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Ellie Inc.’s cheeseburger looks just like the real deal. So does the hearty bowl of minestrone and the chiffon cake with whipped cream advertised on the company’s website. They apparently taste like the real thing, too, except for hints of a nutty, sweet flavor characteristic of one of their ingredients — silkworms.

The products developed by the startup under the firm’s Silk Food banner contain edible sericulture insects and are marketed as a high-protein, low-cost alternative and sustainable food source. And there’s more on the menu: The firm has produced Italian, sesame and Caesar salad dressings and a dipping sauce made from silkworms, with new items in the works.

“When I became interested in venturing into this business, I sampled various insects, including crickets, which are one of the more popular edible critters,” says Takahiro Kajikuri, the co-founder of Ellie. “None tasted really good until I had the opportunity to try a fresh silkworm larvae. I knew this was it.”

Crawling, hopping and, at times, swarming, insects have long been eaten by humans despite their cringe-inducing image. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a quarter of the world’s population — or around 2 billion people — consume bugs such as beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants and locusts as part of their diet. And it’s not just humans. Insects constitute high-quality food for livestock, poultry and fish as well.

Crickets are a nutritious, low-calorie food source. | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS
Crickets are a nutritious, low-calorie food source. | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS

They’ve expanded in relevance in recent years as population growth and urbanization have led to increasing demand for food while simultaneously polluting land and water resources through livestock production and overgrazing. And as nationwide, statewide and citywide lockdowns triggered by the coronavirus pandemic hit the supply chains of global meat product manufacturers, demand for alternative protein sources such as insect-based foods could see an uptick, according to some analysts.

However, there’s a certain yuck factor that has prevented insect meals from becoming mainstream, a stereotype that a growing number of startups such as Ellie are trying to change.

“So far, the argument for eating insects has mainly focused on the environmental aspect, but that’s not enough to convince the average consumer to give it a try,” Kajikuri says. “We need to generate additional value through marketing and efforts to make it palatable and visually appealing.”

Once the world’s top silk producer, Japan has a long history of sericulture and an ingrained affinity toward the silkworm, Kajikuri says, another reason why he chose the particular bug for his business. Research conducted in collaboration with Kyoto University and other institutions has also discovered that silkworms contain not only basic nutrients such as protein and vitamins, but also over 50 functional ingredients.

Ellie Inc. makes cheeseburgers and soup made with silkworms. | COURTESY OF ELLIE INC.
Ellie Inc. makes cheeseburgers and soup made with silkworms. | COURTESY OF ELLIE INC.

And investors are taking notice. In March 2020, Ellie raised ¥45 million through a third-party allocation of shares, funds being used to research the functionality, flavor improvement and selective breeding of silkworms in collaboration with academic partners.

“We currently import silkworms from Vietnamese farmers and devise our own recipes working with chefs,” Kajikuri says. The company operated a pop-up shop in Tokyo’s upscale Omotesando district until July, where it sold silkworm burgers, soup and snacks. With the pandemic taking a toll on the restaurant industry, however, Ellie is now focusing on selling its products online.

“Compared to when we started our company in 2018, the reception toward edible insects has improved substantially,” Kajikuri says. “I can sense that consumers are picking up on the trend and how it could benefit our environment.”

Obvious benefits

Entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, has been an established tradition in many countries, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In fact, of the 1 million or so insect species, 1,900 are consumed by humans, according to the United Nations.

In Japan, for example, rice grasshoppers boiled in soy sauce and sugar known as inago no tsukudani have long been served as an important nutritional supplement in inland, mountainous prefectures. The larvae of silkworms and bees cooked similarly are also delicacies that can be purchased in canned form.

While insects remain visually discernible in many dishes, they are also commonly roasted, dried and powdered to form high protein flour that can be used in preparing snack bars and various other foods such as chips and cookies.

This chiffon cake is made from silkworms. | COURTESY OF ELLIE INC.
This chiffon cake is made from silkworms. | COURTESY OF ELLIE INC.

There are obvious health and environmental benefits to eating bugs. They are nutritious and low calorie, and produce far less greenhouse gases. According to a landmark 2013 report by the FAO titled “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feeds Security,” pigs produce 10 to 100 times more greenhouse gases per kilogram than mealworms.

