This Canadian Family Aims to Disrupt the Food Industry…with bugs

The future of protein is here – will you try it?

Do you find eating lobster and shrimp objectionable? There was a time (in the West) when it was considered to be “poor man’s food”, BUT now it’s an expensive delicasy. Whether you like the idea or not, the future of protein will include insects.

But for some, it’s not easy to swallow. Case in point, months after launching Entomo Farms with his two brothers in 2014, Jarrod Goldin was the only one who hadn’t tasted crickets or mealworms.

Darren Goldin, left, Jarrod and Ryan, the brothers who run the farm in Norwood. (NATHAN COHEN)

While Ryan and Darren were snacking on the insects and using them as ingredients in their food, Jarrod couldn’t get used to the idea. And that started to make him uncomfortable. After all, how could he be one of the faces of the business having not consumed his own product?

“I couldn’t be in a situation where someone asked me if I’d tried (bugs) and I answered no,” says Jarrod. “It was time for me to grow up and give it a shot.”

One day, in a car with his brothers after a business meeting, he decided to wing it, so to speak. He bit into some honey-mustard-seasoned crickets.

“It wasn’t a weird, out-of-this-world, nasty experience,” he recalls. “It was quite lovely.”

Bugs are a staple in the Goldin brothers’ diets. Jarrod, 48, Darren, 46, and Ryan, 43, mix them into meals they prepare for themselves and their children and in dishes they bring to pot-luck dinner parties with friends.

Loblaws agreed in March to stock the farm’s cricket powder under its President’s Choice label.

The brothers run a sprawling operation near Peterborough, that looks from the outside like a conventional farm that would house chickens and cows. But inside, crickets are the order of the day.

Now this meal option will be available across Canada, as Loblaws agreed in March to stock the farm’s cricket powder under its President’s Choice label.

For some customers it could mean a strawberry and banana smoothie flavoured with the earthy, nut-like taste of cricket powder. Instead of a brownie square, a chocolate- and coconut-covered bar made with cricket powder?

While making money is part of their plan, the Goldins say they have an additional goal in mind — mass-producing sustainable food loaded with nutrients like protein and vitamins to help customers live longer, healthier lives.

The financial terms of the Loblaws deal aren’t being disclosed, but a spokesperson for the grocer says the company is pleased with how customers are responding.

For the uninitiated, overcoming the “disgust factor” of eating bugs is simply a matter of reorienting one’s thinking, the Goldin brothers say.

For the uninitiated, overcoming the “disgust factor” of eating bugs is simply a matter of reorienting one’s thinking…

“My argument is (we need to) change the paradigm of what’s considered icky food,” says Jarrod, a trained chiropractor. “Icky food gives you diabetes, cancer, makes you obese. Good food helps you live longer, prevents heart disease and gives you energy.”

The brothers began their operation with a $50,000 loan from an investor and 10,000 crickets they purchased from a farm in Georgia in 2013. They’ve since bred hundreds of millions of crickets.

Entomo Farms in Norwood, about two hours northeast of Toronto, is an operation about the size of a CFL field that includes three buildings with grow rooms, incubation areas and nurseries for crickets. It’s where the bugs feed, mate and produce hatchlings.

In a separate location the brothers breed mealworms, a type of tiny worm that has a similar nutritional profile to crickets.

The incubation rooms are heated at close to 30 C, and that’s where cricket eggs resembling small grains of rice are kept in sealed bins. One female cricket can lay 600 eggs in the last week to 10 days of its life.

Once hatched, the crickets are moved to the grow rooms, where you’ll find the most action, and noise: the piercing chirps of male crickets trying to attract females while keeping away competing suitors.

There are six grow rooms — two floors in each of the farm’s three buildings. Each floor is divided into three sections based on the age of the crickets; ages one week old through three weeks on one floor, four to six weeks old on another floor.

(Crickets are culled near the end of their six-week life cycle.)

Each grow-room floor can house about five million crickets. The bugs congregate and breed free-range, so they’re everywhere. You’ll spot them on the floor, in the egg-carton-like “condos” they live in and on long containers where they gather for their feed and water.

The sheer volume of insects in these rooms is a bit overwhelming at first, says Tara Chamberlain, 35, of Norwood, a barn supervisor who began working at Entomo Farms three years ago.

