ALLENSo in addition to making sure that you know the species that you're eating, you know where it's been living and what it's been eating, you know that there's nobody spraying agricultural chemicals, there's no industrial activity that could lead or mercury into the environment nearby, you also want to make sure that you have that biodiversity preservation in mind. And so I think, you know, there's other things that we wild-craft, venison, wild board, swordfish, wild salmon, and we know that, you know, swordfish and salmon have mercury in them.
ALLENBut we can still eat them. We just have to be cognizant about those, those possible dangers. And I think that, you know, looking at this holistically is the important part.
DESJARDINSNathan Allen and Michael Raupp, I'm going to put both of you to the test with a question from one of our callers. This is Ralph from Wintersville, Ohio. Ralph, what's your question?
RALPHYes, years ago I had seen a special on one of the TV shows about bamboo grubs and how they were sold to passersby on trails over in some of the Asian countries and that it was a delicacy. I had spoken to some people here in the U.S. that had actually eaten them when they were overseas, and I was wondering if anything like that was available here in the United States and how I would find out who has stuff like this and prices.
DESJARDINSRalph, thank you for your question. Michael Raupp, I'm going to send this to you quickly. Is there a way to find bamboo grubs in the United States?
RAUPPI'm not -- I'm not aware of any purveyors of bamboo grubs in the United States. I will have to take a pass on that one. I just do not know anybody that has these for sale in this particular country. But I do know that again in many parts of the country -- not in many parts of the country but in other parts of the world, Asia for example, grubs are regularly eaten, palm grubs, for example. Nathan, do you have any idea about that one?
DESJARDINSActually we're going to take a quick break.
DESJARDINSWe'll take a quick break, and we'll come right back.
DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS "NewsHour," in for Diane Rehm. As you've been listening to, we're discussing edible insects, the prospects for helping the planet, the questions about whether they could be accepted in society and whether they should be. And we are determined to get answers to your questions. And I want to get an answer to our caller who asked about bamboo grubs and where they might be able to find them. Nathan Allen, you may have an answer to that?
ALLENYeah, so a lot of the species that are common in other countries can be found sometimes here. It's really more of a roll of the dice, looking in Asian markets or Hispanic markets, places where you're gonna find traditional foods that aren't very commonplace or mainstream that are imported. You can find a lot of interesting things. I know folks that have found those bamboo worms, but it's not as common.
ALLENThe more common species that you can find now that are farmed specifically for food are the cricket, the mealworm, grasshoppers, these sorts of things. And we have resources as an educational nonprofit for where you can find those types of products.
DESJARDINSOkay. Great. And we are getting lots of comments about your experience with -- experiences with insects. Mealworms seem to be more popular than I expected. David says, "Mealworms sautéed in butter and garlic make for some pretty palatable eating." Scott says, "I've had mealworm tacos. Quite tasty." We also have this email from Barry. He says, "Has there been any research on increasing the palatability of eating insects by changing their appearance?"
DESJARDINSAnd that question's a perfect lead in to a guest who's joining us now. Megan Miller is the co-founder of Bitty Foods, that's B-I-T-T-Y if you want to look them up. Foods powered by high-protein cricket flour. Megan joins us now from San Francisco. Megan, tell us exactly what your company makes and how your business is doing.
MS. MEGAN MILLERHi, Lisa. Yes, Bitty Foods makes high-protein food products with cricket flour. And right now we've started off with a baking flour that you can buy to make your own baked goods at home. It's totally grain free. And it's exactly what it sounds like, crickets that have been dry roasted, cleaned and milled into a fine flour.
MS. MEGAN MILLERAnd then we blend it with tapioca and cassava, which are baking ingredients that you can use to make cakes and cookies, etcetera. And we also sell cookies. And we've just launched a snack chip called Chiridos that comes in Mexican flavor profiles. And all of our products have been getting great press and great reception from consumers so far.
