The Story

Researchers who think about the thorny problem of feeding our growing global population have started to point at one possible solution: bugs. They’re protein-rich and ecologically sustainable—but can bug entrepreneurs get lots of Americans to eat something they’re kinda grossed out by?

The Facts

David Herman and Ian Scott mixed the episode.
Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song.
Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.
Additional music by Legs, Jupyter, Radiation City, Golden Gram, Hot Moms Dot Gov, and Dream Junkies.

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Show transcript

LISA CHOW: From Gimlet, I’m Lisa Chow. You’re listening to Startup.A couple of weeks ago, producer Luke Malone invited me into the studio. He’d been working on a story about edible insects and he asked me to do something I really didn’t want to do—eat bugs.

LUKE MALONE: Since I’ve been reporting, I think out of anyone on the team, you’ve been the one who has been the most theatrically opposed to the idea of eating insects. Why?

LISA: I don’t know. I just imagine it. You know, an insect with six legs… Like, when I think of bugs I think of just flies gravitating towards like dead animals.There’s nothing about bugs that seems appetizing to me.

LISA: But Luke wasn’t willing to let me off so easy… He opened up a cardboard box and handed me a little plastic packet.

LISA: Okay, it says bug bistro BBQ mealworms… Do people really eat this? For snacks.

LUKE: Yeah. Well, that’s the idea.

LISA: Do I have to? This is disgusting.

LUKE: You don’t even want to touch the packet. It’s in several layers of plastic.

LISA: The packet was small, filled with maybe 40 dried up worms. They were brown, skinny, and about the length of your fingernail.

LISA: Okay, let’s do it. Oh geez. I gotta close my eyes… Yeah. They’re good!… But I don’t think I would ever seek this out.

LISA: But who knows? Some researchers say in a few years, the global insect market will be worth more than half a billion dollars—and a lot of it will be here in the U.S. But looking at those small brown worms I was thinking… how is anyone going to build a business on this, not to mention an industry? Most Americans are probably like me… grossed out by the idea of eating bugs. This week, we find out how people starting companies in this space are trying to overcome the ‘ick’ factor. A quick warning, there’s some swearing in this episode. Luke takes the story from here.

LUKE: The first time Megan Miller ate a bug was at a bar in Mexico. She’d ordered a michelada…

MEGAN MILLER: And they put this really nice spicy salt on the rim and I was like, “What is this? It’s just fantastic. And they were like, “Gusanos.” And I was like “What? I think I misunderstood you, like, gusanos, those are worms.” And they were like, “Yep, that’s what’s in there.”

LUKE: Unlike our host Lisa … Megan was into it. In the years after that trip, she read up on bugs. She realized they’re really healthy, have tons of protein … And she wondered, why don’t people in the US eat insects? In 2012, she started experimenting. But at the time, bugs weren’t easy to come by…

MEGAN: I just ordered some from a pet store and the first thing I got was the mealworms and the mealworms were in potting soil. So there was this container of potting soil with worms writhing in it. And I mean this does not look like food. And my husband sort of took one look and was like, “Nope, I’m out. Like, you’re on your own. This is your experiment.” And I took the worms and put them into I think it was oat bran… and let them eat that for a couple of days and also gave them some apples and carrots and stuff. Basically I treated them like little horses (laughter) it sounds like. And then I roasted them on a pan and ground them up in a Vitamix and used them to make muffins.

LUKE: She passed them around to her friends and they seemed to like them. Megan was already thinking: maybe there’s a business here. At the time, she was working as a trend forecaster at a big media company. So it’s no surprise that her spidey sense was spot on… Bugs… were about to blow up.

KELLY RIPA: The world famous cricket taco is here! Isn’t this incredible.

LUKE: This is Kelly Ripa, getting excited about crickets on her morning show in 2013. But her co-host at the time, Michael Strahan, wasn’t having it.

KELLY: So you and I are gonna try it.

MICHAEL: You are gonna try it.

KELLY: Well, we’re going to try it together.

MICHAEL: I’m not eating it. I told you the other day, I can see the butt of the cricket. I’m not eating a cricket booty, I’m not eating it.

