Nebraska’s Bugeater Foods makes insect-based food products | TheFencePost.com
Mary Jane Bruce

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Nebraska’s Bugeater Foods makes insect-based food products

Most food companies work hard to keep insects out of their products. But a new company based in Lincoln, Neb., produces innovative products made with edible insects. Bugeater Foods produces Jump protein powder from whole cricket flour and the company is looking to expand to other insect-based food products.

"We started the company in 2015 making protein shakes out of crickets," said Julianne Kopf, co-founder of Bugeater Foods. "People would say, 'What are you doing? This is insane.' But when they tried the product, they liked it. So we decided to keep going and make it a business."

Bugeater Foods is a nod to a former name of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cornhusker football team. In the 1890s, the Huskers were known as the Nebraska Bugeaters.

Kopf and her fellow company co-founders are current or former UNL students. Kopf is working on her master's in food science and technology, Kelly Sturek was an economics major and Alec Wiese, the third member of the Bugeater team, majored in entrepreneurship. Sturek and Wiese came up with the idea while still in school and reached out to the UNL Food Science Club for help. Kopf responded quickly because she was already working on cricket-based food at the UNL Food Processing Center.

The Bugeater team was set. Kopf is in charge of product development, Sturek handles business and sales and Wiese, who lives in Colorado, does marketing, packaging and website design.

A big help to the fledgling company was being part of NMotion, a startup accelerator program that helps new businesses move ideas to the marketplace. NMotion startups receive seed capital, training and access to designers and other valuable connections. Through the program, Bugeater Foods was able to connect with Bulu Box, a monthly subscription that provides vitamin and supplement samples to consumers. Feedback from the sampling experience through Bulu Box helped Bugeater Foods modify their product and move forward.

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"We were just a bunch of kids in college with an idea. NMotion made us into a business. It was a great stress test for all of us," Sturek said.

Chocolate- or coffee-flavored Jump protein powder is sold through the company's website, in other e-commerce stores and at some Hyvee stores.

USDA GRANT

The next big turning point for Bugeater Foods came when the company earned a $100,000 research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find new ways to turn insects into healthy food products. After the USDA grant was awarded, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development kicked in an additional $65,000.

In a testing space at the UNL Food Innovation Center on Nebraska Innovation Campus, Kopf experiments with insect-based rice, pasta and ramen noodles. If the company can get by the "ick" factor common in the U.S., insects can improve nutrition and help feed the world. Insect-based products are healthy, sustainable and affordable.

"Rice and pasta are huge staples but they aren't that nutritious," Kopf said. "Insects add iron, protein, zinc, magnesium. Right now we're just using crickets but we want to move over into mealworms, as well. Each insect has its own nutritional profile so products could be tailored to fit the nutritional needs of a certain country."

A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recommends development of insect-based food as a way to meet the needs of a world population that is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. While Americans may be squeamish about their diet, other countries have a more welcoming attitude toward insects as a source of protein. The FAO report estimates about 2 billion people worldwide include insects as part of their diet, from ants and beetle larvae consumed by tribes in Africa and Australia to "crispy-fried locusts and beetles enjoyed in Thailand." The report also explores the idea of using insect-based products for animal feed.

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In the U.S., a handful of cricket farms serve an increasing number of food companies like Bugeater Foods. The industry now has its own association, the North American Edible Insect Coalition, with the mission of advancing the use of insects for food and feed.

The co-founders of Bugeater Foods believe they're on the leading edge of an emerging trend.

"We want to be the Conagra of bugs," Sturek said. "We want to offer multiple products: rice, pasta, ramen, maybe a meat product, snacks. We want to be a really big food company."

The founders of the new company are rewarded by progress, and realistic about the work that lies ahead. Sturek said the experience of starting Bugeater Foods has been both fulfilling and terrifying. For Kopf, the challenge comes from juggling her graduate studies and the demands of a new business.

"We've been doing this for two years now and doing a master's program, as well as running a business is chaos," she said. "I'm usually pulling my hair out, thinking, 'What am I doing?'"

But Kopf grew up on her family farm in Nebraska and she's not afraid of hard work. Someday, she expects to see her insect-based food products on the shelves in grocery stores around the world. ❖

— Bruce is a freelance reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at mbruce1@unl.edu, (402) 472-8512 or on Twitter @mjstweets.