DESJARDINSHow about the business model? I'm curious. I noticed and I think on your website a dozen cookies sell for about $10. That's kind of like -- that's a gourmet price and it's a gourmet product. But how -- what is your business model and how is that working in San Francisco?
MILLERWell, our business model is, you know, consumer food products. But let's step back for a second and talk about the vision. So what we wanted to do was take away -- to help eliminate this taboo that Michael Pollan was talking about. And to do that we're removing the visual barrier and making insects less creepy crawly and much more delicious by turning them into a powder and making them into familiar food products.
MILLERAnd our early vision was to make these food products aspirational and super high quality. And those cookies are full of delicious organic ingredients. They're very high quality and they sell in specialty food markets. And the idea there was to start with early adopters who were super interested in crickets as a super food. And to make something that would be, you know, elegantly packaged, beautiful, available in high-end markets.
MILLERAnd the next product that we're making, Chiridos, is going straight for the mainstream. It's going to be a very affordable, you know, less than $5 a bag for a large grocery-size snack chip bag. And around $1.50 for, you know, the size that you would put in a lunchbox, for instance.
DESJARDINSSo interesting. I have to tell a personal story that when we had the last cicada brood here in the Washington area, I watched as my husband and two of my friends, you know, just took the opportunity and just had a raw cicada, as I know you're recommending, Michael Raupp. He said that really there wasn't much taste to it. But in the studio right now you're brought us some cricket flour cookies. I've had one. Tastes just like any other cookie.
RAUPPYeah, they're delicious. Megan, hey, how you doing? We're eating cricket cookies this morning.
DESJARDINSYou know, definitely the crickets themselves raw are a little dry, but we're getting a lot of questions, not just about the taste and sort of the taboo here…
DESJARDINS…but about the ethics of eating insects. And I want to read this tweet from Katie. She asks, "What will be the ethics of bug eating? Will there be a wave of insects' rights people protesting this mass," she writes, "squishing or eating trend?"
RAUPPWell, you know, fortunately -- and I probably shouldn't say this on the air, but the PETA folks haven't found us yet, in terms of invertebrates as research animals either.
DESJARDINSIt sounds like you're on one side of this debate.
RAUPPWell, you know, I'm gonna be out of business if we can't stop doing our research on inverts. So…
DESJARDINSBut when you think about the ethics of what you do…
RAUPP…absolutely yes, yes.
DESJARDINS…I mean, you can't brush it off. Yeah.
RAUPPNo. And I don't mean to take this lightly. But…
RAUPP…you know, I have a similar concern, you know, we talk about eating vegetable protein. When you're eating bamboo sprouts, when you're eating sprouts on a sandwich, you're eating an embryo. You're eating the embryo of a living plant. Now, life is life to me. There's a continuum here that stretches from the first prokaryotes, the single-celled bacteria to folks like us and everything in between.
RAUPPSo I think part of what we do, until we can learn how to harvest the energy in sunlight and make sugars out of this, when we become plants there's going to be this issue. We are going to eat other things. It's certainly is a concern, but I think it's essentially how we evolved, it's what we evolved to do and I think it's part of what we do. Now, we have to weigh, I think, the ethics of eating an invertebrate perhaps against eating a -- the -- a more sentient kind of animal, like a cow or pigs for example, which are very, very intelligent creatures. And, Nathan, can I? Yeah?
DESJARDINSNathan, what do you think on this question?
ALLENYeah, Lisa, we get this question a lot. And one of the most interesting things about the idea of domesticating insects is that they actually -- unlike any other livestock option -- they can be farmed in line with the five freedoms of animal welfare. So they can be farmed free from thirst, hunger, stress. They can exhibit natural behaviors. They're not at risk of predators or diseases.