KELLY: I’m doing it. (Audience screams and under)

LUKE: And it wasn’t just Kelly Ripa. There were articles in National Geographic, Forbes, The Atlantic. Bugs were getting attention in a huge way. The reason? This big U.N. report had just come out saying that the world might be in danger of running out of food—and that eating insects could be a solution. Insects have as much protein per pound as cows or chickens, and raising them takes a lot less land and water. The report created a bug boom. Companies started popping up, with names like Chirps Chips and Entomo Farms—an outfit run by three brothers, who used to breed crickets for pet snakes and lizards, but then switched to feeding people. A cricket protein bar company went on Shark Tank, and got $50,000 from Mark Cuban. Self-help guru Tim Ferriss and the rapper Nas also backed edible insect companies. Megan knew it was go time. She quit her job and convinced her friend Leslie to start a company. They called it Bitty Foods, and raised over a million dollars in seed funding from investors like Arielle Zuckerberg, sister of Mark, and celebrity chef Tyler Florence. They had some success out of the gate with cricket-flour cookies, and launched a line of chips called Chiridos. But pretty quickly, they ran into their own version of the Lisa Chow-Michael Strahan problem.

MEGAN: There was an event that we were doing and this couple came up to us and the boyfriend was actually asking us lots of questions. And the girlfriend, I don’t think she was really paying attention, I think she was looking at her phone or something like that. And she grabbed one of the cup of chips and ate it and it just suddenly dawned on her, like she started listening to him and realized that she had just eaten crickets. And she burst into tears, and she walked away and I was like oh no that’s a disaster.

LUKE: Megan’s cricket chips don’t usually make people cry… but she does get her share of negative reactions. And every time… it hurts. It taps into this fear she’s had ever since she gave up her normal job for insects.

MEGAN: How long am I going to have people telling me that the food that I’m making is disgusting… Like, do I have to be the crazy bug lady, and for how long? How long is it going to go on? And how do you get people to buy a food that so many of them think is gross?

LUKE: Bug entrepreneurs like Megan aren’t the first people to deal with this problem. Lobster was called “cockroach of the sea” before it became a delicacy. Yogurt was a fringe food until Dannon started mixing it with fruit in the 1940s. And tofu didn’t catch on until health food stores started selling it in the ’70s. So, what’s Megan’s next move? How can she and other bug businesspeople convince potential customers that insects are the future of food? And can it happen fast enough for companies like Bitty Foods to survive? I talked to a bunch of experts to find out, and I heard lots of theories, but three people stood out. The first one… is this guy.

LUKE: I’ve heard that you have a nickname.

PAUL ROZIN: Well, you’re probably referring to Dr. Disgust. I’m responsible for the emergence of disgust as a serious area of research and psychology since the late 1980s.

LUKE: Dr. Disgust’s real name is Paul Rozin. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. And he says, an aversion to bugs isn’t just some hang-up… it has deep evolutionary roots. Early in his career he did an experiment: he asked college kids if they would eat their favorite food, say mashed potatoes, if he touched a cockroach to them. Most people said no. He asked them why, and they’d say, well, because cockroaches carry disease. So he asked a different question: what if he used a sterilized cockroach? Completely clean. Would they eat the mashed potatoes then?

PAUL: And that makes virtually no difference. That is the idea that cockroach is bad and you’ve cockroached the mashed potatoes.

LUKE: Paul says we have a good reason for responding this way. The omnivore’s dilemma. It’s the name of Michael Pollan’s famous book, but Paul was the one who coined the phrase.The dilemma refers to the fact that most animals have strict diets, but people don’t. We can eat whatever we want. But each time we try a new food, we expose ourselves to the risk that it might be poisonous or contaminated. That’s why we have this built-in fear of pathogens… to make sure we don’t kill ourselves. In other words, our fear of eating bugs, it might be biological. Our body’s way of protecting itself. Now of course it’s safe to eat bugs—two billion people around the world already do. And you’ve probably eaten them, too. You really can’t avoid them. If you’re eating something that originally came from a field, like wheat flour, for example, it probably has bits of insects in it. The difference is, you don’t know they’re there. So you’re not thinking about it. And thinking about it? That’s the problem. It creates a fear in our heads that we need to get past. Paul says… that may sound hard, but it’s possible… just think about the way we eat meat.

