Czechs seek to overcome ‘yuck’ factor with bug food business

Photo: SENS Foods

For about one third of the world’s population, bugs are a common part of their diet, but most Europeans still find the thought of eating insects revolting. A couple of Czech businessmen, Radek Hušek and Daniel Vach, of SENS Foods, are trying to change that by producing protein and energy bars containing crickets from their farm in Thailand.

Protein bar made with cricket flour, photo: SENS Foods
I discussed the benefits of insect eating with one of the company’s co-founders, Radek Hušek, and I asked him how he got involved in the insect breeding business.

“In 2013 there was a book published by the United Nations which received quite a lot of attention in the media. My colleague Daniel read it and we got really hooked up on the idea.

“We saw crickets as really nutritious alternative to our current proteins, but we have never seen in anywhere in shops. So this is what we wanted to change.”

What are the benefits of insect eating?

“We see it in three groups. The first one is the nutritious group. Simply put, it’s the same quality protein source as meat. It’s the same as beef, chicken or fish. There are more micro-nutrients such as vitamin B, iron and Calcium.

“Secondly, the most important group of benefits we see is the sustainability. For the same amount of protein compared to beef, we need twelve times less feed, much less land and almost no water. And it produces 100 times less greenhouse gases. So this is the main reason why we are in the company.

And the third reason is moral, I would say, because there is a big difference in killing a pig and killing a cricket.”

One of the obvious problems for westerners when it comes to insect eating is what you call ‘the yuck’ factor. You actually claim that your ultimate goal is to overcome this cultural fear of insects. How do you want to do that?

“This is what we were thinking about since we started the company. Everything we did, from the name of our products, to flavours and packaging was designed so that people could easily overcome this ‘yuck factor’.

“We really want to communicate the benefits. We want to tackle the rational, without setting of the yucky feeling. So for example we never talk about whole insects.

“We see crickets as really nutritious alternative to our current proteins.”

“This is why we say that our protein bars contain cricket flour, not crickets. Visually, when you talk about cricket flour, you see fine tasteless powder. And flour is even better than powder because it’s food that we know.

“I think we have succeeded, because we have just entered a mainstream supermarket and the products are selling. Everything can be improved but I think that the first step was successful.”

When you decided to start a business with insect food, have you immediately thought of establishing your own farm?

“We started as a food brand. We wanted to develop a product portfolio and supply people with alternatives to food they know. We have tried to improve the common foods by making them healthier and more sustainable.

“However, just when we started selling, we quickly realised that if for example a big chain of stores would like to list our products, cricket flour would be a constraint to scaling up.

“So the farm was step number two. It took us some time to find a supplier of quality and safe cricket flour. He just wanted to take his business on a much larger scale, so we partnered up with him and we found an investor.

“We try to make cricket flour affordable to the main street food market by automation, new technologies and improved feed formula. This is really the second biggest cricket flour has besides the yuck factor.”

Was it difficult to persuade European investors to finance a cricket farm in Thailand?

Radek Hušek, photo: archive of Radek Hušek
“That was quite a pickle, I have to say. In the end we didn’t receive the investment from our investment fund. So for SENS, we have a different Prague-based investor called UP21. For our cricket farm we have a private business angel, a true innovator. It is true the farm is quite far, so it was quite a challenge.”

I read somewhere that that one of your goals is to become the largest cricket farm in the world by the end of this year. How far are you in reaching this goal?

“The main challenge we have there is that we need to scale our cricket colonies. So we don’t want to sell much at the moment, because we want to grow them.

“Our plan in September is to reach the final capacity, which should be 3.5 tonnes of cricket flour per month. That is quite a lot of crickets. We have just finished the first round of testing and we have plans to sell about half a tonne next month. But our main goal really is to scale the colonies.”

So how many crickets are we actually talking about?

“It’s quite a scary number, actually. I am not sure it is appropriate to say this. But in one gram of cricket flour there are 11 crickets. And the annual output of our farm is 42 tonnes. So that times 11 is really huge number.”

Why have you chosen to locate your farm in Thailand of all places? Is it the ideal place for raising crickets?

“It definitely is from the climatic point of view. Crickets prefer temperatures of around 25 degrees Celsius. They also like humid environment. So the weather is one thing.

“We also started to build our farm on the knowledge of local Thai farmers. There are many industrial farms in Thailand that have cropped up around the country since 1990s. So we started with their breed, with their knowledge and we are trying to improve that.”

Would you say the demand for edible bugs has been growing in Europe?

“Everything we do, from the name of our products, to flavours and packaging is designed so that people can easily overcome the ‘yuck factor’.”

“I would say yes. There are many researches that expect this edible insect market to grow to 1.5 billion dollars by 2021. So that is quite a significant growth.

“There are actually many places in Europe where insect have been recently introduced. So for example in Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, all these countries have insects in their supermarkets. From what I have heard so far, the numbers of sales are quite good.

“So I think we can expect more and more supermarkets and more and more new products to appear. However, the biggest growth in demand will be after the cricket flour is produce at lower costs. This is when we really expect cricket flour to fire up.”

Going back to your products, you started with protein bars containing cricket flour. Why have you chosen this product in particular?

“We got inspired by American companies. We focus on a segment of customers – sportsmen, who are interested in their daily protein intake. A lot of these people are actually interested as well in the quality of the protein. And cricket protein really has an indisputable value.”

You recently made headlines with introducing cricket flour bread to one of the Czech Republic’s supermarket chains. What kind of feedback have you got so far? How is it selling so far?

“Bread in the Czech Republic really is something like a national food. I think it received a great feedback also because of its controversy. This is something Czechs love and we added cricket flour into the product. Some might regard it as blasphemy but it really is the best example of what one can be done with cricket flour.

“We have already received a new order from the supermarket, so I would say it is selling quite well. We have seen higher interest in bigger cities, like Prague and Brno.”

How much cricket flour does it actually contain?

“If we focus on the solid part, we added about 20 percent of crickets, which is almost 200 crickets in one loaf. However, it still hasn’t changed the flavour of the bread. Cricket flour is almost tasteless, so if you add some good ingredients, it doesn’t spoil the flavour. It gave the bread a slightly brownish colour, but people really couldn’t tell the difference.

Photo: SENS Foods
“I think it’s a good sign that we can really focus on our vision and improve foods we know instead of changing dietary habits. We are talking about the food we know improved with super-nutritious protein.”

What are your plans into the future? Have you already got some new products in mind?

“Definitely. We would really like to develop a portfolio of next-generation products. But we have been selling our protein bars for less than a year, so we first want to focus on building a distribution there.

"Once we have the distribution we can develop new products. It might be anything from protein shakes to protein pancakes or even our own SENS brand that we will sell through our own distribution.”