Israeli Company Launches ‘Biblical Protein’ Locust Products in the U.S.

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Illustration of John the Baptist eating locusts and honey
Illustration of John the Baptist eating locusts and honeyCredit: Yosi Aloni
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Would you like to identify with John the Baptist and possibly the People of Israel as they wandered the desert for 40 years? Eat of the locust, suggests Hargol FoodTech, a company based in north Israel that’s pioneering insect cultivation for mass consumption.

In late May the company launched two "biblical protein" product lines in the United States. Perhaps surprisingly to the insect-averse among us, American evangelicals are snapping up not only energy bars made with oatmeal and powdered locust but also whole jars of the insects, driven by the desire to eat as people did in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago, says Dror Tamir, Hargol’s CEO.

Locusts are rich in protein (about 70 percent by weight), low in carbs and practically fat-free. They also contain a wealth of minerals: iron, zinc, folic acid – an essential for pregnant women – as well as omega-3, omega-6 and vitamins. “What’s hardly there? Cholesterol and saturated fat,” Tamir tells Haaretz.

Another thing not there is pesticides. The locusts going into Hargol’s products are cultivated in captivity and lovingly fed nothing but fresh grass, he adds. “Farmed locusts are a healthy, ecological source of protein,” he stresses.

One problem in hawking grasshoppers instead of, say, hot dogs at ball games is the ick factor. But Hargol, which specializes in the cultivation of locusts as a protein source, believes it can crack the American market with its “biblical protein” energy bars – made of, you guessed it, locusts – and whole bugs in a jar, products it launched in the U.S. on May 23.

With a pitch designed to appeal to evangelicals, who are by the way often ardent supporters of Israel, Hargol enables believers to emulate John and eat of the locust in the form of energy bars (three for $8.99 or a dozen for $29.99), or in the form of whole insects sold for $8.99 a jar. The bars come in three flavors: plain oatmeal, apple and raisin.

Growing locusts on grass at HargolCredit: Yosi Aloni

“Orders are pouring in,” says Emmanuel Rosen, a television journalist in Israel and the company’s business development and media manager.

Asked if anybody is actually ordering the jarful of locusts, Tamir surprises: “More than 50 percent of the orders are for the jars of locusts,” he says. It seems that when people are offered products that they know contain locusts – from sausages to energy bars to gummy bears – they are “disappointed” (and probably relieved) not to taste anything “special.” Then they get curious about what the locust tastes like on its own, he explains.

“When we sell locusts alone, people say yuck at the concept, but when we sell locust products, then they want to try the real thing,” he sums up.

And who doesn’t love insect candy? Asked why they’re not launching gummy bears together with the energy bars and the whole bugs in bulk in the States, Tamir explains that there were technical glitches and then the coronavirus crisis emerged, but they plan to add them to the America line soon.

Meanwhile Tamir hopes that the faithful will buy Hargol’s Ready-to-Eat Locust Jar of whole insects (desiccated in a low-heat oven in order to preserve the nutrients, but with head and all) for just $8.99. The high-protein energy bars also cost $8.99 but for three, or you can get a dozen with all three types for $29.99. Made in Nazareth, Israel, they are shipped to a central distribution center in Utah. Postage is extra.

The bars contain some sugar; the whole bugs have no added salt or artificial ingredients. “They’re like healthy Bissli,” Tamir comments, referring to a popular crunchy Israeli snack food. He adds that the company recommends consumers remove the insects’ legs before eating. Rosen says that if you don’t, the leg and wing bits can get stuck between your teeth. You have been warned.

Dror TamirCredit: Yosi Aloni

Asked how the bugs are cleaned before processing, Tamir explains, “Our locusts are cleaner than cats, one of the cleanest animals in the universe. They only eat fresh grass without pesticides.” Okay.

The sushi factor

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea… His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4).

Some also suspect that the “manna from heaven” given unto the wandering Israelites in the desert was actually locusts. The prophet Mohammed also reportedly ate locusts and declared the insect halal: permissible to eat.

But would Americans eat insects? Hargol seems to be onto something. A study published in the journal of Food Quality and Preference in 2019 by researchers from La Trobe University in Australia and the University of Pennsylvania checked the willingness to eat insects (or try at least) in India and the U.S. They perhaps astonishingly reported that four-fifths of the Americans in their sample would consider trying to eat an insect (deliberately, that is) – which was double the rate of Indians willing to consume a bug. The Indian resistance to entomophagy was based on moral values, not disgust per se, they explained.

Wonderfully, in both India and the U.S., a predilection to sushi (a food commonly met with disgust when it first appeared) is also a “significant and substantial predictor of insect acceptance,” that study found.

Perhaps the notion isn’t as far-fetched as one might think when reading this in walking distance of a grocery store. Any grocery store. Fact is, people have been supplementing their diet with insects since time immemorial. From munching on dried grasshoppers to barbecuing giant pupae, entomophagy has a host of advantages compared with four-footed food, leaving the “yuck factor” aside.

At the Hargol plantCredit: Yosi Aloni

In America, the Hargol leadership is confident of its target market. “When you launch a new product, you need to find early adopters, people prepared to eat it without flinching,” Tamir says. Companies these days assume early adopters will be millennials who care about health and environment; that’s what most insect-consumption companies thought, launching, for example, insect protein powder for athletes.