ALLENAnd then when they're harvested, unlike any other livestock, they can have their temperatures lowered so that they go into a natural hibernation state before they expire. So for the insect, there's no violent death and there's no change in state. So from an ethical standpoint, regardless on your thoughts, you know, on whether plants are, you know, more or less feeling than a pig, which is more or less feeling than a dragonfly, at the end of the day we can raise them and harvest them in a way that doesn't ever stress or cause pain to the animal, which is just mind-blowing.
DESJARDINSIt's fascinating. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who is Jain, a religion many know in India. And they do not eat insects. In fact, they don't remove vegetables from the ground because they don't want to disturb the insects. But on this same question I want to go to Sarah, in Richmond, Va., who brings up a biblical point. Sarah, what is your question?
SARAHMy point was that in terms of taboos against humans eating insects, there are biblical taboos against eating beetles, like the cochineal beetles used in the red dye of the Starbucks shake. But the Bible in Leviticus actually says you can eat locusts, which would be like the bugs and the cricket and grasshopper family.
DESJARDINSFascinating. Megan Miller, how do you approach the ethics of what you do, making multiple food products, especially from cricket flour?
MILLERWell, exactly what Nathan was saying. The crickets are harvested humanely. And we're actually looking into kosher certification, to that listeners point. It is true that there are people who traditionally eat crickets and locusts and grasshoppers. And there's a biblical tradition for that. So we think that the ethics is very good. And from my point of view, I think what we're really aiming for is a potentially planet-saving new genre of eating.
MILLERSo, you know, whereas it may be more familiar to eat something like soy for your protein source, it takes about 250 gallons of water to grow a pound of soy protein. And it takes one gallon of water to grow a pound of cricket protein. So if you compare that when you're in, you know, a drought sensitive place like California, where I live, we have the ability to feed many more people using much less land and much less water and that, I think, is very, very ethical.
DESJARDINSMegan, you know, I want to ask you -- I'm fascinated by the marketing of this. I was reading about how there is a movement that says maybe just renaming insects might be part of the solution, including the -- or I'm sorry -- the locusts, perhaps, being renamed as a sky prawn. You know, I definitely would be probably -- I'll admit -- more interested in eating a sky prawn -- and I don't eat much seafood -- than probably eating a locust. But how do you approach the marketing of your products?
MILLERWell, what we do is be very clear about what the ingredient is. We always talk about cricket flour, we talk about all of the health and environmental benefits. But when it comes to the visual aspect, we keep everything very, very beautiful. And we focus on delicious foods. And we also make packaging with beautiful graphic design, so that we're really working toward elevating insect protein to something that people will actually seek out as a health food and as a sustainable food.
MILLERAnd the reason for that is that we think that if everybody in the west starts to find insects to be familiar and (unintelligible) scary and starting with crickets is a great point for that. Then it'll be more possible for people all over the world to eat them without any kind of taboo.
DESJARDINSMichael Raupp, in your research do you come across this taboo with your students?
DESJARDINSI mean, you had a student who made these cookies today.
DESJARDINSOr is it the opposite? Are there a certain class of people who love this because it's so different?
RAUPPWell, you know, it's a great question. I think there's variation with the students and I do a lot of outreach with children and also with adults. I think children have an innate curiosity. I think a lot of these taboos are, of course, has been pointed out, are kind of learned taboos. So I agree with Nathan. The place to start with this re-education is with youth and try to bring it up this way. But these are deeply ingrained for a lot of the reasons that Michael mentioned before, and sometimes you simply can't change these kinds of taboos.
RAUPPYou know, I wasn't particularly fond of maggots and things like this 40 years ago, but as I got to know the maggot and enjoy the maggot, you know, it becomes part of what you do. They're really fascinating creatures and in their own right. And as Megan has said, insects in many regards, even when they're not in a delicious chocolate chip cookie, these are beautiful creatures.
RAUPPAnd I -- it's just a matter of getting to know these guys maybe. I don't know.
