Aiming for a More Sustainable Diet? Seek Food Co-Founder Robyn Shapiro Shares the Benefits of Crunching on Crickets
Published July 21, 2022
When we think about eating well, health questions along the lines of calorie count, fat content, and protein percentage usually come to mind. But in this day and age – one that is dismally marked by some serious environmental concerns – a well-balanced diet is as much about mastering your plate's nutrient breakdown as it is about knowing the impact your plate has on the earth. Which is exactly why pro-sustainability advocates (okay, seriously though, why is this still an isolated group and not like everybody on the planet), in an effort to make a dent in the human diet-driven depletion of many a natural resource, are strongly advocating for people to trade in their filet mignons and chicken breasts for some good ol' bugs. Now, before you, dare we say it, bug out at the prospect of turning to creepy crawlies for your daily protein intake, here's the deal: insects like crickets actually offer kind of a lot more protein than some of the more traditional animal sources out there, and they do it while wreaking a fraction of the havoc – as in, barely any havoc, really – on the earth and its resources. And with the global food crisis continuing to escalate, more and more people are taking notice and urging a switch to more sustainable food sources. Just last year, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi contended that by 2026, insects would be the go-to snack food, and expressed a strong belief that insects like crickets could be the next hot ticket when used in foods like potato chips as part of a move to an overall more sustainable diet. To learn a bit more on the topic, we chatted with Robyn Shapiro, the co-founder of cricket-based, all-natural snack brand Seek. Shapiro, whose entrepreneurial approach to food started at a young age (she was freezing up fruit and selling it in Boston's Harvard Square when she was just 15), decided to venture into the business of entomophagy – i.e. eating insects – as a way of curbing the unsustainable dependence that all too many people have on meat. Here, she sheds a little light on just why crickets are the food of the future, and why education is at the heart of turning people on to the not-so-familiar food source. That, and kids. Take a look.
So, for starters, why crickets? What makes crickets so much more sustainable over, say, cows?
I mean, it's a lot of things, really. In terms of feed, land, and water, crickets require significantly less input than the livestock that we see. If you combined all of those things, crickets are about 25 percent more efficient than livestock. On the feed side, insects are converting feed to protein about 12 times more efficiently than cattle. And I go to cattle because they are the least efficient livestock out there, but even looking at chicken, which are kind of the most reasonable from a sustainability standpoint in terms of traditional meat sources, crickets are still twice as efficient. So if you need X amount of feed to get crickets to a certain weight and protein, it takes twice as much for chicken and 12 times as much for cattle.
What about on the land and water side?
Cattle use about 11 times the land needed to raise crickets, and about 15 times the water. I mean, when you look at cattle, its really just so disruptive to our lands. We’re using about 70 percent of the farmland in the U.S. for livestock, both to roam and feed. About 80 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is for livestock, and the way that this soy is grown is really just destroying our land. So all of that is just exhausting the earth. Crickets, alternatively, are farmed indoors. So they could be farmed anywhere without depleting the land, and they can really be scaled up without affecting the quality while providing enough product to feed growing populations.
That's pretty incredible. So cricket farming is really capable of making a huge dent when it comes to sustainability.
Right, it’s a great way to build the local economy while having a secure and sustainable local food source that can be incorporated into products seamlessly. There’s just so much potential to where it could go. Right now, crickets are farmed in select areas and we purchase our crickets domestically from Texas. But eventually, I see a day where there are cricket farms in every metropolitan area.
Crickets boast quite a few health benefits, too, correct?
Absolutely. The big one, of course, is the protein. That’s what crickets are most well-known for, and I think they’re actually the densest protein source on earth. Each individual cricket is about 80 percent protein. They’re also packed with calcium, iron, omega-3 fats, and, unlike other alternative proteins on the rise, they’re a complete protein. Most of the complete proteins out there are animal products, save for a few exceptions like soy. But when you go into things like pea protein or something like that, you’re not really getting those nine essential amino acids that something like crickets can give you.
Okay, so the burning question: can we talk about taste?
On their own, cricket powder and cricket flour tend to have a bit of an earthy, nutty flavor. It's actually pretty mild. It's funny because a lot of times, when people try our product, they say, “Wow, I can’t taste the cricket!” And it’s just like, “Okay, but do you actually know what crickets even taste like?” To which people are always like, “Well, no, I guess not. But this tastes like coconut cashew.” And it really does, and that’s by design.
Speaking of coconut cashew, let's talk about the flavors. How did you come up with your flavor ideas for Seek? I can see that other than crickets, you're really working with a lot of mainstream ingredients that people are used to seeing in their snacks, right?
Yeah, we’re really trying to work with the great, tried-and-true flavor combinations out there: Coconut Cashew, Cinnamon Almond Crunch. Everything other than the cricket flour is really meant to just be familiar, rock solid combinations. And because of the naturally nutty cricket flavor, it was a no-brainer for us to add nuts to compliment it. We do have one flavor– Honey & Seed – that is a nut-free variety, and it is important for us to have that in a lineup because some of our biggest fans are kids and we’ve been asked to do in-school workshops, and nuts are on a no-go list in a lot of schools because of allergies. But seeds have that earthy flavor as well and really pair well.
Finding ways to making crickets feel familiar seems like an important part of introducing it to people who are a little weary about using it, right?
Definitely. We want this to be a familiar eating experience because we want to ease people into the idea of eating insects and receiving those health benefits without bombarding them with a cricket in its original form, or any unfamiliar taste. About 90 percent of our customers are trying cricket for the first time, so we want people to have this great first time experience.
What are some other things that you think help ease people into this?
Having in-person experiences with people is key. There is a disconnect between the awareness that’s been built, largely due to media attention, and the products on the market and retailers carrying those products. Going to events and doing demos are great ways to get out there and really introduce this to people in a way that feels comfortable to them. I definitely don’t expect or want anybody to blindly follow this, but instead to have a dialogue about it and understand why this is important.
You kind of mentioned this, but I know you guys at Seek also place a lot of emphasis on working with kids and schools to educate younger people on the benefits of entomophagy. Why do you think that's so important?
I think there’s this really interesting sustainability and science lesson here for youth. And most kids are really open-minded, so while some might question this at first, they change their minds really quickly and get intrigued when they see their friends trying it. And I think kids are actually really interested in the sustainability movement and these principles. Schools nowadays have the environmental club, the climate change club, the sustainability committees, etc., all of which is amazing. I think it’s really the younger generation that has that power to move the needle here and spark a positive change.