PAUL: I would say that the basic situation which very few people realize is that we find all animal food disgusting. That’s the base of it. If you think about it for Americans we eat three mammals: lambs, pigs, and cows. Now there are over 4000 species of mammals and we’re eating only three of them and we’re not only eating only three of them we are only eating their muscle. In the United States we don’t eat their gut. We don’t eat their pancreas. We don’t eat their brain. There’s this little tiny segment of animal foods that most of us eat. So, the question isn’t why insects are disgusting it’s why any animal isn’t disgusting. Why is a horse disgusting or a dog and not a cow?

LUKE: And Paul points out that we’ve developed this whole vocabulary that helps us distance ourselves from the meat we do eat.

PAUL: In English, we don’t call steak cow. We call it steak or beef, right? We have a separate word to describe the animal itself and the food that we eat… There is a peculiar fact that we tend to try to disguise, in language, and in serving, in the way we eat it, the identity of the animal we’re eating.

LUKE: So, Dr. Disgust’s advice when it comes to getting us to eat insects? Rebrand them. Give them a new name. Help people forget the fact that the thing they’re eating is a worm, or something that hops around in the dirt.

LUKE: Jennie Roper, a marketing executive, has a different solution. Jennie works at Kinetic… an advertising agency that has worked with clients like L’Oreal, Ford, and Netflix. She recently decided she wanted a new challenge. Most advertising is about getting you to buy things you already know you want. You wear make-up? Buy this lipstick. You want a car? Buy this one. She wanted to see if she could get people to buy something they don’t want. She mentioned this to a colleague during a brainstorming session.

JENNIE: I said we should do an experiment together. And I came up with what was quite a boring idea. I said, well let’s see if we can get people to eat fruit rather than get them to eat pastries. And he looked at me and thought quite earnestly and said I think you need to think a bit more obliquely. And I didn’t really know what that meant and I just nodded and went, “Yeah, definitely.” And he said you should get people to eat insects. It sounded like a good challenge to Jennie. She teamed up with Grub, a company that sells cricket energy bars, and designed two posters. The first took a straightforward, insects-are-healthy approach: “Eat Grub bars, made with crickets. Tasty, nutritious and sustainable!” The second approach was more creative: “2 billion people enjoy insects globally. You can be the first in W1.” W1 is a zipcode in London, where Jenny was testing the posters. The ad was saying you can be the first in your neighborhood to try insects. The first poster, the health-angle one, worked pretty well.

JENNIE: That doubled sales. So you know that was good was quite, quite successful.

LUKE; But the second poster, the don’t-miss-out one, it killed.

JENNIE: That was six times more effective.

LUKE: So, potentially the way to get people to eat insects is to make them insecure and think that they’re missing out?

JENNIE: Exactly. This FOMO thing.

LUKE: FOMO. Fear of missing out.

JENNIE: Oh, look, I’m eating this, I’ve got a great diet. Look at my wonderful body, due to eating insects morning, noon and night. You have to be a bit careful with advertising standards over that one.

LUKE: So that’s Jennie’s lesson for insect entrepreneurs: apply FOMO. Make potential customers think they’re missing out by not eating bugs. But to really figure out how to bring insects into the mainstream you’ve got to talk to someone who has done this before… Someone who has taken a weird food and made it a staple. When I ask people in the insect world what examples they look to, everyone says the same thing: sushi. It seems normal now, but in the 70s, the idea of eating raw fish was unthinkable to most people in North America. They thought it was unhygienic and kind of slimey. But then this man came along.

HIDEKAZU TOJO: My name is Hidekazu Tojo.

LUKE: Hidekazu Tojo. He trained as a sushi chef… at a traditional, high-end restaurant in Osaka, before moving to Vancouver in 1971… He landed a job at a restaurant that served mainly Japanese immigrants and visiting businessmen. At the time, there were a few Japanese restaurants in the city—but not many Canadians were actually into raw fish.

HIDEKAZU: Only five people eat raw fish. But only eat tuna.

LUKE: Five. In 1971, in Vancouver, Hidekazu only saw five Canadians eating sushi—and even then it was all tuna all the time. Everyone else, he tells me, ordered teriyaki and tempura. All cooked, nothing raw. He thought he could get himself more business if more customers liked sushi rolls, but in order to get people to eat them, he’d have to get them past two things that freaked them out—raw fish and seaweed. He started with the seaweed.

