Israeli Startup Challenges the 'Yuck Factor' With Grasshopper Shakes

Athletes will go to extraordinary lengths to boost performance. Steak TzarTzar is betting that grasshopper protein shakes aren't a leap too far.

Chanan Aviv

If a grasshopper jumps on you you'd probably be more tempted to stomp on it than fry it for lunch.

Steak TzarTzar, a young Israeli company still in the process of formation, acknowledges that some of us find the thought of crunchy bug fatally revolting. But it hopes you'll be tempted enough by the high-protein, low-fat deconstructed grasshopper shake it's developing to overcome what company CEO Dror Tamir cheerfully calls "the yuck factor".

In fact Tamir, a former high-tech entrepreneur who knows human nature when he sees it, overcomes that snag lightly.

"If I were to offer you a million dollars to eat a grasshopper, would you?" he beams. (Yes, I would.) "But it wouldn't pay for me to market that way. That would be a terrible marketing strategy."

Right. So what is Steak TzarTzar's marketing strategy? That begins with what it going to be marketing once its systems are up and running: grasshoppers, whole or in powder form, each targeting a different market. The whole insect is for the East, and the powder is for the West.

Chanan Aviv

Environmentally correst protein

In a warming world with a growing population that is increasingly aware of the environmental devastation caused by breeding animals for meat, eating insects is a politically correct thing to do, if you can get beyond the disgust.

Tamir admits that he personally cannot. "I never tasted them. The most I have done is to pat one, once," he tells Haaretz."At least now I can eat and drink in their presence."

Update on June 14: Tamir went there: "I tried the grasshoppers last week and they actually taste very good. One of them reminded me of red mullet."

The trick to getting people to eat bugs is to start early. By about age three it's too late to imprint new eating habits, says Tamir, father of two. So there's a tip, parents – feed bugs to the kids before they're too old to know better.

Meanwhile the question is how to get adults with wallets to buy the things. In Asia and Africa, where insects are acceptable as food – whether as crunchy snack or in sauce, that isn't a problem.  In the west it's pretty hopeless, except with one group that Steak TzarTzar identified.

"Athletes are typically early adopters. They will eat a product if it improves their sports capability," Tamir says. And sports – even doing it, as opposed to watching it on TV - is big business. Nike for instance reported consolidated revenues of $28 billion for 2014.

But would even the most devoted marathon runner start popping grasshoppers, even if covered in chocolate growth hormone? Probably not. But they would be very likely to drink a protein shake.

Steak TzarTzar's product, once it's on the market, will compete with protein powders based on whey, soy and eggs, at which Tamir proceeds to take pot shots. "Soy doesn't contain whole protein. The manufacturer needs to add amino acids, and people don't like the taste of the powder. Eggs are not a stable product – they tend to rot and the powder stinks," he says. "Most of the industry is based on whey, which is a by-product of the dairy industry and therefore does have amino acids, but it also has lactose, saturated fat and cholesterol."

Also, whey-based protein powders are guilt-trippy because breeding cows is environmentally costly.

Premium protein powders without "the bad stuff" are available but they're expensive, Tamir adds, and delivers his knockout: "In grasshoppers there's no cholesterol, no lactose, no saturated fat."

Just not cricket

Co-founding partner Chanan Aviv will eat insects, with gusto, and is working on choosing the best of six species of grasshopper to breed for production, not to mention the best design for their habitation. These fussy insects do not do well under anything but the optimum conditions, including in respect to crowding, and the company hopes to produce some 300 million grasshoppers for sale a year.

In parallel the company is developing the powder in collaboration with the Wingate Institute of agriculture research, says Tamir. Once it's ready, Steak TzarTzar means to get into bed with a strategic partner because hawking this will take a huge marketing effort.

Using insects to boost our sporting ability has been done before. The Japanese company Vespa makes "wasp juice" that it claims optimizes fat metabolism. And while on the subject, we all know, though we'd prefer not to, that the processed foods we buy are full of bug bits.

Back to industrialized insects: There are quite a few companies that breed and sell crickets, says Tamir, but Steak TzarTzar is the only company in the world pushing grasshoppers.

Crickets and grasshoppers both belong to the order of Orthoptera. But, says Tamir, while grasshoppers are finicky vegetarians that will only eat the freshest of greens, crickets will eat almost any organic mix (meaning biological, not pesticide-free), says Tamir. The result of their fastidiousness, he says, not that he would know – is that grasshoppers taste better.

He also says that grasshoppers have a significantly higher protein count and lower fat count than the unfussy crickets, and refers skeptics to a chart at http://www.ediblebugfarm.com/edible-insects-nutritional-content/. "The grasshopper offers the best nutrient content of all the insects, other than some species of beetles we identified but won't tell," Tamir sums up.

A thought. Grasshoppers are delicate – those elegant long legs come to mind. How are the insects to be slaughtered and harvested? It turns out that Steak TzarTzar, whose third partner is Ben Friedman, gave this much thought, not least because of humanitarian sensibilities: the insects will be flash-frozen, a method used elsewhere in world. "We move them gently from their open-air enclosure – they need natural air flow – into a closed environment. When we lower the temperature, they go into stupor and die. They don't suffer," Tamir claims.

"Tzartzar" is Hebrew for "grasshopper". It's a play on words – steak tartare – Steak Tzartzar – you get it. And apropos the Jews, Tamir adds that the company, which is so young it's still in the process of registration, is in discussions with rabbis to get kashrut certification. "What we might do with it I don't know," he admits. "But we're trying."