She saw an online ad for the job at Entomo and thought the work would be challenging and something out of the ordinary. She had previous experience having grown up on her father’s hobby farm, with cows and chickens.

While Canada and the U.S. are fledgling markets, it’s estimated that about two billion people eat insects worldwide.

But when she started at Entomo she had to overcome the “creep factor” of being surrounded by so many bugs. The farm is home to about 90 million crickets at any given time, including eggs.

“But once you’re used to it, it just becomes commonplace,” she says.

She also had to get used to bringing her work home with her, inadvertently. A common scenario: crickets get into her bags and clothes, and she sees one skipping across the floor at home.

She bought three geckos for her kids this past Christmas. So when she scoops one up, the lizards get a snack.

A short drive away from the farm is the processing facility where workers wash the dead bugs, then bake and later grind them before packaging and sealing them by hand for retail.

Markets include Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, South Africa, Europe and Mexico. While Canada and the U.S. are fledgling markets, whether it’s beetle larvae that tribes in Africa and Australia consume for subsistence, or popular crispy fried locusts and beetles eaten in Thailand, it’s estimated that about two billion people eat insects.

Aside from the President’s Choice powder, the brothers also sell whole crickets and mealworms under their Entomo Farms brand online and in a few small-market grocery stores.

The brothers also have a Bugs Bistro line of flavoured mealworms and crickets.

For years, the Goldins have had their antennae out for this type of business.

From the time they were young, the Goldin brothers have always had an interest in nature, insects, reptiles and other animals, says their mother, Loraine Goldin.

The benefit of insects is that they give off fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than pigs or cattle, and need “significantly less” water and land than required for cattle rearing.

Aside from being taught respect for animals and the outdoors, the boys, and their sister Kerry were also exposed to their parents’ social justice values.

The family, including late father Alan, is from Johannesburg and grew up under South Africa’s apartheid system that divided citizens based on the colour of their skin. Alan had a successful candy-making business, but he and Loraine disagreed with the politics of the country and didn’t feel there was a future for the family, Loraine Goldin says.

She recalls Darren at a very young age noticing the economic and social divides forged by apartheid.

“He always used to say ‘why are we driving in a car and all those people are walking on the road in the rain?’ He was very aware of the situation. He couldn’t understand why white people had all the luxuries and privileges.”

The family moved to Canada in 1986, first settling in Thornhill. The brothers later moved to other parts of the country. Darren is the only one of the brothers who lives near the farm in Norwood.

Ryan and Darren pursued environmental studies in university. After launching and selling a percussion instruments business, they formed a company called Reptile Feeders around 2009. They raised insects and rodents and sold them as feed for animals in places such as the Toronto Zoo, African Lion Safari, rescue centres and pet stores.

A few years later the brothers approached the University of Guelph to partner on a project that tracked the growth of rainbow trout after being fed protein that the brothers made by grinding worms into powder. The protein was found to be as good for growth as the fish meal that it replaced.

A short time afterward Ryan and Darren learned of the release of a major 2013 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) called Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security. The study was an inspiration.

Darren Goldin, now VP operations, earlier raised insects and rodents with his brother and sold them as feed for animals in zoos and pet stores.

The FAO report said by the year 2050 the planet will be home to nine billion people (the current population is 7.6 billion) and the current production of food will need to double.

But scarce land, overfishing, climate change, water shortages, and diminishing opportunities to expand farming, among other issues, could have “profound implications for food production,” the report noted.

As a result the world needs to find new ways to grow food, and insects can play a valuable role in sustaining life and the natural environment, the report argued.

The benefit of insects is that they give off fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than pigs or cattle, and need “significantly less” water and land than required for cattle rearing, said the FAO report.

“The consumption of insects, or entomophagy … contributes positively to the environment and to (human) health and livelihoods,” the report noted.

Insects are a “highly nutritious and healthy source of food, with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content,” said the report, although the nutritional value of edible insects varies because there are so many different types, including beetles, ants, bees, wasps and grasshoppers.

Insects are a “highly nutritious and healthy source of food, with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content.

Insects are efficient at converting their feed into protein, the report goes on to say. For instance, crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and half as much as pigs to produce the same amount of protein.

Buoyed by the FAO study, Ryan and Darren decided that crickets and mealworms as food could be a viable business opportunity and a chance to have a positive impact on humanity through nutrition and the environment. There are other cricket farmers in Canada but they supply feed for pets.

