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Are crickets the new tofu?

Crickets have attracted global interest for their sustainable farming potential. And yet, so few of us have hopped on to this protein trend. In this podcast, we explore the edible insect landscape in Canada with food trend expert Dana McCauley.

"10 billion people on the planet. We can't continue to eat the way we have in the past. Some food systems have too much food and are wasting it, and other systems don't have enough food, and people's health and quality of life are being compromised."

Dana McCauley, Chief Experience Officer for the Canadian Food Innovation Network
Are crickets the new tofu? – Audio Transcript

Dana McCauley (guest): There's not a lot of consumers who are like: "Hey, I'm going to switch from eating tofu to insects".

Michelle Strong (co-host): This episode, we speak with Dana McCauley, a food trend expert, about the edible insect market in Canada.

Dana: I've eaten all kinds of crickets in various forms and I've had beetle juice when I was in Asia.

Greg Rogers (co-host): Did you say beetle juice?

Dana: Beetle juice, yeah. So when you're in Vietnam, it's considered quite a delicacy and it's also considered very, very good for your health to add beetle juice. So they take the beetles and they ferment them kind of the same way you would make alcohol.

Greg: Wow. I don't think I'd heard of that. I mean, I guess it's not a million miles away from honey, which is literally thousands of bees regurgitating fluids.

Dana: You know, we think of bee spit as pretty normal, don't we? Yeah.

Greg: Hey, it's Greg.

Michelle: And it's Michelle, and this is Inspect and Protect.

Greg: A podcast where we like to talk about, well, lots of stuff. But mostly about plant health and animal health and food safety.

Michelle: Despite their many touted health and environmental benefits, insect protein remains rare on Canadian grocery shelves compared to animal-based products.

Michelle: A 2021 article in Science Direct stated that, quote: "The consumption of insects has recently attracted global attention for health reasons as well as environmental and economic benefits […] "However, consumer acceptance remains a major obstacle to the adoption of insects as a food source in many Western countries."

Michelle: To learn more about the edible insect landscape in Canada, Greg got in touch with food trend expert, Dana McCauley.

Dana: Hi, I'm Dana McCauley. I'm the Chief experience officer at the Canadian Food Innovation Network. I have worked in the food business since my early twenties, where I started out as a chef, and I've basically been in almost any job you could have in the food business from food writer and broadcaster to product developer, head of marketing for big food companies and start-up coach and incubator. And now here I am trying to help champion food innovation in Canada's economy.

Greg: Welcome to the podcast, Dana.

Dana: It is so great to be here. Thank you.

Greg: Can you tell us a bit about what the network does?

Dana: Yeah. So it exists to champion innovation in the food sector. So we're all about helping the existing companies who work in food, whether they're manufacturers or retailers or restaurants, to incorporate technology and science into their plans to improve their businesses.

Greg: So what is particularly innovative about raising insects for food?

Dana: Well, what's really interesting. So I used to run food starter, which was Toronto's food business incubator and accelerator, and it started in 2015. I was the founding executive director and at that time the whole idea in North America, anyhow, of eating insects and incorporating them into human diets and even into livestock diets was pretty cutting edge. And although we have seen an adoption of things like cricket flour and that kind of thing into some food products for humans, what's really been the most innovative in the space is how the actual insects themselves, whether they be soldier flies or crickets, how they are actually housed and grown and harvested. So there's a company called Aspire, for instance, which has really incorporated automation, robotics sensors into that process and pretty much revolutionized it to make it much, much more efficient. Because, I don't know if you've ever had a reptile as a pet, but when you go to buy crickets and you open up that bag, crickets don't smell that great. People don't want to work in a cricket farm.

Michelle: So Dana, when did you become interested in insects and their potential as an alternative protein?

