Rose Wang was a Harvard student traveling abroad in China when she ate her first bug—a scorpion, in fact, which had been fried and skewered on a stick like a kebab. Wang’s fellow travel mates dared her to sample the crunchy critter. Much to her surprise, she found it to be quite delicious.
When Wang returned to the United States, she and her roommate Laura D’Asaro started cooking with crickets that they bought from a local pet shop. They were soon joined in their culinary experiments by another Harvard student, Meryl Natow, and the trio formed the start-up venture Six Foods (“Because six legs are better than four!”). The company is now manufacturing the first of what the women hope will be a long line of bug-based snacks: a chip made with cricket flour, aptly called Chirps.
Most Westerners will shudder at the prospect of eating an insect, but this mentality is far from pervasive across the globe. Around two billion people regularly eat bugs as part of their diet, and it’s hardly any wonder: many insects, crickets included, contain all nine essential amino acids and more magnesium than beef. Insect protein is also sustainable, especially in comparison to traditional meat sources. It takes one gallon of water to produce one pound of insect protein. Almost two thousand gallons of water, by contrast, are poured into every pound of beef that lands on your plate.
To shed light on the benefits—and challenges—of introducing Westerners to the practice of eating creepy crawlies, Women in the World spoke to Wang about the future of cricket cuisine.
Women in the World: You were pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology when you founded Six Foods. Were your studies in any way relevant to this new venture?
Rose Wang: I never, ever planned on doing anything related to what I’m doing now. It fell into my lap, and it was an awesome opportunity. I think that one thing I would say is that there are certain channels and structures that a lot of these schools push us into, and after turning away from that and finding this new path, I’m astounded by how much value you can create as an entrepreneur to society.
I had always really enjoyed running my own business. When I was at Harvard, I was studying psychology, and on the side I was running some student businesses, like a cleaners on campus and then a retail store. So I really loved the component of putting these two [elements] together: how people’s psychology dictates their behavior, especially when it comes to the choices they make in terms of what they buy.
WITW: Did you decide to make your chips with cricket protein because crickets have more nutritional value than other insects? Or did you just assume that you would have a hard time selling something like cockroach chips?
RW: We looked at it from a lot of different angles. The first one is that … of all the bugs in the world, I think Westerners have a very friendly view of crickets—like Jiminy Cricket. It’s something that is a lot less scary compared to a worm, or even cockroaches.
But then the second thing we were looking at is what is grown in the U.S. right now. To build up supply, that’s a whole different headache. We didn’t want to do that. Luckily, there is a pretty robust cricket farming industry already, [which has been] providing crickets for fish feeds and reptile feed. [Scaling] to human consumption was no problem at all, because crickets have a six-week life cycle. To build that up is not hard.
I think the third thing for us is that crickets are really nutritionally dense. Not all insects are so full of protein; some insects are more fatty. But crickets are 70 percent protein. That was also something that was really beneficial and attractive to us about crickets.
WITW: One of the concerns with traditional meat sources, beyond sustainability, is the inhumanity of factory farming. Is there a humane way to pulverize crickets into flour?
RW: [Crickets] are not a very sophisticated animal. They don’t have a central nervous system. We’re not even sure that they feel pain. But because they’re cold blooded, the way that they’re euthanized right now is that they’re just put to sleep … [The primary method involves] freezing them. Carbon dioxide euthanization is also really humane. That’s something that insect farms do as well.
WITW: So the crickets aren’t dumped into a giant blender while they’re still alive?
No, not at all.
WITW: How do you plan to surmount the cultural “ick factor” surrounding the consumption of bugs?
RW: We’re very aware of the fact that [eating insects] is not completely mainstream. Not 100 percent of Americans are going to eat insects. But … we know that 50 percent of millennials want to eat less meat, and so there has to be other ways. Often times, when we talk to our customers, the response we’re getting is not, “I wouldn’t eat [Chirp chips], but maybe someone else will.” It’s more like, “Oh, I’d eat it. I don’t know if someone else will.” But if everybody’s saying that, there are definitely a lot of people [willing to eat] it.
RW: First of all, we’re making different foods. The way we look at it is—especially because we’re so young as an industry—[that] every new company in this space is helping us educate. That’s a positive thing. We’re still so early that I don’t know that we see each other as directly competitive. Somebody who is going to eat an Exo bar will probably want to try a Chirp as well. But as we grow, I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how we play in this space, and how we differ.
WITW: Do you have plans to branch out into other products and other insect types?
RW: Absolutely. That’s why our chips are called Chirps, but our company is called Six Foods. The plan is to bring out different foods in the future. We’ve always said that our vision is that we want to have a meat replacement. That [would be] real change: [getting] people to eat less meat … If we can provide them with an alternative that’s also delicious, then that’s really how we can make a difference in the world.
WITW: Does this mean you hope to produce the equivalent of a veggie burger—something that would look like meat on your plate?
RW: Yeah, that could be a possibility. That’s what’s really interesting about insect protein: it’s an animal protein. Most other people out there who are working on meat replacement, they’re working with plant proteins. It’s much harder for them to manipulate, to mimic the texture and the taste [of meat]. [We’re working with] an animal protein, so it’s actually a lot easier.
WITW: I understand that you’re a big fan of House of Cards. Of all the show’s characters, which one do you think would be most likely to eat a toasty cricket?
Maybe Zoe [Barnes]. Zoe was always one to get down to the facts. I think that’s kind of the person who is the biggest fan of eating insects—the people who, once [they] understand the reasons behind it, know that there’s no reason not to [eat insects]. In fact, they feel like it’s then part of their responsibility to tell everyone else.
This interview has been edited and condensed.