Indeed one suspects that if any millennials touch a desiccated grasshopper in the West, it’s probably because they’re hoping for internet fame by swallowing a bug instead of licking a toilet seat. But here, being unique in farming locusts, Hargol saw the opportunity because of the theological story: “It’s healthy and you can experience how people ate 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel,” Tamir says.

But are they kosher?

The Bible section relevant to entomophagy is Leviticus 11:20-23:

“All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you. Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth; Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.”

A Hargol locust, 'cleaner than cats'Credit: Yosi Aloni

“The translation here and in fact all translations of this verse are useless since clearly the Englishmen that translated the passage didn’t know what the original author meant in this case,” says linguist and Haaretz columnist Elon Gilad. “We are dependent on traditions preserved by ancient Jews which may or may not preserve the original meaning.”

The matter is discussed in the Mishnah (Hulin 3:7) and the Talmud (Hulin 63b). That may indicate that at the time of the rabbis, there was a long list of different locusts that were considered kosher. But when the Talmud was taken to Europe, these identifications were lost, Gilad says.

Actually, in the past the ancients were terrified of the insect.

“What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten… A nation has invaded my land, a mighty army without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness.” – Joel 1:4, 3:4.

Joel goes on to evocatively describe the terrifying swarms, turning fertile green fields into a desert wasteland “with a noise like chariots… They charge like warriors… before them the earth shakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon are darkened.”

Lacking datable specifics in the text, scholars argue over when the book of Joel was written, with opinions varying from the 9th century to the 5th century B.C.E. Meanwhile, the ancient Egyptians adopted imagery of the locust to depict innumerable hordes, sometimes of foes. An inscription at the Medinet Habu archaeological site has been deciphered to read: “Battalions will come like the locusts.” The Bible relates that Yahweh even told Moses to “stretch out your hand over Egypt” to unleash a plague of locusts, which devastated the land until Pharaoh admitted to the error of his ways, albeit temporarily (Exodus 10:12-19).

Illustration: "Biblical protein" and jar of honeyCredit: Yosi Aloni

Lacking planes to bomb the swarms with pesticides, ancient peoples from Assyria to Greece begged succor from the gods who were held responsible for the plague in the first place. As described in “The Culture of Animals in Antiquity,”  the ancient Assyrians resorted to praying to their gods to be spared and/or wishing locust plagues on their enemies.

At least if they did arrive and eat the fields and trees bare, the locusts could themselves be eaten, and they were and still are in parts of Africa and Asia. Some elderly Israelis, mainly of Yemenite and North African origin, reminisce fondly about frying the muscular insects and snacking on them like popcorn with feet. And the truth is that it’s a good idea. Most of us probably can’t even imagine life without electricity, antibiotics and supermarkets, but picky eating is a luxury symptomatic of a sated society (apropos, just this week scientists warned parents in the Journal of Pediatrics that pressuring kiddies to eat things they dislike won’t lead to a well-rounded diet in adulthood).

Swarms, but not for thee

In the years and decades to come, leaving the coronavirus lockdown and supply chain problems out of it, our food choices may become more limited because of climate change, and possibly moral imperatives.

It has become clear that animal husbandry, notably of cows, is responsible for significant emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Beef is delicious but mass husbandry is inhumane and ecologically harmful. A special report commissioned by the UN and published in April 2019 urged humankind to eat less meat as one element in curbing the emissions that underlie global warming. It proposes that people switch to vegetarian meat analogs, meat cultured in the lab – and insects.

Daughter, age 18, asked if she would eat a locust: “Hell no,” and reminds that she’s a vegetarian. True. Asked if she would have eaten a locust during her pre-vegetarian stage, she cheerfully said, “Hell yeah, that would be interesting.”

Hargol’s people hope it will become an active choice – including among people not brought up to eat of the insect, which has been on the rise.

As of writing, Kenya was reeling after the worst locust “attack” in 70 years, and clouds of bugs were darkening the skies in Ethiopia and Somalia in what experts called the worst swarm in a quarter-century. Locust swarms were sweeping over northern India from Pakistan; aside from counseling villagers to bang pots in the hope of deterring the invaders, New Delhi was desperately urging collaboration with Afghanistan and Iran and even its nemesis Pakistan to fight the threat. Locusts have been plaguing the Gulf for months and last week Dubai reassured frightened residents after swarms were seen there and in Abu Dhabi that “the situation is under control.” 

Which it isn’t, on the larger scale. Earlier this month the World Bank approved $500 million in grants and cheap loans to battle locust swarms in Africa and the Middle East. In Kenya, in one day the locusts are eating the amount of food consumed by all Kenyans in two days, senior World Bank official Holger Kray told Al Jazeera.

Climate change seems to be a key driver behind the resurgence of locust swarms vast enough to blacken the sky.

Which begs the question: If locusts are swarming, why not try to net some and fry them? Don’t do that, urges Joost Van Itterbeeck of Andong National University in South Korea, writing in The Conversation, because aside from making noise to distract the insects, at the national level, swarms are fought using chemical insecticides or an insect fungus, rendering the locusts toxic. “It is highly unlikely that the nutritional benefits can outweigh the negative effects of chemical residues,” he explains.

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