At Linger restaurant in Denver, a chef tosses black ants with white rice and tops a wok-fried heap of vegetables with diced crickets and grasshoppers.
The result — a dish called Sweet and Sour Crickets — stands out on the restaurant's menu of crepes, wraps, duck bao buns and pork belly.
There's an entire industry that wants to see more dishes like this. The burgeoning edible insect industry churns out protein bars, pastas and chips made from insects — most notably crickets.
Eating insects has both ecological and health benefits. Raising insects produces fewer greenhouse gas and uses less water and space than beef, chicken and pork. Bugs are also good sources of protein, fiber and fatty acids.
It's on these merits insects gained legitimacy and found themselves on 2019 food trends lists, part of a broader movement toward healthy and eco-conscious foods.
Innova Market Insights, which studies food trends using data on new products, placed insect protein among the various alternatives to meat expected to entice in the new year. Benchmark, a global resort and conference center management group, pegged insects as one of its trends after consulting with chefs at its hotel restaurants.
Insects join other forms of protein making a run at meat, including lentils and pea and rice protein, said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Marketing Insights. But unlike the others, insects face a bigger question: Will Americans actually eat it?
"Right now, it still has a scary factor," said Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at CCD Innovation, which tracks food trends. "There's such a high ick factor when it comes to insects, but I think other cultures and younger people will be more open to it."
Indeed, millennial-driven start-ups, family farms and investors have pounced on the opportunity to make food many preach has world-saving potential.
The North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA) cites Research and Markets, a company that provides industry forecasts, which estimates the industry will reach $1.2 billion in market worth by 2023.
What makes an 'it' food?
The insect hype can be traced to just a few years ago. Culinary trends start a variety of ways, often with inventive chefs experimenting with flavors, Nielsen said.
But that's not all that affects food popularity. Take the avocado, which found life after the U.S. lifted trade restrictions from Mexico in the 1990s, enabling the toast-adorning, salad-staple ubiquity it enjoys today.
For insects, you could point to a report published by the United Nations in 2013.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization's "Edible insects" report is often cited within the industry as evidence of insects' potential for the planet and human health. With the world's population growing, increased food demand is expected to require more production, which could lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and environmental degradation, the report reads. Livestock accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land use as global demand for livestock products are expected to double from 2000 to 2050.
Raising insects, however, requires less water, food and space while emitting fewer greenhouse gases. For example, 1 kilogram of animal weight requires 10 kg of feed for beef, 5 kg for pork and 2.5 kg for chicken, while crickets require just 1.7 kg.
Mealworms, crickets and locusts produce just a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases compared to producing beef and pork. To create the same amount of protein, mealworms, for instance, require a tenth of the land of beef and about half the space to produce pork and chicken. Insects are also good sources of protein, fat, fiber and fatty acids, the report said.
After reading the 2013 report, Jarrod Goldin teamed with his two brothers, who had been growing insects as pet food. Together, they started Entomo Farms in Ontario, Canada. They were further encouraged when Chapul, a company that makes cricket protein bars, appeared on the television show Shark Tank and drew an investment from billionaire Mark Cuban in 2014.
Since then, Entomo has raised millions of dollars in investments, including a minority stake from Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian meat producer. Goldin estimates Entomo is now the largest cricket wholesaler in the world, producing thousands of pounds of crickets per month for clients all over the world.
Goldin hopes people reframe their view of "icky" food.
"My argument is icky food is food that makes you obese, diabetic, have heart disease and all kinds of other major health impacts," he said.
Goldin said crickets are cleaner than chickens and cows, carrying fewer diseases and infections.
At Entomo, crickets are raised from egg and are grown to maturity in six weeks in large bins. The crickets are killed — either using gas or ice — just days before the end of their lifespan, Goldin said. The crickets are then rinsed in boiling water, baked and ground into a powder. Others are seasoned as snacks.
Roughly 60 percent of the business is cricket powder, a gray, dry substance that can be added to breads, soups and other baked goods. It's the basis of many cricket products on the market, including Chapul's cricket bars and a line of chips under the brand Chirps.
Cricket powder, Goldin said, is "100 percent" driving the industry with its ability to be put into a variety of foods while lacking the potentially unappetizing visible legs and antennas.
