Entrepreneur says ‘ick’ factor not an insurmountable hurdle.

NEW ORLEANS — While insects are a source of dietary protein for roughly 30% of the population globally, it is a foregone conclusion that bugs have a far smaller household penetration in the United States.

The challenges of developing a market for a food product overwhelmingly viewed as repellant was the subject of a presentation by Patrick Crowley, director/co-founder, Chapul, L.L.C., at the 2014 Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition, held June 21-24. Mr. Crowley’s topic, “Introducing insects to the market,” was part of a larger session June 23 titled, “Real pioneers: Experience with insect ingredients, processing, products and marketing.”

The session was one of six over the course of this year’s I.F.T. dealing with technical and other issues associated with the use of insects as a source of food or feed.

Offering brief background about what prompted him to enter the insects as food business, Mr. Crowley said he was studying agricultural water planning, conducting long-term water studies for states and federal agencies.

“It’s very obvious we need some long-term changes to the food infrastructure because of the overconsumption of natural resources,” he said.

Hearing a presentation about insects as an efficient source of nutrition inspired him to start the business.

“I understand that launching a new product into a category that doesn’t exist is completely contrary to business 101,” he said. “But I didn’t go to business school, so it’s okay.”

Setting the stage for his presentation, Mr. Crowley summarized both the benefits and challenges of entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food. A better source of protein than beef and iron than spinach, insects also represent a far more environmentally friendly source of protein than animal protein, he said. Insects are far more efficient at converting feed into protein. Crickets, the insects utilized by Chapul, require a twelfth the feed of cattle and half as much as pigs or broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. These benefits aside, Mr. Crowley said it is widely believed the cultural barrier in the United States and Western Europe is simply too high.

“This thinking says, ‘It’s too bad because it makes so much sense at every level — scientifically and logically — but there is this cultural barrier in Western Europe and the United States that is just going to prevent it,’” Mr. Crowley said. “That sounded like a really good challenge to us, to address the cultural side. Everything we are doing at Chapul is to address the cultural aversion or cultural history.”

Chapul’s company mission is to introduce insects into Western cuisine as a healthy, sustainable protein.

He cited a scientist who suggests throughout our history, humans show a heightened awareness of insects.

“It’s because as foragers for thousands of years, we immediately needed to decide whether this little creepy crawler was going to harm us or whether we should grab it and eat it as food supply,” he said.

While culture has removed this decision making, humans still have an immediate response to insects that must be understood by anyone who wants to promote consumption of insects, Mr. Crowley said.

“Knowing that you need to address that is key, because when you are trying to make a rational argument, you need to wait for emotions to subside before you proceed,” he said. “Expecting that response is key to how we present our product. I like to call it, instead of ‘fight or flight,’ it is ‘squeal or meal.’”

Mr. Crowley, trying to get past the cultural aversion, has done research into other industries that required an extraordinary cultural shift. The first was the market for lobster in the United States. He noted a time not too far in the past when the shellfish was not at all popular to the point that protesters objected as inhumane the serving of lobster to New England prisoners more than five days a week.

“In the 1940s and 1950s, it went through a marketing campaign that was very successful obviously, because it is one of the highest cost per pound of any meat,” he said. “It was marketing that got it from junk food to where it is today.

“Another obvious one is sushi.”

Transitional products were key in helping sushi gain a foothold in the United States, he said. In particular, he cited selections like California rolls that were developed to help introduce Americans to sushi, turning the seaweed inside the roll.

“It’s foreign visually to us as Americans,” he said. “We haven’t been eating seaweed. They eliminated that visual, so the emotional response is a little less.

“We knew we had to do that. We took insects and took away the visual by milling them to flour. And we chose the energy bar for consumers who don’t have insects in their diet.”

Chapul bars now may be found in retail store shelves with penetration growing steadily, Mr. Crowley said. Varieties of the company’s bars are based on global markets where insects are eaten, including an Aztec- and Thai-themed bar.

“What you need to do is fill a marketing need,” he said. “We need to first sell the problem, then sell the solution. We are focusing our initial efforts on earlier adopters who require less time and energy to sell.”

These groups included protein conscious and environmentally conscious consumers. Novelty buyers are another target.

“There is an excitement to eating insects,” he said. “We knew we could play on that, but our objective is to target consumers who will make multiple purchases.”

Finding a balance between helping consumers consider the positives of insects as food and fighting a deep seated aversion also is central to the Chapul approach, Mr. Crowley said. Rather than expending exhaustive energy on convincing the loudest naysayers, he said the company focuses its message on those who are receptive, hoping to draw other, more neutral minded, individuals in the process.

“A common question in interviews is, ‘What do you tell people who just can’t get over the psychological hurdle?’” Mr. Crowley said. “The answer is ‘Nothing.’ We don’t tell them anything. That’s not who we are focusing on. We are focusing on people who are eager for a change and want a source of protein that is more efficient and will pave the way to a more diverse and sustainable food system. We put our optimism blinders on and talk to people receptive to the message.”

Mr. Crowley said Chapul has been helped along by a United Nations report on the importance of insects as a source of food in the years to come. The report was issued only two months after the company’s products first hit the market.

“This was phenomenally important to us,” he said. “They helped sell the problem. For a concept like ours, multiple exposures are required. This was very helpful.”

Mr. Crowley also benefited from a successful appearance on the television show “Shark Tank” in which he participated in a televised primetime 10-minute discussion of the product with a group of potential investors.

“We viewed this as a marketing opportunity,” he said. “You pitch the idea in two minutes and then you have a Q.&A.”

Initial responses from the interviewers was quite negative (“I will not taste that!”), but over time the reflexive emotional response receded and each panelist tried the product, he said.

“We had 10 minutes to educate people on the global problem,” he said. “It’s unheard of to have 10 minutes for a marketing problem. This was amazing for us. We were able to get over this emotional response. This was a big step in terms of getting in front of a mainstream audience.”

He described the experience as a microcosm of his business experience overall. While most people had not heard of the idea two years ago when he started in the business, shock is much rarer these days.

“We’re happy with where we are today,” he said.