HIDEKAZU: You know, seaweed people don’t like. Ohh, yuck. They say that. But I hiding.

LUKE: He said people would say “ohh yuck.” So… he came up with a plan: hide it. Hidekazu disguised the fact that people were eating seaweed by putting the rice on the outside of his sushi rolls. Now, instead of seeing seaweed and fish on a plate, you’d see cylinders of white rice… Hidekazu had invented the inside-out roll.Then he took it one step further… and made a sushi roll that didn’t have any raw fish in it at all. It looked like a regular sushi roll, but was made with spinach, shiitake mushroom, egg, and cooked shrimp—an early prototype of what would later come to be known as the California roll. It turned out to be the gateway roll. People loved them. And, little by little, they started to become more adventurous.

HIDEKAZU: They eat starting sushi cooked product first, then tuna… They slowly slowly approach, step by step, just like a baby.

LUKE: As sushi started to get a foothold in North America… Hidekazu noticed something else helping sales along.

HIDEKAZU: Rock musician people.

LUKE: The local musicians did you say?

HIDEKAZU: No, rock! You know, Rolling Stone, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Aerosmith. That kind of people. They were looking for something new.

LUKE: I checked with him after, and he’s not throwing those names out as examples—he means the actual bands. According to Hidekazu, the first people in North America to get the ball rolling on traditional sushi were guys like Mick Jagger and Steve Tyler. Over the next 15 years, sushi proliferated across North America. And now, it’s so ubiquitous you can buy it at 7-11.

LUKE: Do you think that crickets have a bigger hurdle now than sushi did back in the 70s?
HIDEKAZU: No, no, no—everything is possible. Not difficult.

LUKE: Hidekazu says, insects could become as big as sushi if edible insect entrepreneurs follow his simple lessons: Hide them among things that people recognize as food. And then…get rock stars to eat them in public. So who’s the best celebrity to pitch crickets? That’s after the break.

**********BREAK**********

LUKE: Welcome back to StartUp.

LUKE: A lot’s changed since Megan started Bitty Foods three years ago. Now, you can find the company’s cricket chips in 200 stores around the country. Megan told me revenue has doubled in the past eight months. And they’ve started exporting overseas, where people already eat insects, and it’s an easier sell.When I spoke to Megan again, she told me she’s already doing some of the things the people from the first half of our story suggested. For example: Bitty Foods is already divorcing the protein from the insect itself. They’re not selling whole crickets, they’re selling chips… which is what she tells potential customers when they look nervous.

MEGAN: Yeah, it’s just a chip. Taste it. You’re really only eating a chip. Or they’ll says something like ha ha are there going to be any legs or wings or something and we’re like nope, never going to encounter that with any product that we make. But when it comes to calling them something other than crickets—like how we call cows “beef”—Megan’s less convinced. We have actually talked about potentially using a different name. But honestly when we say cricket flour they can’t imagine in a million years that we’re actually talking about insects. They think it’s like some ancient grain like teff or kemut or something. Like, seriously I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Now what do you mean when you say cricket?’

LUKE: And as for tapping into people’s FOMO and getting celebrities to eat insects… Megan says, some of that is already happening: Shailene Woodley has said she eats insects, and there’s a video online of Angelina Jolie feeding tarantulas to her kids. But Megan thinks what you really need is a very specific kind of celebrity.

MEGAN: I actually think we need Beyonce and Jay-Z to eat bugs. Because they’re seen as very very cool trendsetters. But they also are more kind of aligned with regular people. They don’t seem out there. Like even Rihanna I think might be too edgy. But Beyonce…

LUKE: Relatable Beyonce.

MEGAN: Yeah, I guess maybe Beyonce’s not relatable, but she’s somebody that people aspire to be like.

MEGAN: Would you like to try some cricket protein chips? I would like to try some cricket protein chips. Great, get in there.

LUKE: But until Beyonce’s on board, Megan’s stuck pushing her chips one potential bug eater at a time. Which means standing behind a little table at the end of a grocery aisle, offering people samples.

CUSTOMER: Oh, protein chips, what is that? They’re made with cricket protein—super sustainable protein of the future. Cricket like the bug?