"Cricket powder is the best way to introduce this," said Christine Couvelier, a chef and food industry consultant. "You can't taste it. Yet the health benefits you're getting for putting that cricket powder in there is remarkable." Two tablespoons contains seven grams of protein.
'The millennials, they get it'
Bugeater, a start-up in Lincoln, Nebraska, uses Entomo crickets and cricket powder to make pastas, ramen noodles and rice thanks in part to a $100,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture in 2016.
Co-founder and CEO Kelly Sturek, 25, dropped out of college at the University of Nebraska his senior year to pursue Bugeater with two classmates. It was initially funded through a local business accelerator program and started selling a cricket-based protein shake called Jump.
"Something needed to change in the food industry," Sturek said. "There needed to be better sources of protein for people, more sustainable sources of protein, and crickets filled in all the boxes."
Cheryl Preyer, secretary of the board of NACIA, said the industry attracts millennials and their drive for purposeful work. It's also the younger crowd who may lead the way in eating insects.
Williams at Innova Market Insights, claims younger generations will likely be more open-minded about eating crickets and grasshoppers than their parents.
"The millennials, they get it," he said. "We can't have beef anymore. It's too expensive. Cheap beef is too expensive, for our health and for the environment."
It was his son asking, "Why don't we eat bugs?" that inspired Bill Broadbent and his sister to start their company Entosense, based in Lewiston, Maine, in 2015. It's one of 30 companies in the U.S. growing insects as human food or animal feed. They raise their own crickets but also buy from companies like Entomo.
Broadbent claims the business has grown every year, and he hopes to top $2 million in sales in 2019. Buyers include natural food and novelty shops as well as Mexican restaurants, which use a type of grasshopper, or chapulines, in certain dishes.
Innova data show products with insect ingredients saw 5 percent average annual growth from 2013 to 2017, which is less than larger increases in pea protein (36 percent) and black bean protein (14 percent).
Hurdles go beyond the 'ick' factor
Aly Moore holds insect-eating events, like bug and wine pairings. She's considered all the various flavor arcs and tastes of each bug: Crickets and meal worms are nutty and earthy; waterbugs, locusts and scorpions take on a seafood-like flavor; and grubs harness a meaty and savory taste.
Insects appeal to gluten-free and paleo eaters, she said. The prebiotics and fibers are good for the elderly.
But the "ick factor" is very real, she said. She's had grown adults cry out of fear, some people reject them on patriotic grounds while kids react the most positively, out of curiosity.
"Our end goal, realistically, is not to change the eating habits of all of America, but to instead educate the public and investors enough so that we can get some serious venture funding into technologies that help us use bugs either as additives or to better farm them in places that already accept them so that we can have a more sustainably global food source, not necessarily just American," she said.
NACIA says at least $25 million in publicly disclosed private investment has been made in the insect protein industry.
The Department of Agriculture dedicated $1.45 million for six small business innovation research grants for insect protein projects since 2014, including $100,000 to Bugeater.
However, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., filed a bill in early December calling for Congress to do away with any insect food subsidies along with other spending they deemed wasteful.
“With $1 trillion being added to the national debt every year, it especially bugs taxpayers that all they hear from Washington about cutting waste is crickets," Flake said in a statement.
The industry sees other opportunities in dog and cat food and animal feed. Yet, there are hurdles to clear, including supply and price. A pound of cricket powder from Entomo costs $37.50.
"They're still somewhat expensive because we haven't reached economies of scale yet in terms of producing them," said Preyer of NACIA.
Goldin said the industry simply isn't big enough to be mainstream — at least not yet. Entomo is producing at capacity and sold all of its crickets in 2018.
"There just isn't the inventory to go around," Goldin said. Though his product is in grocery stores and drug stores across Canada, "if Whole Foods or Walgreens called tomorrow and said, 'Great, we want 10 pounds per store,' we don't have it."
Goldin said the good news is companies like Entomo can ramp up production in three to six months due to the crickets' six-week lifecycle.
There's also the unknown of government regulation. Williams and food industry analyst Phil Lempert argue regulatory changes could hamper or help the industry. Lempert suggests this may be holding back investment.
To Sturek, who plans on launching more products in 2019, the industry's success will come down to one thing.
"It's all about taste," he said. "In food, you can say whatever you want about marketing. 'Hey, it's good for the environment. It's good for you.' Really, what it comes down to is taste."