PHOTOS BY ADAM DETOUR
During the summer before her senior year, Harvard student Laura D’Asaro was studying abroad in Tanzania. On a dirt road, she came upon a woman selling fried caterpillars out of a small wooden cart. The smiling saleswoman, wearing brightly patterned cloth and her hair in braids, was used to selling caterpillars by the pound. D’Asaro, an on-and-off vegetarian for her entire life, asked for just one. She didn’t think she would ever get the chance to eat a caterpillar again.
Trying not to think about it too much, she put the small brown caterpillar in her mouth and bit down. “My first thought was, ‘This tastes like lobster,’” says D’Asaro. “Which actually makes sense, because insects and crustaceans are both arthropods. They’re closely related.”
Three years after eating her first insect, D’Asaro and her fellow Harvard graduates Rose Wang and Meryl Natow have launched Six Foods, because “six legs are better than one.”
The startup’s first product is Chirps Chips, made with beans, corn, peas, chia seeds and grasshoppers. The company advocates the consumption of insects as healthy, environmentally friendly and—once you get past the Western aversion to eating insects—surprisingly delicious.
D ’Asaro might have left any interest in edible insects behind in Tanzania if she hadn’t found a 162-page United Nations report that recommends eating insects as a way to help with the food production problems caused by exponential population growth in the coming decades.
From an environmental standpoint, the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined, says D’Asaro. While it takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, it takes a single gallon to produce a pound of crickets. Furthermore, crickets can be humanely raised and killed since insects don’t have pain receptors. Because insects are cold-blooded, they naturally go to sleep when exposed to the cold. Harvesting crickets only requires putting them in the freezer.
The environmental and moral reasons for which she had been vegetarian did not apply to eating insects, D’Asaro concluded, and nutritionally, insects came out on top as well. For instance, crickets can be up to 70 percent protein when dried—higher protein than beef.
“When you look at the facts, it’s so obvious,” says D’Asaro. “It’s a question of, ‘Why aren’t we eating insects?’”
D ’Asaro emailed the UN report to Wang, her roommate at the time and co-founder of Six Foods. While in China, Wang had been dared to eat a fried scorpion, which she said tasted like shrimp. And so the students started ordering insects to their dorm room, playing chef and trying to feed the results to their friends. This led to the founding of Six Foods.
The women met resistance early on. While the UN report estimates that at least 2 billion people in the world eat insects as a traditional part of their diet, Western culture is not amenable to the idea. A potential investor told them it was the worst idea he had ever heard in his 10 years of investing in businesses.
But during a workshop for the Harvard Innovation Lab, the women accidentally left their unlabeled tacos with ground-up mealworm in the wrong fridge—the community fridge. When the women returned, only five of the 50 tacos were left. “We had actually forgotten!” says D’Asaro, laughing. “It was the perfect accidental experiment.”
Still, even though people may like the taste of bugs, there was a psychological barrier to overcome. The feedback from the judges at the Innovation Lab showed that people were still averse to eating bugs no matter how good they tasted.
“I think when people think about insects, they think about Fear Factor and the tubs of ooey-gooey worms,” says D’Asaro. By milling the crickets into flour and baking the flour into normal-looking chips, Six Foods aims to get away from the Fear Factor image and introduce edible insects in a familiar form.
The startup’s proof-of-concept came in May 2014 when a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign raised $70,000, far exceeding their goal of $30,000.
Six Foods’ Chirps Chips debuted in Cambridge Naturals in April. The chips are currently available in three flavors: sea salt, aged cheddar, and hickory barbecue. They source their crickets from Big Cricket Farms, an urban cricket farm in Ohio, and manufacture the product in Brockton.
“Cricket flour right now is somewhere between $25 and $30 a pound, which of course is many times more expensive than regular flour,” says D’Asaro. “But if you compare it to other proteins, which is really what it is, it becomes more comparable.”
And while they are easing the Western market into the idea of edible insects with cricket flour in Chirps Chips, the Six Foods team wants to eventually see inchworm and mealworm burgers in mainstream restaurants.
“A waxworm is as different to a cricket as pork is to chicken,” says D’Asaro. “So it’s kinda like a whole undiscovered food group in the culinary world.”
Chirps Chips can be purchased at Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge or online at SixFoods.com.
NICOLE FLEMING is a metro correspondent for the Boston Globe and a columnist for WGBH's Craving Boston. She is also the author of The Girl Who Ate Boston food blog at TheGirlWhoAteBoston.com. Follow her on Twitter @ GirlEatsBoston.