Ryan and Darren pitched the idea for Entomo farms to a businessman in the Norwood area with deep pockets. He gave the brothers $50,000 in two instalments. The money was used to start the company’s first farm (which has since been replaced by the newer buildings).

When the brothers told their mom about their plans to launch the business “I thought they were crazy, that they had gone nuts,” Loraine Goldin says. Her perception would change.

“When they explained the benefits and the reasons why people should be eating insects, I understood exactly and absolutely agreed with them and gave them my full support,” she says, adding that she now makes soups and stews with cricket powder.

Darren later became vice-president, operations; Jarrod, president; and Ryan, VP marketing and sales. A fourth manager, Kelly Hagen, is chief financial officer and chief operating officer.

When the brothers told their mom about their plans to launch the business “I thought they were crazy, that they had gone nuts”

Darren’s wife, Caryn Goldin, 46, is a culinary manager for the company whose responsibilities include developing bug recipes. They’ve recently hired an entomologist to do research in a few specific areas.

Tammara Soma, 34, director of research at the Food Systems Lab at U of T, says many millennials are looking for ways to reduce their meat consumption, and crickets are one option they’re turning to.

“The trend toward sustainability, awareness and consciousness — there’s a huge market for alternative forms of meat, moving toward soy-based and nut-based foods,” says Soma, who directs a lab that works with private, public and community groups to find answers to Canada’s waste problem.

“Crickets and insects are becoming part of that additional diversity of options … a lot of millennials are getting into this.”

She calls cricket granola bars “hip”: “I’ve seen them everywhere.”

A Canadian company, Naak, makes cricket protein bars as does Chapul, a U.S. outfit.

“(They’re) marketed as trendy, healthy, eco-friendly,” she predicts. “It’s going to be a big wave, not a fad.”

The 2013 FAO report warned that bug consumption isn’t an easy sell, even though thousands of insects are part of the diet for at least two billion people on the planet.

The aversion to eating bugs can be changed over time…

“Western societies require tailored media communication strategies and educational programs that address the disgust factor,” the report said, adding that insects are still lacking from the diets of many rich nations and “their sale for human consumption remains part of a niche food sector of novelty snacks.”

The aversion to eating bugs can be changed over time, the FAO study pointed out, noting that lobster and shrimp were once considered “poor man’s food” in the West, but are now viewed as expensive delicacies. (A warning to people with shellfish allergies: caution is recommended because insects such as crickets are distant relatives of shellfish.)

Darren Goldin says his company’s big breakthrough with Loblaws was assisted by the owner of Neal Brothers Foods, a Richmond Hill-based company that sells typical snack food products to Loblaws.

Peter Neal, one of the owners, took an interest in the Goldin brothers’ product and introduced them to Loblaws in 2016.

The grocer was interested, Darren says, but there were regulatory uncertainties. The brothers were selling their product legally, but operating in a bit of a “grey zone,” Darren explains.

After seeing Entomo’s documents, Health Canada agreed that crickets aren’t a “novel” food as it is safely consumed elsewhere in the world.

Loblaws wanted to ensure the insect prowder was fully compliant with Health Canada. That led the brothers to approach the agency and later produce a thorough file detailing the ins and outs of their business, including nutritional and food safety data.

The brothers wanted a formal position from the agency stating crickets aren’t a “novel food.” Not to be considered novel would require proof that they’re widely consumed.

After seeing Entomo’s documents Health Canada agreed the food is safely consumed elsewhere in the world.

Loblaws is carrying the cricket powder nationally, in almost 1,100 stores across Canada. The 113-gram bags retail for $13.99.

“Sustainable protein” is something the grocery chain cares about and something customers have asking for, says Loblaws spokesperson Kathlyne Ross.

Loblaws is carrying some recipes on its website, adds Ross who highly recommends the no-bake chocolate coconut cricket bars.

When they first launched, the Goldin family talked about the fact they could either fail in their business or produce something “cutting edge” with potential lasting benefits for their fellow citizens.

I love my job…it’s an opportunity to do something we feel can make a difference to our family and the planet.

So far it’s been the latter.

“I love my job,” says Caryn Goldin.

“It’s an opportunity to do something we feel can make a difference to our family and the planet.”

A version of this article was written by Donovan Vincent (@donovanvincent) and first appeared in the Toronto Star