Dana: I guess when I had clients who were working on that and it was my job at Food Starter to help these companies to commercialise their businesses. Very quickly, it became evident that a lot of early adopters to eating insect products and insects themselves were kind of doing it for the fear factor and bravado side of things. But the folks who I learned were most interested in this opportunity were people who really had a very strong commitment to the environment and who were very concerned about intensive farming and animal welfare. And what I'm seeing now as almost 7, 8 years in to following this topic is that that hasn't really changed. There's not a lot of consumers who are like: "Hey, I'm going to switch from eating tofu to insects". And we see a lot more development in creating more sustainable feed for that livestock that others were interested and probably are still interested in avoiding in their own diets. And that's really interesting.

Greg: Yeah. And I wonder if it's concerns about safety. Right? Like I know the wild crafted or foraged insects can't be sold for fear of being contaminated with pesticides and those kinds of things.

Dana: Yeah, there's a lot of methodology and a lot of rigor and science that goes into the commercial production of insect protein. And I think people can feel really assured that if it was grown and harvested and processed in commercial Canadian facilities, that that it is absolutely safe for them.

Greg: Yeah, that's my understanding… that edible insects must meet the same requirements as any other foods that are sold online or to consumers in Canada.

Dana: Absolutely. And the thing that a lot of people don't know, that was news to me is that anyone with a shellfish allergy should also be very cautious about eating insects, particularly the ones like crickets that have an exoskeleton, because they have a lot of physiological similarities to lobsters, shrimp, etc. and can really trigger those allergies. So it is interesting that we think of them as different, but really they're in a similar family to foods that we're already really comfortable eating and actually think of as quite luxurious.

Greg: And I think it's all the senses really. Like, you know, visually they're not unappealing and, you know, kind of scary and that kind of thing. But I mean, if you think about lobster, for instance. My father in law was a lobster fisherman, and, you know, I mean, it used to be… It was for poor people. Nobody wanted to eat lobster and now it's over the years has become this, you know, this luxury food item.

Dana: Exactly.

Greg: I don't know of the same thing will necessarily happen with the insects. I mean, I think if you can make something that tastes good… Like I know people that won't eat lobsters just because they're scared of how it looks, like it looks too creepy to them.

Dana: I think that's the difference. I think one of the reasons lobsters became considered very luxurious… 1 – French chefs did fantastic tasting things with them. But 2 – You cannot… I live in Ontario… I can only get a lobster by putting an effort. So that makes it special right there. Whereas insects, that's the value proposition of them is the exact opposite. It's that you can have a cricket farm in an office building in the middle of a city and it could be anywhere. I bet there's even people who figured out how to very easily have a cricket farm in an enclosed space in the desert or the Arctic. So it's value proposition is that it is so accessible and that it is so sustainable. Whereas obviously the lobsters, even though you can get them from a whole bunch of places, really, Canada's east coast is the only place to get the best ones, in my opinion. Well, Scottish lobsters are pretty good.

Greg: The high protein aspect of it too. Like I used to lift weights, I did so more so before the pandemic, you know. I still do on occasion, but like in terms of protein powder for bodybuilders or something like that, I would think…

Dana: Protein powders are really appealing to a lot of people who are into athletics. Yeah, and the cricket powder is… I think it gives really good quality protein and nutrition.

Michelle: So how long have edible insects actually been on the market in Canada?

Dana: That's a question that I'm unsure of the answer, to be honest. But I know even in the 80s you could buy, like, chocolate covered ants and things like that. They were generally imported from other countries, but they were considered a delicacy. Now, of course, you can buy cricket flour in national grocery chains. And of course anything sold in store of that kind of reach has to meet high food safety standards.

Greg: Right. So you'd say that it's more popular and available now than it was 10 years ago. And with the technology, do you foresee that getting even more available?

Dana: Yeah. I mean, you know, there's always supply and demand in these things. So there's a lot of options out there now for people who want to have more sustainable sources of protein. In the last 10 years, we've seen Canada's pulse industry in the western provinces really figure out how to make really high quality, good tasting plant-based protein products from chickpeas and other legumes, as well as now we're seeing things like lupin and fava, you know, starting to come online. We've really perfected how we fractionated those kinds of legume ingredients and pulse ingredients. So as more innovation has gone into those kinds of products, I think some of the insect products have become a little less appealing for those who are really wanting something sustainable and local. And yeah. So I'm not really sure what to predict. I'm supposed to be Canada's food trend expert, but I think I think that there is a lot of competition for things that are potentially a little less scary and a little easier to imagine incorporating into your diet.

