LINCOLN, NE - Most food companies hope to keep bugs out of their products.
A Nebraska business is trying to figure out just how many insects it can put in.
Crickets, ground to a powder, are a key ingredient in new pasta and rice products being developed by Bugeater Foods, a startup working from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2lovrHo ) reported.
The goal is to get as much buggy nutrition into the pasta as possible while still making a product that looks and tastes good and cooks properly.
The better it tastes, the better the chance of getting consumers to overcome their aversion to eating insects, which are high in protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, but also, for many people, high in the ick factor.
Along with expanding the supply chain of crickets raised for human and livestock consumption, overcoming people's aversion to eating bugs is the biggest hurdle for the nascent insect protein industry.
Using insects in staple foods like rice and noodles is a new direction for Bugeater, which launched in January 2015. Taking its name from the pre-Cornhuskers, 1890s Nebraska football team, the company started out with a focus on a protein shake product called Jump.
It sells the cricket-based shake powder online and also distributed samples through a 2015 partnership with Lincoln vitamin and supplement seller Bulu Box. Recently, it secured distribution through Hy-Vee supermarkets and said Jump is now available at some of the Iowa retailer's stores.
But last fall, it got a big boost with a government small-business grant to pursue a different path.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Bugeater $100,000 to find new ways to turn insects into safe, healthful staple food products that taste good. If things go well in this first phase, during which it's testing a rice-shaped pasta along with ramen and macaroni noodles, Bugeater hopes to secure a phase-two grant worth an additional $600,000. The money would cover the cost of developing and manufacturing a commercial-ready product.
In test space at UNL's Food Innovation Center, Sturek and Kopf try different formulations of cricket powder in their pasta dough. They try different cooking oils, and rice and wheat flour. The result is something that looks and tastes much like whole-grain pasta — with a bit of nutty flavor.
"You might just think that this is a whole-grain noodle, and not that you're looking at insect particles," Kopf said.
They'll set up taste-test trials this spring, and send their products to chefs for feedback.
Why bugs? Bugeater and its competitors say their product is more sustainable than other animal proteins.
While it says more research is needed, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said raising insects produces fewer greenhouse gases and takes less water and space. Insects efficiently convert feed to protein and can be a key part of the answer to the question of how to feed the world's growing population, the organization said.
Robert Nathan Allen, a member of the board of the North American Edible Insect Coalition says insects could also be used to feed livestock. And for farmers facing low commodity prices, an insect farming operation could be a profitable addition to a traditional farm, he said.
Allen said the industry's primary goal is public education about eating insects. He envisions a campaign along the lines of the dairy industry's "Got Milk?" promotion, although expensive advertising is out of reach.
But he said the number of farms raising insects for human consumption is growing, with about a dozen today. Also growing is the number of commercial food products available online and on grocery shelves. It's not just novelty scorpion lollipops anymore. Consumers can snack on Chirps, chips made with cricket flour, or Exo protein bars, which advertise: "Clean animal protein. None of the concerns."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no special rules for edible insects, a spokesman told industry publication Food Navigator-USA last year. The FDA said insects sold for food must be raised specially for human consumption and must be free from pathogens, and must be packaged and transported in compliance with good food-handling practices.
Bugeater Foods said it sends both its cricket powder ingredient and its final product to an independent lab to be tested for pathogens.
There is "not a chance" that eating insects will become mainstream in the United States, but there appears to be market niches.
"If Americans don't want to eat it, that's fine. There are billions of other people around the world who are going to eat it," he said. And U.S. companies may want a piece of the market.