By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

Matthew Krisiloff says the first time he sank his teeth into an insect was the most difficult.

His gustatory experiment was part of a more ambitious project. The second-year College student is leading an effort to launch a business based on the idea that dining on insects will one day be about as radical as serving up a slice of tofu.

“Meat consumption is extremely environmentally costly,” he explains. “Livestock rearing accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural grain resources.”

As it turned out, the snacks he tried that first time — BBQ-flavored, dried mealworms and salt and vinegar-flavored dried crickets — were rather tasty.

“I immediately saw a lot of potential in this,” Krisiloff says.

Krisiloff assembled a team of fellow Thompson House members and entered a campus entrepreneurial contest, proposing processed insect meat as a sustainable, alternative, and attractive food source. They took first place.

“Everything since then has just kind of snowballed,” he says.

Krisiloff has been quoted in, among other publications, The New Yorker and The New York TimesChicago News Cooperative. This summer, he flew to Wageningen University in the Netherlands, home to the leading research on entomophagy — the use of insects as a food source.

At the same time, international interest in the subject of insect farming grew apace over the summer, inspired in part by the European Commission’s offer of a $4.3 million prize to promote the concept. Much of Krisiloff’s work focuses on creative ways to process the creatures into a form consistent with modern tastes — the insect equivalent of a chicken nugget.

Eating insects: Why not?

As an incoming student, Krisiloff had seen advertisements for a competition in which students create a viable business plan for a for-profit or non-profit enterprise with a technology component that will have a positive social impact on the University, local, national, or global community.

The contest, called the CCI Innovation and Entrepreneurship competition, is a joint initiative offered through Chicago Careers in Science and Technology, Chicago Careers in Public and Social Service, and Chicago Careers in Business.

Keen to enter, Krisiloff needed an idea. The Law, Letters, and Society major thought about some of the staggering facts gleaned from his Contemporary Global Issues class, including an estimate that by 2050, the world’s population would hit nine billion people. With agricultural sustainability and environmental degradation in mind, he thought of viable alternatives for beef, pork, and chicken production.

“I had read a long time ago in National Geographic that insects were eaten in a large part of the world, and that they were very nutritious,” Krisiloff says, “so I thought, ‘Why not explore this as an idea?’”

Insects are far more efficient as a food source than the livestock used in most countries, experts say. Bugs produce more meat per pound and only a small fraction of the greenhouse gases that cattle, pigs, and chickens generate.

And it’s cheap. While it might take about 75 crickets to make a single processed serving of insect-based food, the cost for those crickets is only about $1, according to commercial websites. The same number of soft-bodied mealworms costs just 10 cents when bought in bulk.

Yet the “ick” factor looms large: Insects have wings and antennae. They slither. Some are downright creepy.

“Even if the insects are in a more palatable form, it’s still going to be very difficult to get people to try insects at first, and then to continue consuming them,” Krisiloff concedes. “There will be some sense of a psychological barrier still in place, just from knowing that what they are eating is an insect.”

The team is working to overcome the social stigma by removing the entire exoskeleton — the eyes, the wings, and the legs. In this form, Krisiloff says, insects would be in a more palatable, clean form, similar to chicken.

“When people consume a chicken nugget and think about it, their thoughts most likely focus on something familiar about the chicken, like the chicken breast, not the ‘pink goop’ that really makes up the nugget.”

Food tastes are culturally defined

Entomophagy, or eating insects, is not new. Experts say insects are currently a food source for some 80 percent of the world’s population.

In many Eastern cultures, for example, there is huge consumption of insects, says Eric Larsen, a senior lecturer in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division who teaches the course, “Public and Private Lives of Insects.”

“We get a lot of our cultural conditioning from our parents,” Larsen says. “If our parents are afraid of something, we experience it as something to be afraid of — and this extends to what we think of as what is and is not food.”

Or, as Kathleen D. Morrison, professor of anthropology, says, food is culturally defined.

“Euro-American cultural traditions tend to exclude insects though they may include other arthropods like shrimp, lobster, and crab or animals like snails and oysters that others deem inedible,” she says. “There is little to suggest that there is anything intrinsic to a potential foodstuff that makes it appealing or inedible; things one group forbids — beef, pork, insects, or lobsters — another values.”

Got a recipe for grasshopper cookies?

Undaunted by the cultural barriers inherent in insect consumption, the team forged ahead. Krisiloff, along with fellow second-year Ben Yu, and third-years Tommy Wu, Irvin Ho, and Chelsey Rice-Davis, worked on the concept from October 2010 until April 2011. Their company, Entom Foods, is founded on the idea of deshelling insects using pressurization technology, and selling insect meat in cutlet form.

“For a long time, we really didn’t think we had a chance of winning,” says Krisiloff. “A few weeks before the competition, we were thinking of withdrawing, as we just really didn’t feel ready to present.“

They persevered. The night before the contest, the team worked furiously on baking a batch of grasshopper cookies to present to the judges. While mixing sugar cookie dough in their Pierce dorm kitchen, the team realized they didn’t know the first thing about preparing the insects. “Do you toast the grasshoppers first? How many cups of chopped grasshoppers per batch of sugar cookie is optimal?” Rice-Davis asked.

Cooking with insects isn’t a topic cookbooks readily address, says Rice-Davis.

Getting business off the ground

The team took first place, beating out 26 other entries, and left with a $10,000 check as seed funding.

Today, the Entom team is promoting and developing their company. While the actual insect “cutlets” aren’t ready yet, the group is working on planning an insect tasting buffet on campus later this year, or launching a simpler product to spark interest in entomophagy.

Krisiloff says insects are delicious, and after trying about 15 different species, his favorite so far is bee larvae, (though given recent shortages of honeybee colonies, he is not currently advocating that people eat bee larvae).

“It kind of tastes like bacon with a bit of honey,” he says. He prefers to eat them as BLTs — bees, lettuce, and tomato.

Krisiloff hates chocolate, so snacking on insects dipped in chocolate – a popular way of consuming bugs — is out of the question.