The report also says insects feed on bio-waste, use significantly less water than livestock and can be farmed more easily while offering jobs to rural inhabitants. Such alternative food sources will be increasingly necessary as the world’s population is set to reach 10 billion by 2050, it says.

Restaurants in the United States are picking up on the trend. The Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in Washington, for example, serves grasshopper taco, while the Black Ant in New York offers black ant guacamole. There are also numerous companies selling cricket, locust, ant and beetle flour. All these factors appear to promise a thriving industry once consumer disgust can be overcome.

According to Global Market Insights, the market for edible insects is forecast to soar to $1.5 billion in 2026 from $112 million in 2019. Meanwhile, Meticulous Market Research said in a recent report that COVID-19 could potentially promote the consumption of insect-based food products as meat producers face operational and logistical challenges posed by the pandemic.

Silkworm pupa used in the products created by Ellie Inc's Silk Food brand of food | COURTESY OF ELLIE INC.
Silkworm pupa used in the products created by Ellie Inc’s Silk Food brand of food | COURTESY OF ELLIE INC.

“The meat products manufacturing industry has faced major challenges, including the risk of continuing production, distribution, transportation and other supply chain activities; lack of workforce; and delays in development activities,” the report said. “These factors are expected to impact the meat products industry, thereby driving the demand for alternative protein substitutes, including insect protein products.”

Based on insect type, it says crickets appear to have held the largest share of the overall edible insects market in 2020, thanks to a well-established market, high nutritional value, and easy farming and processing.

Cricket crackers

Inspired by Finland’s insect-eating culture, Ryohin Keikaku Co., better known as Muji, began selling cricket crackers on May 20 last year.

Priced at ¥190 a pack, the first shipment sold out that same day. The second shipment that went on sale a week later also went out of stock immediately, reflecting consumers’ strong interest in the product and its concept. Each package of crackers contains around 30 crickets ground into powdered form. They are now available both online and in select stores across Japan.

Takahito Watanabe, CEO of Gryllus, a Tokushima University-backed venture and one of Japan’s leading startups breeding and producing edible crickets and cricket-based food products | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS
Takahito Watanabe, CEO of Gryllus, a Tokushima University-backed venture and one of Japan’s leading startups breeding and producing edible crickets and cricket-based food products | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS

In a press release, Muji said the crackers were developed out of concern over the rapid increase in the global population that could trigger future food security and environmental issues.

“We gathered information through our visits to Finland,” a country advanced in initiatives for applying insects to food, “and collaborated with Tokushima University, a leader in the research of edible insects,” the company said.

The cricket powder used in the snack is created by Gryllus, a Tokushima University-backed venture and one of Japan’s leading startups breeding and producing edible crickets.

Takahito Watanabe, the CEO of the company and an associate professor at Tokushima University’s Graduate School of Technology, Industrial and Social Sciences, says his firm’s aim is to domestically mass produce high-grade edible crickets and cricket-based food products in order to enable stable supply.

“Right now demand exceeds supply by about 100 times,” he says. “We produce around 10 million crickets annually, but that is far from enough. We’re currently in the process of constructing another cricket farm that should boost production tenfold.”

The firm, which recently raised ¥230 million through Series A funding, is working on a semiautomatic breeding system with the aim of going fully automatic in the near future.

“The fact that a well-known firm like Muji began selling cricket crackers is a big deal. It helps establish insects as a viable source of food,” Watanabe says. “In the past, there have been those who didn’t take our business seriously, but large brands and corporations entering the market helps remove the stigma and improve the image of crickets.”

Gryllus produces cricket-based food products, including cricket bread. | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS
Gryllus produces cricket-based food products, including cricket bread. | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS

The restaurant industry in Japan is also working to introduce refined dishes featuring insects. Antcicada, an eatery that opened last year in downtown Tokyo, serves bowls of ramen using crickets sourced from Gryllus in the soup stock, oil, soy sauce and noodles. Both visually and in terms of taste, it is nearly indistinguishable from ramen served at restaurants across Japan.

“It’s about how we can enhance consumer awareness and let people understand that crickets can be a regular source of food,” Watanabe says.

