The soft drinks and snacks markets are changing. Consumers are progressively turning towards healthier, and more sustainable alternatives. Three deep trends are behind this slow evolution: our greater understanding of how climate change affects water, energy and food systems; increased awareness of how our choices affect communities that produce food commodities; and growing health consciousness. This month we chose to focus our sustainable product review on this most emblematic segment of the modern food industry. Here’s how you can reduce climate change with a protein bar, and change lives in the Amazon with a soft drink, all while improving your health.

I Don’t Like Crickets: I Love Them – The Healthy Protein Bar Made with Cricket Flour

According to the UN, edible insects may well be a solution for sustainable food supply to a growing population[1]. While the idea of eating insects may make you wince, using bugs for food is considered normal for a big part of the planet’s population: nearly 1,000 types of insects are consumed in 80% of countries worldwide. It is not part of the food culture in developed countries, but a small group of entrepreneurs want to change that.

Founded in 2013 in New York by two Brown University graduates, Exo bars began producing protein bars made with cricket flour in March 2014. Merely six months after, they raised $1.2 million[2] to respond to surprising demand – each batch produced sold out within a few weeks.

Exo is made with natural ingredients, produced locally, with a lower environmental footprint than other animal based protein sources. Crickets are 20 times more efficient as a source of protein than cattle[3], while producing 80 times less methane, a potent greenhouse gas. From a health perspective, it is a complete protein, with all amino acids and micronutrients such as iron and B-vitamins[4].

Intrigued by the possibilities, Cornerstone staff undertook a thoroughly unscientific taste test of the Exo bars in our New York office. The idea of an unusual, low-impact, healthy snack, prepared by a Michelin-star chef, was appealing. The actual result of this test wasn’t affected by the quality of the protein bar itself, which was – for all of the three flavors ordered – actually rather good. It was linked to how each of us reacted viscerally to the idea of eating insects, even though it felt like eating a perfectly normal protein bar, a mixture of chewiness and crunchiness, with a powdery texture.  Not surprisingly, the appeal of the product related to deeply embedded tastes and preferences.

We have seen other unconventional foods, such as kombucha, coconut water, or sushi, become mainstream. While crickets may put off many customers, the health benefits may well win the Exo bar a following. At least a dozen companies have endeavored to develop insect-based foods, including those looking to source these critters for the pet food, aquaculture and animal feed markets. But as The Economist points out, broader issues, such as hygiene and safety guidelines[5], and supply chain security and sustainability, will need to be addressed when feeding humans, who often think of swatting vs. swallowing insects. However, crickets not only have a low environmental footprint, they are also easier to produce[6], and with economies of scale, will become even cheaper than they are today. The question is how long it will take mainstream consumers to accept this new type of food source.

Runa Tea: A Better Social and Health Impact

Another compelling entrepreneur story is that of Runa Tea, founded in 2009[7]. Built with the desire to reverse the unsustainable practices in the Ecuadorian Amazon by using the rainforest’s strengths, the founders of the company identified guayusa – a naturally caffeinated tree leaf – as the basis of their business model. Guayusa grows naturally in the Ecuadorian rainforest, and when brewed like tea, produces a refreshing, anti-oxidant and stimulating drink. The leaf is harvested by hand in the forest, in a method that is similar to tea production, and transported the same day to the factory where it is processed. Guayusa contains as much caffeine as coffee, and is twice as anti-oxidant as green tea, without the tannins that can create a bitter taste[8]. Runa tea aims both to produce healthier alternatives to soft, caffeinated drinks in developed countries, and to empower local communities and help them preserve the rich ecosystem that has supported guayusa for centuries. Runa tea is sold in nearly 6,500 stores in the US, and provides a livelihood to more than 2,000 farming families in Ecuador.

While it is very much a niche product, Runa is emblematic of a deeper transformation underway in the food and beverage market. Traditional companies like PepsiCo are looking into such alternatives – as they are both healthier (Runa boasts health benefits including immune support and digestive aid) and offer the same benefits as coffee and tea – refreshment and focused energy– without the drawbacks. Moreover, Runa is a new type of business, integrating positive social and environmental impacts as a strategic core competency. For example, Runa pays 15% on top of each sale into a social premium fund for the communities purveying guayusa. Guayusa provides additional income for the farmers, as the plant grows well interspersed with other crops, not replacing existing farming activities. And because the plant grows within the forest, needing tree shade to develop, its farming provides a monetary incentive for local communities to maintain and protect existing forests.

Runa tea is an example of what we called for in the February 2014 edition of the JSFB: re-discovery of the real value of the rainforest[9]. The local knowledge and the immense pool of opportunities that native forest ecosystems contain, were instrumental in the development of a brand like Runa tea. Integrating positive social and environmental impacts at the core of the product, in its development, marketing and sales, and into the total impact of the business model, as is the case of both Exo bars and Runa tea, is emblematic of the new entrepreneurial spirit that drives future revenues for food companies. It is also the beginning of a much-needed transformation of the food system as a whole.

Margarita Pirovska, PhD is the Policy & Sustainability Analyst at Cornerstone Capital Inc.
 

[1] http://www.fao.org/forestry/edibleinsects/en/
[2] http://venturebeat.com/2014/09/23/1m-for-cookies-made-from-crickets-tim-ferris-thinks-these-will-jump-into-our-diets/
[3] Crickets contain 69% of protein per 100g of weight; also, crickets need 6 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein – see http://exoprotein.com/pages/why-crickets
[4] One caveat is that people allergic to shellfish have a small risk of being allergic to crickets as well.
[5] http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21620560-merits-and-challenges-turning-bugs-food-insect-mix-and-health
[6] http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/big-cricket-2
[7] http://runa.org/
[8] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140703-guayusa-ecuador-amazon-health-foods-tea/
[9] http://cornerstonecap.wpengine.com/2014/02/the-real-value-of-the-rainforest/