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Companies Face An Uphill Battle Trying To Get Americans To Eat Bugs

NOEL KING, HOST:

What are you having for Christmas dinner this year? Turkey, maybe ham. Well, there is a new protein source, and it's getting more popular. It's bugs. They're turning up at grocery stores. But companies are finding out that it is not so very easy to convince Americans to eat bugs. Here's reporter Darius Rafieyan.

DARIUS RAFIEYAN, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, I went down to a Christmas market in New York's Bryant Park armed with a bag of chipotle-mango-flavored crickets.

I'm out here trying to get people to do a little taste test for me. Do you have any interest?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tasting what?

RAFIEYAN: Crickets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Crickets - no, I don't believe I'm interested.

RAFIEYAN: Eventually, I was able to find one brave soul.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Are you ready? I'm going to eat a roasted cricket now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Do it. Do it. Do it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. Ready? It's good. I don't hate it, honestly. I could eat a bag of those.

RAFIEYAN: This is the challenge - how to win over skeptical Americans. And it's a challenge that Laura D'Asaro knows well. She's the co-founder of Chirps. They're chips but made with cricket flour. The company has garnered a six-figure investment from billionaire Mark Cuban on "Shark Tank" but D'Asaro says that when she first tried to serve people bugs, she met with some resistance.

LAURA D'ASARO: We just literally went to a local pet store and got different kinds of insects and fried them up and tried to feed them to our friends. And getting friends to eat whole bugs just wasn't going to happen, right?

RAFIEYAN: But with flavors like cheddar and barbecue, Chirps are what D'Asaro calls a gateway bug.

D'ASARO: Our Chirps are now on shelves next to Doritos, so we're starting to make that transition from this is novelty to this is actually taking off. This has legs.

RAFIEYAN: Today, Chirps are being sold at more than 1,500 stores nationwide, and the company is pushing insects as an environmentally sustainable source of healthy protein. A few years ago, the United Nations made headlines by recommending eating bugs as a way to combat climate change. And farmers like James Rolin of Cowboy Cricket Farms in Bozeman, Mont., are betting that Americans will hop on board. His 7,000-square-foot facility can house up to 50 million crickets at a time.

JAMES ROLIN: You've just got these whole racks full of bins and in those beans are tens of thousands of crickets. And you just hear all this life in there. It's pretty amazing.

RAFIEYAN: He worries that his industry is not getting the support it needs from the federal government. Last year, then-Senator Jeff Flake sponsored a bill to end all federal funding for insect agriculture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF FLAKE: I hope that we aren't forced to eat crickets. That doesn't seem like anything anybody wants to do. And we shouldn't be forcing taxpayers to pay for it.

RAFIEYAN: Rolin says that while bug farming may be a punchline to some, to him, it's his livelihood. And the lack of federal recognition means insect farmers can't obtain crop insurance and are having trouble accessing credit. Ultimately, though, the future of this industry will depend on convincing consumers. And Iliana Alamio (ph) prefers the more direct approach. Alamio is the chef de cuisine at the Black Ant restaurant in Manhattan, which features caterpillar margaritas, guacamole topped with black ants and their famous chapulines or whole cooked grasshoppers.

ILIANA ALAMIO: The best way to cook it, you need to add some olive oil and saute it. But don't fry it. It ruins the texture.

RAFIEYAN: And so these are the grasshoppers.

ALAMIO: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

RAFIEYAN: Alamio admits that convincing people to eat bugs will be difficult, but she insists that anyone who tries one of her grasshoppers will be won over. Darius Rafieyan, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UGLY BUG BALL")

BURL IVES: (Singing) Come on. Let's crawl. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.