HomeCricketThe Italian cricket-breeders putting a positive spin on insect-based food

The Italian cricket-breeders putting a positive spin on insect-based food


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“Go on, try it, it is good,” said José Francesco Cianni as he handed over a packet containing a light brown powder with a crispy texture. “I would even say it is really good.”

Sitting in his office in a pristine warehouse-like building, down the corridor from five rooms where millions of crickets are being bred, Cianni is in jubilant spirits.

In late January, Nutrinsect, the startup founded by Cianni and his brother in Italy’s central Marche region, was the country’s first company to be given a licence to produce and sell insect-based food for human consumption.

The licence was a just reward for the years the siblings had spent pursuing their conviction that protein and vitamin-packed crickets were not only good for human health, but could contribute towards saving the planet.

“The whole aim is to produce alternative proteins in a sustainable way,” said Cianni, who grew up on a traditional farm in Calabria.

Nutrinsect’s licence was all the more noteworthy given the backdrop of frequent proclamations by Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing government that Italy’s treasured cuisine must be sheltered from the menace of insects. But after the EU approved the sale of crickets, locusts and darkling beetle larvae for human consumption in early 2023, little could be done to stop the flurry of permit requests from Italian companies keen to take a slice of the edible insects market, which in Europe is forecast to reach €2.7bn (£2.3bn) by 2030.

Dead crickets ready to be processed inside the factory. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/The Guardian

By late last year even the Italian government appeared to recognise the potential and relented: as opposed to a previously pledged outright ban, it introduced regulations stipulating clear labelling for insect-based food and for the products to be placed on designated supermarket shelves.

Nutrinsect’s venture began in 2019 with the import of 10,000 crickets from Germany to the plant in Montecassiano, a small town close to Macerata. Cianni is proud to say that not a single cricket has been imported since. “These are their descendants – thousands and thousands are born each day,” he said, pointing to a tray teeming with recently hatched eggs. The crickets are raised in plastic containers filled with egg cartons, which serve as a nest for the them to feed and mate. In one of the rooms Cianni’s voice is almost drowned out by the sound of chirping. “These are the adult males singing, it’s their call to the female to begin mating,” he said.

The odd cricket jumps out of their container for a saunter along the corridor, but the majority stay put. “In common imagination the cricket is thought of like a grasshopper,” said Cianni. “Yes, the cricket does jump, but it is more of a burrowing animal.”

A worker at the factory bags dead crickets for storage in a refrigerator before processing. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/The Guardian

The insects are heat-treated, and, after 30 days of life, are frozen before being dispatched to an outside company, where they are freeze-dried and ground into flour.

Before January, the company had been permitted to sell the flour only for use in pet food.

Like all insect powder, the cricket flour produced by Nutrinsect has to be combined with traditional flour for use in an array of food items, including pasta, pizza, cakes and biscuits.

Among the grievances of farmers currently protesting across Europe is the emergence of insect-based food.

“We are actually in solidarity with the farmers, and not against them, because without traditional flour there would be no cricket flour,” said Cianni. “It is an ingredient filled with all nine essential amino acids, minerals and vitamins that is integrated with other ingredients … crickets are bred without any use of medicine, and no antibiotics. It is a true superfood.”

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Cricket flour produced inside the factory. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/The Guardian

On top of that, the product is beneficial for the environment. While the insect requires access to plenty of drinking water, producing one kilo of cricket flour requires five litres of water compared with 15,000 litres needs to produce a kilo of meat. As for the space required, Nutrinsect’s plant is 1,000 square metres. “Whereas to make 200kg of meat you need 100,000 square metres,” said Cianni.

Since being awarded the licence, Nutrinsect’s cricket flour has been bought by food-supply companies and those across the catering chain, while some chefs are testing its potential for use in broths.

But it will be some time before the cricket flour – which comes at a pricey €60 a kilo – reaches Italian supermarket shelves.

“It will take one to two years,” said Cianni. “Right now, food companies are organising themselves and doing tests to see how to use the product, they will begin with small and niche products. Eventually the aim is to achieve large-scale production, which will lower the price.”

In the meantime, among Nutrinsect’s biggest challenges is changing the misconception about insect-based food. Cianni said he has been hit with a deluge of emails from people saying he was making food with “dirty” insects that “come from far away”.

“In reality, the crickets are bred in an aseptic environments and the flour is 100 % Italian,” he said. “Not only that, it is delicious.”

A taste of a dab of the flour confirmed Cianni’s assessment that its flavour is similar to “pumpkin seeds, hazelnuts, and even a little bit like prawns”.

While Cianni’s father has embraced the initiative, the one person he still has to convince is his mother. “I’ve tried 1,000 times, but it is still ‘no’”, he said. “But that’s OK, it is normal that people feel disorientated, especially in a country like Italy which is so dedicated to food. But we hope that over time, as people become more aware, they will gradually change their minds.”

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