Greg: Yeah I mean, I've heard there's flour products as well that that can be incorporated or just kind of be almost snuck in there if you are actually trying to get some extra protein in your diet.

Dana: Exactly. And those would be the most common products I think that are out there and are being used by people on a regular basis are probably those flour products.

Greg: What are some of the advantages to adding insect protein into your diet, like health-wise?

Dana: Well, I believe that compared to meat, obviously the saturated fat and cholesterol profile would be much, much better. And of course, there's that sustainability play where you could have 1000 head of cattle while you could have millions and millions and millions of crickets being grown and harvested. There's also, of course, the impact on the growing space, the area. I mean, crickets are grown basically in a controlled environment where any of their waste is captured and eliminated through very safe ways. Whereas obviously when you have cattle and pigs and chickens near waterways and things of that nature, there's always some, some risks to the water system. And, and really there's just this when it comes to the amount of water. And so we've talked about land water and what the animals emit, the methane, etc. into the environment. It's all much, much less with insects.

Greg: Right. So they don't burp like cows or pigs.

Dana: Exactly. Exactly. And good for you. You knew that the methane came from burps. A lot of people think it comes from the other end.

Greg: You know, it's funny the way it's talked about sometimes. Essentially, it's burps from cows that are a really significant impact on climate change. Yeah.

Dana: Maybe they should just chew better. I don't know.

Michelle: What type of insects are typically used for this kind of thing?

Dana: My understanding is that it's still predominantly crickets and types of crickets that are grown by the 2 or 3 companies that I know that are kind of leaders in this space. There's also a couple of companies who are growing these, and I think I'm saying it right, black soldier flies. And those aren't necessarily for food as much as they are to help to go into like waste streams and to decompose them more quickly. So there's a lot of things that insects naturally do that are really helpful for dealing with both the inputs of food and then the outputs, the waste of preparing food, etc.. So nature's pretty smart.

Greg: So how are the environmental impacts? What are they compared to raising cows and pigs and chickens?

Dana: Yeah, the analysis I've seen of a pound of cricket protein versus a pound of animal protein is that it's much, much more sustainable. So, obviously, the amount of land you use is much less and the amount of water required… You know, ruminants, so animals that have more than one stomach like cows, they need a lot of water to digest the grains and grasses and things that they eat on a daily basis. And then, of course, the processing, the shipping of animals across large amounts of roadway to go from farm to slaughter to process is using a lot of fossil fuels. So yeah hands down there's just no doubt that insect protein particularly where it's centralised, where the insects are grown, processed, packaged all in one space. It's way, way more sustainable.

Dana: 10 billion people on the planet. We can't continue to eat the way we have in the past. And the other, of course, big problem is we have to distribute food in a much different way because we have food systems that have too much food and are wasting it and food systems that don't have enough food and people and their health is being compromised and their quality of life.

Greg: And the other thing for that is like the mentality that's all or nothing, right? Like you could eat an insect protein based meal once every two weeks or something like that. And especially if it tastes good. I would do it. You know what I mean. And the impact of not eating beef that day or chicken or pork, you know, would potentially have a really significant impact.

Dana: For sure. And I mean, incremental change. You know, the Meatless Monday movement is a perfect example of how the math has been done and calculated to see how making one day a week a change can have a cumulative effect if enough people do it.

Michelle: That's fascinating. Would you say there are any disadvantages to insect farming?

Dana: Not that I can really think of. I don't think there's a downside, obviously, as long as we're not taking insects out of the pollination cycle, which I don't believe that there are a lot of pollinator type insects that are consumed. So no, I don't think there are any downsides except for maybe if you live next door and you can smell them. But that's true of any farm, isn't it?

