How is Small Giants bringing edible insects to Western diets?

I first met Francesco Majno at a conference where he had a stand (back in the day when real conferences happened!). At the time, his brand of edible insect snacks was called Crické. These were some of the very first insect snacks that hit the UK market. They learnt a lot from the first year of production and have now rebranded as Small Giants. I caught up with Francesco on how Small Giants had developed and the role of edible insects in a sustainable Western diet.

SD: Why and how did you start?

FM: I have been friends with Edoardo for a long time. At the time we were learning about edible insects. We were discussing why we don’t eat them ourselves when they are a normal part of people’s diets elsewhere, most notably in East Asia. We started to think about how best to introduce them to Western diets. We came up with the idea of using insect flour to make crackers as high protein snacks. Our first Crické product launched in March 2019 to test the readiness of the market. We then took all the learnings from that first product and fed it into the development of our new brand Small Giants, which launched this November.

SD: I know that sustainability is a core part of your mission in introducing insects to Western diets. Can you explain why insects are a sustainable food source?

FM: It’s very simple really. We have a growing population to feed, but our food system is broken. Protein, in particular, is a problem. We are currently relying on unsustainable protein sources. One of the most promising sustainable sources of protein is insects. They are a natural source of protein, but they require a fraction of the resources in terms of water, land, feed and energy, for the same amount of protein. The greenhouse gas emissions of insect farming are much lower than those of typical livestock farming. You can also farm insects vertically, which you can’t do with cows or pigs. It’s even possible for people to farm insects in their own urban homes. Livin Farms and Beobia are two examples of micro-farming projects.

SD: Are there any examples of insects escaping farms and, if so, has that caused problems?

FM: I don’t know of any examples so far. Most insect farming is done in East Asia, places like Thailand, where the species most commonly farmed is the cricket and that is a species naturally in the environment anyway, so I would have thought the impact of an escape would be limited. Insect farming could even be used to build up the insect population in areas in need of regeneration. Insect farms give all the right conditions for insects to farm, so the population builds up fast.

SD: Where do you get your insects from?

FM: There are two different approaches to insect farming. In countries which traditionally eat insects the farms are normally smaller, family-owned operations. In the West new insect farms are being established on a larger-scale. These are high-tech automated operations.

We decided to source our cricket powder from a British importer, who works with family-owned farms in Thailand, where they also process the crickets into powder. We buy the powder and mix flavours in the Netherlands.

Small Giants edible insect crackers
Small Giants edible insect crackers

We think it’s better to farm insects in subtropical countries because the crickets are living in the climate best suited to them so there is no need to heat the farm. In Thailand there are more than 10,000 insect farmers. It’s a tradition for them that has been going on for years.

The specific species they farm is the House Cricket (acheta domesticus). It’s 2-3cm long with a life span of 6 weeks.

The short life span means that you are killing them at the end of their normal life span anyway. As they are cold-blooded, it is relatively straight forward to kill them by simply lowering the temperature. After that the insects are boiled, dried and milled into a powder.

SD: Do you envisage producing other products beyond crackers to make them a more central part of our diets – perhaps cricket burgers?

FM: I don’t think cricket burgers are for us. We want to stay focused on snacks, but we are certainly not limited to crackers. We have already developed other snacks. The next one will be closer to crisps or tortilla chips. We are also working on a gluten-free product.

SD: Where have you been seeing the most interest so far?

FM: We have found the best places are where you see a concentration of curious people, for example the Maker Fair in Rome. The Makers’ Network is a huge and their main event is a 4 day long exhibition of innovation, which naturally attracts curious minds. Borough Market in London is also a good spot. We had a temporary stall there for a few days and it was a big success. People from all around the world pass through the market and are willing to try new things and learn about them. It’s a very different shopping experience to in the supermarket where people are short of time. We also sell very well at the Eden Project, where many of their visitors are environmentally conscious.

SD: How do people eat insects elsewhere in the world?

FM: There are around 2000 species of insects eaten around the world. Crickets, grasshoppers, locusts, mealworms and bamboo worms are among the most popular. In the West the two main edible insects are crickets and mealworms. We decided to go for crickets because of its high nutritional value. They are up to 75% protein content in dry weight, plus they are high in several minerals and vitamins. The taste is also more appealing to Western palates. The taste does vary slightly depending on the feed, processing and the species, but most people think of crickets as having a mild, nutty, slightly herbaceous flavour. Crickets are one of the most frequently farmed insects so they are easy to source. Other insects are often harvested from the wild.

There is lots we can learn from traditional cuisines around the world that make use of insects. It should be part of our normal diet, not just as an exotic food. Chapulines (grasshoppers) are commonly eaten in Mexico as pan-fried snacks mixed with a few spices, salt and pepper. They do use them in cooking too, but as a visitor it’s easier to try them as a snack.

As an experiment we organised dinners cooking insects with chefs. One of them was at Enoteca Pomaio on Brick Lane and involved a tasting menu created by Marco Parrinello.

Edible insect dinner at Enoteca Pomaio

SD: How does the nutrition of your edible insects compare to meat?

FM: Crickets contain the same quality of protein with all the essential amino acids, but whereas in meat and fish the protein content is usually around 16-25%, cricket powder is 70-75%. Cricket powder, similar to beef, is also high in vitamin B12, which is important for the immune system and vegan and vegetarian diets tend to lack this. Typically, we find that vegetarians are open to trying edible insects, but vegans aren’t. It really depends on their reasons. If they have chosen their diet for environmental reasons, they are normally open to trying them.

SD: What do you tend to eat Small Giants crackers with?

FM: I usually have them as they are. They’re very tasty. Alternatively you can dip them in guacamole, hummus, olive pate, or any other plant-based pate.  You can find all the different flavours of edible insects we produce as snacks on our website.

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