DESJARDINSI'm Lisa Desjardins. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's come back to some of these emails. We're getting a tremendous amount of emails about crickets and insects versus plants. Here's a Facebook comment from Elaine. "How about a plant-based whole foods diet as an option to address this alleged protein shortage? Animal products are not necessary to meet our needs," she says. Also, Brandon had this comment on the website. He says, "Are we so addicted to animal protein that we'd rather eat insects than become vegetarians?" How do you respond to that, Nathan Allen?
ALLENYes, absolutely. I think Megan pointed -- made a very good point, that a lot of the plant proteins that people use as go-tos, things like soy, like almonds, ground nuts, these are very resource intensive crops. They take a lot of arable land, they take a lot of water. And this isn't -- we're not trying to replace something. We're not telling you not to eat something. We're just giving you another option on the menu, another option on the grocery shelf.
ALLENAnd if especially, you know, like Megan was saying, if we can abstract this and make it approachable and familiar and delicious and fun, we can start saving those resources. We can feed more people. We can boost the nutrition of the staple foods that are usually nutritionally void. And we can do it all in an inclusive global fashion.
DESJARDINSI feel almost like a song is about to come out of your mouth. So let's go to an email from John. He writes, "Obviously, bugs will require FDA approval, correct?" Let's go to Megan. You're the one who is on the ground making food with insects. What is their status as far as the US government and the FDA right now?
MILLERRight. So we have guidelines from the FDA already. And they are, so far, that we need to make sure that the farms where the crickets are grown are grown specifically for human consumption. And what that means is versus bait, for instance, or for pet food. Because, you know, some people do feed crickets to their pet gecko or something like that. So we source our crickets from farms that are specifically growing for human production and that have met all of the food safety standards.
MILLERThey have the food safety plans in place to make sure that the crickets are eating high-quality food, to make sure that they're being harvested very, you know, carefully and ethically. And to make sure that once they are harvested they are transported at the right temperature, you know. So that food spoilage is never an issue. And all of our food processing facilities are also meeting all of the health standards.
MILLERSo, you know, we make our products in a factory, a food factory, here in California that is USDA certified and meets the California Health Department standards. And we've had all of our inspections. And the Health inspector was really great. She came and inspected our flour and she said, you know, this isn't even weird to me. At least you're labeling your flour correctly because all flour, as a matter of fact, has insects in it. When it's stored in a silo, you're going to get a certain amount of insects in your flour. And this is properly labeled as insect containing.
DESJARDINSThank you, Megan.
ALLENLisa, real quick.
DESJARDINSYeah, Nathan Allen.
ALLENThe FDA also has recommendations and Megan laid out the key one there, first and foremost, that the insects for -- marketed for human food should be farmed specifically for food. But they're also very clear that these should be labeled the way that Bitty Foods and other companies do. The insect ingredient should be clearly labeled as insects. And they should have that allergy warning on there for safety for the consumers.
DESJARDINSNow, Michael Raupp, we've got a comment from Eddie in Birmingham. He tells us that he grew up in a remote village in Liberia eating bugs, but he says, "Nobody eats them in Birmingham, Ala." I'm curious, do your colleagues around the world just think that Americans are close-minded or what's your experience with your fellow colleagues?
RAUPPWell, you know, it's -- I think many entomologists have tried bugs, eat bugs. I think we find it a bit curious. You know, we eat things like oysters and clams and crabs from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. And we all know what they eat. We all know what they do. And it just seems odd to us, I think, perhaps that these animals which lead very clean lifestyles in many ways are kind of off the menu.
RAUPPAnd I think again, as many have pointed out, it's simply overcoming this hurdle. It's overcoming these taboos, I think, is gonna be the important piece to help get these things on the menu and in our diets. And more a part of our culture. In many other parts of the world, bugs are definitely a part of the culture. And this is all part of it.
DESJARDINSMichael Raupp, entomology professor at the University of Maryland. Nathan Allen, founder and director of Little Herds. And Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, foods powered by high-protein cricket flour. Thank you all for joining us. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
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