Are American consumers ready to put insects on the menu? Manufacturers are betting that increased awareness of sustainability concerns around the production of animal proteins, a rise in vegetarianism among Millennial consumers and a greater interest in the general population in consuming less meat could make insects a viable protein source in the U.S.
“Protein, sustainability and health concerns about antibiotics are all hot topics, and insect consumption addresses all of these issues,” said June Jo Lee, Vice President, Strategic Insights at The Hartman Group. “As a protein source, insects don’t have a lot of health baggage.”
New protein sources are likely to become increasingly important as more consumers make a conscious decision to eat less meat. Rather than turning to vegetarianism or veganism, increasingly more consumers—particularly Millennials—are adopting a more “flexitarian” lifestyle by limiting the amount of meat they consume for a variety of reasons, including animal welfare, sustainability, and health and wellness.
Putting price aside, the majority of consumers across all age groups say they would be open to substituting a conventional meal with a sustainable option. While many consumers are using plant-based sources to meet their protein needs, younger consumers are typically more adventurous when exploring new food philosophies, and when they explore, they are looking at food in playful and personalized ways.
Millennial consumers consider food an adventure and seek out different, ethnic and artisan foods. The Hartman Group’s research revealed that 40 percent like to try new kinds of ethnic cuisines and “anything new and different,” compared to 34 percent and 32 percent respectively of Gen X/Boomers combined. Could early-adopting Millennials embrace insect tacos?
“Before you sell the products, you have to sell the problem,” said Patrick Crowley, founder of Chapul energy bars made with cricket powder. “Millennials are already aware that their world will be different and they are open minded about actual solutions.”
Chapul bars have gotten a big boost from Sprouts Farmers Markets, the Phoenix-based 200-plus unit supermarket chain, which added three flavors of Chapul brand cricket protein powder bars to its stores in June. Chapul bars were awarded the NEXTY award for most innovative food product with a healthy and sustainable mission at the 2014 Natural Products Expo West trade show.
“Getting distribution in Sprouts was a huge step,” said Crowley. “The NEXTY put us on the map at the retail level.” The bars are merchandised in the energy bar aisle of the stores and will be featured as the brand of the month in Sprouts’ in-store circulars in the fall as well as online, and Chapul will conduct in-store demonstrations.
“The core energy bar consumer market is the most open to our product since insects are not only a higher-quality protein source, it’s also more easily digestible. A large percentage of our consumers are also vegetarian,” said Crowley. The alternative protein source could find early acceptance among sports and fitness enthusiasts already using energy bars and protein powders to enhance their performance. Crickets and other insects are rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc, and their protein-dense profile could make them a particularly attractive source of protein for athletes.
Chapul plans to introduce a new baking flour product in September 2015. Chapul is not the only company betting that Western consumers could develop a taste for insects. Six Foods, which manufactures Chirps chips made with cricket flour, recently won a cash infusion from Echoing Green, a firm that funds social enterprises through the global growth equity firm General Atlantic.
Rose Wang, Six Foods’ co-founder, said Westerners are more likely to eat insects if they come in foods that have familiar forms. Insect eating is already practiced regularly by at least 2 billion people worldwide. “A Swiss study showed that people are more likely to try insects when they are incorporated into other foods, but that can change,” she said. “Sushi was strange to our grandparents.” Westerners also once shunned lobster and shrimp. Now shrimp is the most popular seafood eaten in the United States and represents over 25 percent of the nation's annual per capita seafood consumption.
In the culinary world, top restaurants have already begun to add insect dishes to their offerings. “Noma in Copenhagen has been serving cricket tacos for several years,” said Wang. Some restaurants in New York and California are beginning to experiment with insects. While they’re unlikely to become the next goji berry any time soon, increased financial backing and some movement into the mainstream market suggest a niche to keep an eye on.
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.