Cricket pasta and powder: New Wollongong food brand Hoppa bringing edible bugs to our plates

Mealworms on falafel. made by Grilo Protein with Goterra mealworms.
Mealworms on falafel. made by Grilo Protein with Goterra mealworms.

Most of us would prefer to hear the crunch of a bug underfoot than in our mouths. Yet a growing number of small businesses are bringing creepy crawlies to our dinner plates.

One of them is Hoppa, a start-up based in Wollongong named after crickets, the main ingredient in its pastas and powders.

Founder Channy Sandhu was travelling through Thailand in 2017 when he came across the concept of edible insects.

"I saw crickets being sold on the side of the road so I thought I'll give them a try and yeah, I was quite surprised by how good they were in terms of taste," he explains.

"I began to look into the nutritional benefits and why insects were so popular in that part of that world.

Olympia Yarger, founder of the Insect Protein Association of Australia.

Olympia Yarger, founder of the Insect Protein Association of Australia.

"The other thing playing out in my mind was a lot of the news that was negative about meat and farming.

"Then I just had a lightbulb kind of thing and wondered why it's not being used in the West."

Sandhu spent more than $50,000 establishing partnerships with cricket farmers in Vietnam and Thailand before launching in May this year.

He developed four products, which all are made from ground crickets: fusilli pasta, penne pasta, baking powder and protein powder.

Such is their popularity, Sandhu projects a $75,000 turnover when Hoppa reaches its first year of business in May and hopes this will double in its second year.

Although Australia's edible insect industry is in its infancy, it has exploded in the past 12 months. There are now more than 50 insect farmers across Australia - more than double what it was a year ago, according to Olympia Yarger, founding director of the Insect Protein Association of Australia.

"It's definitely getting some good traction and we're seeing some good market penetration, but while we've certainly got a lot of interest in the sector, what's lacking is the production capability to meet that demand," Yarger says.

"It's just that we haven't been farming insects for very long and we're trying to catch up. We look to the Asian nations who have been farming insects for a very long time and have a very established production capability."

Paula Pownall from Perths Grubs Up.

Paula Pownall from Perths Grubs Up.

Paula Pownall from Perth's Grubs Up has successfully refined her production technique since launching her edible crickets and mealworms business in 2016.

"Not many people share their intellectual property so it's almost a lot of trial and error basically," she explains.

"We're producing 4 kilos a week of crickets and in the beginning it cost us more than $1000 per kilo to produce, and now it's down around $200 per kilo."

The business turns over $20,000 a year, up from $10,000 the previous year.

A growing global population and fears of a future food shortage prompted the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation to promote edible insects. In a report, the organisation expounded bugs for their sustainable values - insects don't require land clearing for production and can live on organic waste - and health qualities - many insects are rich in protein and high in calcium, iron and zinc.

CSIRO entomologist Dr Bryan Lessard hopes Australia's emerging edible insect industry can beat the yuck factor.

"The UN believes the global edible insect market will be worth $1.5 billion by 2023, but the Australian market's really lagging behind," he says.

Cricket slices by Grilo.

Cricket slices by Grilo.

"We know that most people are a bit hesitant to put a full or whole insect in their mouths, but when you turn them into powders and use them to enrich foods like muffins and pastas, they're much more willing to eat them."

Bryon Bay start-up Grilo had a victory for the sector when its cricket energy bars were stocked on the shelves of 10 IGA supermarkets across NSW and Queensland last month.

Ruth Galloway and Cath Riley from The Cricket Bakery in Sydney are hoping for similar mainstream acceptance.

Galloway started selling edible insect products at local markets two years ago, but shelved the idea when it received a less than warm response.

"Everyone just thought I was mental," she recalls.

"No one had heard of the idea or would come near the idea and they just thought it was odd that I was putting bugs in brownies and bread. So it got put on the backburner."

The brand strategist rebirthed the business idea in 2017 after meeting Riley, a marketing and events professional. Using cricket flour sourced from a NSW farmer, the pair concocted mixes of banana bread, protein powder, protein pancakes and seedy paleo loaf that sell for between $16 and $20 each.

Soon they will launch wattleseed crackers and whole roasted crickets with flavours including paprika and chilli, smoked salt and bush spice.

The Cricket Bakery's revenue in its first year was $4000 and jumped to $10,000 in 2018.

Galloway and Riley have just taken leave from their jobs to build the business and hope its 2019 revenue will reach $20,000.

"We see huge potential and we see an undercurrent of people with much more awareness of what they're eating and the effect it has on their body and health," Galloway explains.

"It's just whether we can get people to change their behaviour and that's what we're trying to do, which is why we're making it easy for them with products that are recognisable within the Australian diet."