The world is going to pot. This is the Anthropocene, we are reshaping the planet in our image, and it’s probably not the “Image of God.” Among other problems, we eat too many animals, an industry responsible for tremendous greenhouse gas emission. Now one company fighting the good fight for Mother Earth has released its latest salvo: gummy bears. And chocolate-flavored protein shake powder. Both are based on protein derived from locusts.
Founded and run by Dror Tamir, Hargol is a company at the cutting edge of entomophagy and is becoming a power in the business of cultivating Locusta migratoria and persuading humans to eat them. Hence the idea of candy, a treat likely to tempt where a grilled locust on a skewer might not.
“Locusta migratoria is one of the two types of locusts considered to be kosher and halal,” says Tamir, explaining the species choice.
The insects are native to Israel and are fed on the finest organic grass, grown for them by the company, which has won a slew of awards for its innovative farming methods.
The Hargol gummies come in two flavors: orange and strawberry. Taste tests among randomly selected members of the Haaretz desk, family and friends found that they taste like gummy bears. In other words, they’re delicious if gummy bears are your thing. If anything, this author’s impression was that they stick to the teeth rather less than ordinary gummies.
Hargol began its road to entomological inducement with protein powder, followed by whole roast locusts in a jar, which are sold via its "biblical protein" website. The insects in jars are popular among evangelicals, based on the biblical story (told not once but twice - Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6) that John the Baptist ate “locusts and wild honey.”
The ‘yuck factor’
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In many parts, entomophagy is normal. A 2013 paper written under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization listed almost 200 insect species eaten in Thailand, for instance: some local delicacies, and some, like water beetles, consumed nationwide.
But one snag to replacing the lamb with the locust worldwide is that not every Westerner would even contemplate knowingly putting a bug in their mouth.
Many seem blissfully unaware that industrial foods have permissible limits for insect parts, which is another way of saying: they contain bugs. Dead ones, to be sure. “The Food and Drug Administration enforces a standard or defect action level stating that a maximum of 75 insect fragments per 50 grams of flour is allowed,” states one enlightening paper.
That was in a study aiming to elucidate the relationship between the level of beetle infestation and number of resulting fragments in flour. Never mind the answer: the point is clear. Even rat poo passes muster, up to a certain point, as CNN evocatively reported in 2019.
So, if you eat, you eat bugs, so why not do it properly and ecologically while about it. Yet there are psychological obstacles to overcome for Westerners brought up on capon, not caterpillar. You can dare the kids to eat a grasshopper, but how can entomophagy be taken mainstream? How can the “yuck factor” be overcome?
Enter the gummy bears. Yay, candy! This author would not knowingly consume an insect but popped the treat into her mouth without hesitation or shudder and can attest: The orange gummy tasted like an orange gummy, the strawberry gummy like a strawberry gummy.
Not everybody on the Haaretz newsdesk agreed to try them, though some claimed to be deterred more by the sugar content than the protein source. All who tried agreed they taste the same as regular gummy bears. But fear not! Hargol also sells a sugar-free variant of the sweets.
The chocolate-flavored protein shake tasted, according to one person who tried it, like a regular chocolate-flavored protein shake: “It is indescribable,” she answered unhelpfully. If you like protein drinks, you will like this one, she added.
Creating the gummies was a strategic move, Tamir explains. “The biggest challenge is to get the West to relate to locusts as a consumable, and to supply it in a familiar, beloved and tasty way,” he says.
The company’s initial market surveys, seeking enlightenment on where it might find early adopters of entomophagable powder, zeroed in on sports-performance nutrition. Hence the sweet shakes. Now we have gummies, which the company markets as nutritional supplements.
Note that “regular” gummy bears are made of animal-sourced gelatin produced by boiling skin, cartilage and bone. There are vegan gummies made using agar, which comes from algae. But seaweed gummies aren’t going to transition you into eating locusts for the greater good of the planet.
Why actually are gummies made of locust protein a good thing for Mother Nature and you? Because entomophagy provides a cheap, green and relatively humane source of protein, Tamir argues, and the gummies could win people over.
You are feeling sleepy
Some things do not need caveats. Climate change is happening. Industrial animal husbandry is inhumane. We can argue till the cows come home about the nature of non-human thought processes, but note that the U.K. recently ruled that octopi are sentient (if given ecstasy, they get friendly, and what more proof could one need – wait, why would anybody give octopi MDMA? Because.) Cows are sentient too. Sheep, pigs – the lot. They feel pain, they feel loss, they object to being killed.
Don’t locusts object to being killed? No question, arthropods do evince survival instincts and, let’s face it, all “higher animals” arose from invertebrates. We therefore tend to classify invertebrates and especially arthropods, including insects, as inferior. Yet some insects have complex social lives and even flies and roaches show evidence of flexible learning capabilities, which is consistent with some level of thinking, psychologists say. We know they are aware of injury: how they experience it, we cannot say.
If you wish to train your flies, here is some suggested reading.
But humans need protein and Tamir is confident that, certainly compared with farming any vertebrate, Hargol’s treatment of the insects is humane. For one: “Locusts swarm by nature and can survive and thrive in dense conditions. That is a huge advantage compared with other animals, whose intensive cultivation differs from their natural state,” he says.
What about the stress of being prematurely terminated? Arthropods are cold-blooded, Tamir points out. The company's method of termination involves cooling the insects until they basically descend into torpor – i.e., fall asleep. “No stress is involved in the process,” he stresses. “That is certainly more humane than the treatment afforded to any other animal, mammal or avian, and is more humane and environmentally friendly than growing plants.”
How’s that? Because farmers destroy the natural habitat and eradicate other life-forms that live in the ground and/or would eat the crop, from insects to lizards and birds to rodents, rabbits and you name it.
"These animals are aggressively eradicated. Farming may also contaminate local water sources – it is not rare – and degrade the land. When cultivating locusts, no resource is wasted,” he adds.
Apropos of which, so far the company has three locust farms, all in Israel. They feed the migratoria on organic grass, using no fertilizers or pesticides; nor do they use hormones or prophylactic antibiotic. “The waste produced is negligible compared with cultivation of plants or animals,” Tamir says. All the locusts are turned into food and what waste ensues is turned into fertilizer.
So how green is it to grow locusts for food? We have become painfully aware of the contribution of bovine and ovine flatulence to the deterioration of the global ecology. Insects would produce about 80 percent less greenhouse gas emissions compared with cattle, weight for weight, according to one study, concluding that switching from livestock to insects for dinner could ease both food insecurity and climate change.
Thus, Tamir suggests Hargol can claim it’s reducing global emission. “We’re not talking about a target of 2050 like countries declared at the Glasgow conference,” he adds. “Hargol’s technology is mature, ready and being applied. We are already reducing greenhouse gases. Ultimately, locust protein is a much higher-quality product than many existing protein sources in the market, from animal or plant. It is absorbed well by the body and contains all the essential amino acids we need. It is rich in essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, folic acid, vitamin B12 and more,” he says – which touches on value to consumers.
He also avers that the locust-derived protein powder can serve in the stead of any other protein powder – in fact, it’s highly concentrated, he adds.
And now, thanks to gummy bears breaking down our barriers to entomophagy, maybe the insect-averse among us adult Westerners will be able to make the switch too.