Michelle: Different manure?

Dana: Very different manure. They call it frass when it comes from insects. And this frass has a market of its own for helping to create fertilizers and to decompose other waste streams.

Greg: Right. And you mentioned before that some companies are adding insect protein into animal feeds. Is it the same requirements, like in terms of ensuring safety?

Dana: You know, I think the better companies… and certainly, when it comes to pet food… Not sure if you have any pets, but I have a dog and I find every time I go to buy pet food, there's more and more of those brands that are saying that it's human grade food, which means that it's food that would meet the food safety and nutrition requirements for human food products. So I do think that this is something that is growing and developing. Which is great news because obviously we live very closely with our pets. The healthier they are, the healthier we'll probably stay.

Greg: So have you tried any of these insect snacks yourself? I know we talked about it but yeah.

Dana: Yeah, absolutely. So. Yes. When I was at Food Starter, I had a company that made, as I say, these blocks of textured vegetable-protein-style cricket meals. And I tried dozens of things. They were always trying to see what they could make and how they could use other ingredients like mushrooms etc., and extracts, to really make the flavor very similar to what you would expect if it had been made with ground meat. I had companies who were making smoothie powders and flours to turn into baked goods and a cereal-type bar company that was using insects as well. And I tried it all. What you find is that, particularly in baking, that things would be a little bit more crumbly than if you were using all regular flour and a little more filling because it's higher protein.

Dana: And some of them were fantastic tasting! But I'm not an athlete and I am an omnivore, so I don't necessarily incorporate them into my day to day. But if I went someplace… say, Michelle, if you invited me over for a coffee and you said: "Hey, here's a cookie. I made it with cricket flour." I'd eat it for sure. Sure. Yeah, absolutely.

Greg: All right, Dana. Well, best of luck with your task ahead. Thanks for championing Canadian innovation. Thanks for coming on the podcast. We really appreciated having you here.

Dana: Well, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for, you know, exploring topics that I think Canadians are really interested in.

Michelle: Before moving on to our next guest, we want to reiterate some important food safety information about edible insects:

  • people with crustacean allergies may have allergic reactions to insects as well.
  • And insect products are held to the same requirements as any other food sold in Canada.

Michelle: On that note, some of our scientists at the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) actually published a study conducted in 2017 & 2018 were they tested almost 100 edible insect products in Canada for heavy metals, pesticides and bacteria. I reached out to Annie Locas, who works as a National Manager in Food Safety Science Services, to get some intel on the results.

Michelle: So, Annie, can you tell us about the CFIA scientific studies on edible insects?

Annie: Absolutely. We did do a small scale study on edible insects that we found at retail, and we collected also over Internet sales. It was a very small scale study where we wanted to look at microbiological hazards and chemical hazards such as pesticides. The good news is when we looked at the results and the samples that we had, we didn't find any salmonella, which is a bacteria that can cause illness in humans. And we also looked at the sanitation condition of the samples and they were all deemed satisfactory. We also looked at up to 500 pesticides in these samples. Although some low levels of pesticides were found in some samples, we worked with our colleagues at Health Canada to determine that the products were not posing a health risk.

Michelle: When it comes to heavy metals, some of the findings included that the levels of mercury detected were almost 18 times lower than maximum levels allowed in fish, and that the highest level of cadmium detected was 2 times lower than the maximum levels allowed for rice.

Annie: This means that you can continue to enjoy your insect foods as much as you want. They seem to be safe on the market right now!

Michelle: Thanks so much for being here today with us, Annie.

Annie: Thank you so much for having me!

Michelle: Lastly, if you haven't tried any form of edible insect yet, here are some final encouraging words from Dana.

Dana: Don't be afraid. That's my tip. It's… it's protein like any other kind. And, you know, for centuries, people in other parts of the world have incorporated insects into their diets for really good reasons. 1 – because it was widely available, and 2 – because it was actually really great for them. So don't be scared.

Michelle: This is Inspect and Protect, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's official podcast. See you next time.

[End of recording]

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