Farming growth

Advocates say that besides being a cheap eco-friendly nutrition source, insects can also provide employment and even process animal waste, a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Midway through studying for his Ph.D. at Waseda University, Seiya Ashikari launched an insect startup called Ecologgie focusing on mass producing crickets for fish meal. He now resides in Phnom Penh, where he works with farmers to breed crickets used to develop protein powder, snacks and animal feed both for sales within Cambodia and exports to Japan.

“We outsource the production of crickets to local farmers. The idea is to create an agricultural cooperative that can produce crickets while providing jobs for the socially vulnerable,” Ashikari says. Cambodia’s warm climate is ideal for breeding the hoppers, he says, while the nation’s cultural affinity with eating bugs means people are understanding of his venture.

Ashikari runs training programs for farmers, some who are beginning to make substantial profit, he says.

Seiya Ashikari, founder and CEO of Ecologgie | COURTESY OF ECOLOGGIE
Seiya Ashikari, founder and CEO of Ecologgie | COURTESY OF ECOLOGGIE

“We’re seeing the number of cricket farmers grow. The success of so-called ‘star farmers’ is also a motivational boost for others,” he says. “We’ve established a production and shipment system of a ton per month, but we still need work on standardizing the model in terms of efficiency and safety.”

Bugs are also addressing some of the world’s most pressing agricultural problems: food and animal waste, and dwindling supplies of livestock feed.

According to Allied Market Research, the size of the global waste management market was valued at $2.08 trillion in 2019 and is projected to reach $2.34 trillion by 2027. Meanwhile, Research And Markets forecast the worldwide animal feed market to register revenue of more than $415.5 billion by 2023, compared to 335.7 billion in 2017.

Fukuoka-based startup Musca Inc. is offering a solution using flies to recycle waste and create natural fertilizer and fish meal. In recent years, similar businesses have evolved into a small but growing sector, spawning a crop of insect growers and sparking the interest of global food-production behemoths such as McDonald’s looking for alternative sources of protein.

Musca’s flies have undergone hundreds of generations of selective inbreeding to create productive, stress-resistant flies, says CEO Mitsutaka Kushima. “These tuned-up flies are capable of transforming animal excreta into fertilizer in one week. That’s compared to the three weeks it takes for natural houseflies,” he says.

Musca’s fly eggs are first sowed in trays of livestock excreta. In eight hours or so, the eggs hatch into legless white larvae that begin feeding on the excrement, decomposing it as they go. In a week, the maggots become full and crawl out of the tray. The leftover maggot excreta is collected for high-quality fertilizer, while the maggots themselves are harvested for nutritious animal feed.

Cricket powder produced by Gryllus | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS
Cricket powder produced by Gryllus | COURTESY OF GRYLLUS

The company is currently constructing its first plant, although the project has been slowed by the pandemic and bureaucratic complications. Once up and running, however, the complex is expected to be capable of processing 100 tons of animal dung and urine daily. The plan is to eventually franchise fully automated processing plants to interested parties.

In the meantime, Musca, whose title is derived from the housefly’s scientific name, Musca domestica, has been collaborating with various agricultural and livestock producers to test the capabilities of its fly-born sustainable fertilizer and feed. Research has so far shown that fish eating feed mixed with Musca’s product grew larger and were resistant to diseases. Similar statistics were collected from vegetables grown using Musca’s fertilizer.

“We’re receiving inquiries from large corporations now interested in venturing into agribusiness. There’s definitely strong interest,” Kushima says.

Whether it be food for humans or feed for animals, insect protein appears to be poised to become the next big thing. But it may still take some time for the average consumer to choose insect-based foods over meat or fish. One reason Muji’s cricket crackers became a hit was because there were no visual traces of the bug.

On a recent afternoon, a man who appeared to be in his early 20s was examining a vending machine in Ueno, a lively shopping and dining district in the east of Tokyo. The particular machine sells containers of dried, edible insects, including ants, beetles, grasshoppers and crickets, priced at around ¥1,000 and upward.

Asked if he planned on sampling the creepy-crawlies, the man shook his head.

“I’m actually quite curious about how they might taste,” he says, “but I don’t think I can strike up the courage to buy one just yet.”

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