On the top floor of a Hyde Park apartment building, four University of Chicago students sat together on a couch, unfazed by the snacks that lay before them: a packet of Mexican spice seasoned mealworms, a block of candy embedded with farm ants and sugar cookies filled with cricket parts.
Not only were they they not bothered by the prospect of eating the bugs set before them, but they looked at them with excitement, envisioning a future when insects like these might become a staple of American food consumption. For them, biting into cricket parts is not a novelty or some kind of gimmick but something they hope will, in coming decades, become universally accepted.
Together, the four students compose a start-up called "Entom Foods," ("entom" as it's used in entomology, the study of insects), and for them, insect meat represents an economical, ecological food source.
"What is unique about our group is that we are seriously trying," team member Ben Yu, 19, said "to inform a sociological perspective and inform a cultural perspective...We just want to isolate the stigma that is there with insects and erase it."
Yu said this while lounging at the South Side apartment of his Entom teammate, Chelsey Rice-Davis, 20, on a late September Friday, shortly after biting into a cricket cookie.
It was Rice-Davis who created those cookies by freezing more than a two dozen crickets, roasting them, placing them in a plastic bag, flattening them out with a rolling pin and mixing them into sugar cookie dough. Parts of the crickets were still visible when the cookies came out of the oven, but they enhanced the treats, giving them a crunchier texture and what Rice-Davis described as a "slight nuttiness".
Her teammate, Matthew Krisiloff, had ordered the crickets for about $6 from Fluker's Cricket Farm in Louisiana, where the crickets, along with other insects like grasshoppers and mealworms, are raised for animal feed.
Krisiloff, 19, a bug aficionado, initiated the idea for the group, which he formed last year to participate in the University of Chicago's CCI Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition. Krisiloff went on to recruit current teammates Rice-Davis, Yu and third-year student Tommy Wu, 21, who all lived in the University's Thompson House with him, as well as Irvin Ho, who participated in the initial portion of the contest.
Rice-Davis said her first reaction to Krisiloff's idea was "probably typical of how anyone would react: I thought he was completely crazy. Previously, he asked me to try insects that he ordered through these novelty snack companies, and I thought he was sort of a weird kid. I didn't really get it. But ... if people are doing something interesting and they have faith in it, in general, I like to work with smart creative people who see something even though I might think it was strange.
"I think it's funny because we didn't necessarily believe in it when it started. We went through various stages of proposals and thought, 'Oh, gosh, people are going to read it and think that we're crazy.'"
Krisiloff, though, had been inspired to form the group from reading news articles about how livestock production could become globally unsustainable by the middle of this century.
"I was really intrigued about it because it really is a problem that will happen in my lifetime," said Krisiloff, who adds that insects are less costly to procure and produce than livestock, leave a smaller ecological footprint and maintain relatively equal or higher quantities of protein and lower amounts of fat and cholesterol than more typical forms of meat.
Data from the University of Iowa's Entomology Department shows that grasshoppers have 20.6 grams of protein per 100 grams, which is not far off from the 27.4 grams contained in lean ground beef. Grasshoppers, however, contain just half the fat content, at 6.1 grams per 100 grams of 90/10 lean ground beef.
With the nutritional value of insects established, Entom Foods' biggest task was to destigmatize the thought of eating bugs, as well as to make them palatable.
Rice-Davis, who likes to bake, became the group chef, as well as someone who reviewed written proposals (she's an English major) and who plowed into the sociological aspect of eating bugs.
"What we really wanted was [for the insects to] taste good," she said. "Once we knew that the end product can be something delicious, we can always fall back on it.
During the competition, the group argued that that for the 1 gram of beef produced per 10 grams of feed, 9 grams of insect meat could be made. Insects, in addition, take up much less space than cattle and therefore generate fewer greenhouse gases. The students also had the judges taste their grasshopper cookies, which they believe won them the competition. As a prize, Entom Foods was awarded $10,000 towards research and start-up funding, part of which Krisiloff used over the summer to do research at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, an epicenter for studying the use of insects for food.
Envisioned as a for-profit company, Entom Foods' next task is to continue to work with a Chicago-based chef or two in preparation for a product launch. Sometime between October and May, the group plans on hosting an insect buffet that will be open to the public.
The students envision grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms as part of the food selections but could incorporate meat from more idiosyncratic insects, like the Malaysian Jungle Nymph, which can measure six inches long.
Once people taste insect treats and find them to be flavorful, the students hope minds will open up, too, jelling with those of people in other countries who have been eating insects for centuries.
Wu, who grew up in China, said in his childhood, he sometimes saw people eat cicadas in restaurants as delicacies.
"We're not just a business, but we're contributing to solving a social problem by talking about it more," Wu said. "People are scared of what they don't know, and we want to get them more familiar with insects. We're not just about making money but about changing social values in a positive way."
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