LUKE: This demo was a couple of weeks ago at a gourmet grocery store in San Francisco. The kind of place where shelves are stocked with fancy olive oil and 30 dollar bottles of vinegar … and customers care where their food comes from. These should be Bitty Foods’ people. But it’s not a slam dunk, even here.

CUSTOMER #2: So, I can just reach in here and grab what I want. And these are little funny chips.

MEGAN: Yeah, it’s made with cricket protein.

CUSTOMER#2: It looks like dog food. I would make it look more like crickets.

LUKE: Megan always gets feedback during these demos, but it’s usually a bit more constructive than that. Like, people will tell her the chips are too spicy. So lately she’s been rethinking her flavors. It’s a really important thing in the snack business. Especially the bug snack business. If you can get people to try your cricket chips, they’d better taste damn good. Right now, her Chiridos come in three flavors: Baja ranchero, salsa verde, and spicy mole. She wanted to tie them to Mexican food, and a country where eating insects is the norm. But Megan says that might’ve been a misstep.

MEGAN: I think that’s just a little too esoteric. Like, if we’re selling to the American consumer they don’t care about Oaxaca and mole. They actually just want a delicious cheesy poof…

LUKE: So now she’s developing a cheese flavor.

LUKE: Megan’s decided to go all-in on chips, instead of bars or whole insects. She thinks if bugs are going to break through, it’s going to happen in snacks. Because, where are you when you try a snack? Maybe you’re at a party … or you’re watching TV at a friend’s place… usually you’re somewhere where you’re more willing to try something new. And you know who else likes snacks? This little guy.

BLAZE: I want to see this. Would you like to try. Sure. What do you think. Um, it tastes kind of good.

LUKE: This is Blaze, he’s seven.

MEGAN: Did you know that they’re made with cricket flour?

BLAZE: Does that have crickets in it? I can’t believe I just ate a cricket.

LUKE: This is another thing Megan’s learned over the past few years: go for the kids! They’re a huge potential market. Parents are always looking for healthier snacks for their children, and kids like Blaze haven’t developed strong negative emotions about insects. Everything seems new and weird to them, so they adjust quicker. They might even be the ones to convince adults to eat them… like Blaze did with his mom.

BLAZE: I ate a cricket.

MOM: You ate a cricket?
BLAZE: Made of cricket flour.

MOM: Get out. Get out, that says it right on the bag.

BLAZE: Try one.

MOM: I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve never eaten a bug… That’s a good bug.

LUKE: A lot of people say … that for insects to truly take off in the U.S., a food industry behemoth has to come into the market, and buy up a company like Bitty Foods, or bring out its own line of cricket Doritos. One thing that might slow that down? Crickets are actually pretty expensive to farm … and insect growers are still trying to figure out how to mass produce them and bring costs down. When that happens… there could be a market waiting. Last year, the CEO of PepsiCo … the biggest food and beverage company in North America … said she’s paying close attention to the bug snack market, looking for the moment when customers are ready.But until then, Megan has to keep pulling long days at her demo table.

MEGAN: I really think that this is a thing where we’re going to have to hang on and like claw our way through the next few years of sales. I mean to be quite honest the phase that we’re in right now is drudgery. Like I did not quit my exciting media job so that I could sell groceries. But that is the next couple of years. We just have to sell the shit out of Chiridos and get everybody really excited about it. So yeah we’ve got a hard road ahead of us. I know that. It’s hard to tell how long it all might take… and if companies like Bitty will be able stay afloat while customers get used to eating insects.

LUKE: But Megan thinks she’ll make it. That story she told about the woman who cried after eating cricket chips … it didn’t end there. The woman came back to Megan’s table a little while later. The tears were gone. And now… she wanted to try the salsa verde flavor.

—————
CREDITS
—————

LISA CHOW: Luke Malone is a producer of StartUp.

StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. Our show is produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Simone Polanen, Emanuele Berry, and Amy Standen. Our senior producer is Molly Messick. We are edited by Caitlin Kenney and Pat Walters. Production assistance and fact checking by Alvin Melathe.

Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. Additional music by Legs, Jupyter, Radiation City, Golden Gram, and the band Hot Moms Dot Gov. For full music credits, visit our website.

David Herman and Ian Scott mixed the episode.

Special thanks to Natalie Jones and Bec Couche.

To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you like to use. Or check out the Gimlet Media website: GimletMedia.com. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.

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