Bugging You

An Ontario company puts insects on the menu

Illustration by Ashley MacKenzie
Illustration by Ashley MacKenzie

Darren Goldin’s family used to make candy. His grandfather owned Manhattan Sweets, a historic South African brand that sells gum babies and sour worms.

“So there’s a food background,” Goldin says, as he strolls through the humid central growing room at Next Millennium Farms, in Campbellford, Ontario. He has come to check on rows of white wooden bins stacked three tiers high, each teeming with hundreds of thousands of crickets. In relative terms, these specimens of Gryllodes sigillatus are destined for exotic new territory: the tables, mouths, and stomachs of North American consumers.

Goldin, who sports a tidy black goatee and speaks in a lingering Johannesburg accent, draws a cardboard rack from a lower bin and shakes a twittering avalanche of bugs into a blue storage container. They hop and flit and scrabble across the bottom. Chirps fill the air.

“This building’s output is about 2,200 pounds a week,” he says.

Goldin and his two brothers, Jarrod and Ryan, started raising insects in 2008 for reptile feed. Darren, a committed environmentalist with an interest in aquaculture and organic farming, then began experimenting with them as alternatives to industrial fish and chicken feed. He fed some birds with protein-rich mealworms in addition to grain and found that after six weeks they were 17 percent heavier than those fed with grain only.

Goldin partnered with the University of Guelph, three hours away, to run trials for alternative feed. At the time, he didn’t think North American diets were ready for bugs. Then in September 2013, a team from McGill University won the $1 million Hult Prize with a proposal to use large-scale insect farming as a means of achieving global food security. Goldin soon changed his mind.

With his brothers, he opened the original 5,000-square-foot Campbellford site in March 2014. Within a year, they expanded to 9,000 square feet and, twenty minutes down the road near Peterborough, acquired a 2,000-square-foot processing plant and a 20,000-square-foot production facility. This past February, they finalized a million-dollar deal with a group of Canadian investors. Business in entomophagy—the human consumption of insects—is buzzing.

An estimated 2 billion people around the world include bugs in their regular diets. Crickets, mealworms, and beetles are packed with protein, zinc, and iron, and are excellent sources of fibre. They also reproduce quickly, and compared to traditional livestock bug agriculture leaves a small carbon footprint.

At first, Goldin thought the environmental angle would attract a customer base in Canada and the United States, but the nutritional benefits ended up being the bigger draw. Next Millennium’s Protein2050 powder, for example, is popular with bodybuilders.

“Sushi took a long time—twenty or thirty years—to plant itself firmly into North America,” he says. “But that was before the Internet.” He thinks technology and younger palates will expedite the process with insects. “Kids love bug snacks. You tell people that, and they look at you like, Okay, salesman. Then you give them a sample to take home to their children, and they’re like, Holy cow. You’re not kidding.”

Donning wraparound shades and a mobile headset, Goldin takes a business call in the cab of his Ford F-150 before heading to Next Millennium’s processing plant—the only place in Canada licensed to process insects for human consumption. Here, crickets are killed with hot water (there are plans for a blast freezer), roasted, milled, and packaged. In a tidy white kitchen, he paws through a tray that Derek Delahaye, who sports chef whites and a floppy toque, is about to place in the oven. Delahaye bakes each batch for about two hours at 250°F, depending on plumpness.

“Recently we decided to see what would happen if we blended the crickets before we roasted them,” Goldin explains. “We made purple goo. It actually turned out pretty cool. We’re talking about doing some kind of a jerky.”

He heads to another room, where the Bug Bistro snack line is prepared and packaged. Mealworms are seasoned with sea salt or a fire-and-brimstone spice; crickets are flavoured with barbecue, Moroccan, or honey-mustard powder. Goldin says honey dill (not yet on the market) is his favourite complement to the crickets’ nutty, mushroomy taste. For an indulgent treat, he prefers waxworms (also not yet on the market), which contain 50 percent fat.

Ultimately, Goldin wants North Americans to embrace insects as part of a healthy diet, rather than see them as some sort of novelty. To this end, in the office lobby that doubles as a dining room, Darren and his wife, Caryn, regularly introduce guests to familiar foods made with bug-based ingredients. Favourite dishes include cricket-spiked vegetable chili, cheddar cricket biscuits, and carrot cricket cupcakes. Caryn likes to sprinkle the coveted waxworms on the chili—for crunch.

Goldin has a theory that, in an evolutionary sense, humans are instinctually inclined to eat insects. “I started thinking that maybe there’s something deep in our programming, where we know that this is right,” he says, as he butters a biscuit. “When you’re thirsty, you know that you’re thirsty. When we eat this food, it makes us feel good. It’s like quenching something that we lost long ago.”

This appeared in the May 2015 issue.

J. R. McConvey
J. R. McConvey created the National Parks Project, a series of short films.
Ashley Mackenzie
Ashley Mackenzie (ashmackenzie.com) counts the New York Times, Scientific American, and The New Republic among her clients.