Husker grad turns bugs into delicious grub
As a student worker in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Food Processing Center in 2013, Julianne Kopf took on a task the other employees found gross.
“Not many people wanted the job of grinding up crickets,” Kopf, who earned both a bachelor's and master's degree in food science, said. “Maybe because I’m a small-town farm girl, it didn’t bother me.”
But that particular duty — mashing up crickets and helping food scientist Aaron Dossey develop cricket flour as a therapeutic food — was both informative and prescient.
“I had never thought about insects as a food source, but after going and learning the facts about sustainability and how this is an option for the future, I was definitely on board with it,” Kopf said. “I was one of the few people who would try his initial product.”
The experience left Kopf well-equipped to handle a request from two College of Business students who wanted to develop a protein shake made from insects.
“The food processing center is one place people can come with seemingly crazy ideas and we say, ‘yeah, we can help develop them.’”
– Julianne Kopf, Husker alumna and founder of Bugeater Foods
Jump protein powder launched in 2015, and Kopf, along with fellow Husker alumni Kelly Sturek and Alec Wiese, also founded Bugeater Foods. The company is at the forefront of an emerging industry in the United States — growing and using insects for human food.
“There are about 10 successful companies in the U.S. doing this, including the (insect) farms,” Kopf said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts edible insects will be an important, sustainable source of food and a large industry by 2050 when the world’s population swells to more than 9 billion people.
Bugs as a food source isn’t a new concept. More than 20 percent of the global population count insects as part of their daily diet. In the United States, however, it’s still uncommon — and makes a lot of people cringe — but Kopf said that’s changing.
“I always say there are three types of people: the people who say ‘no way;’ people who say, ‘definitely;’ and people who say, ‘Eh, maybe,’” Kopf said. “And to those people, we say, ‘Give it a try. It has such a great nutritional profile, What have you got to lose?’
“Conscientious eaters are looking for sustainable food sources, and some are looking for an alternative protein.”
After Bugeater Foods launched the protein shake powder, the company was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which allowed Kopf to go back to the Food Processing Center to research and develop more products. Kopf said the center has a national reputation for excellence. That, and her proximity to top food scientists at the university has given her and Bugeater Foods an edge when applying for grants.
“The Food Processing Center is one place people can come with seemingly crazy ideas and we say, ‘Yeah, we can help develop them,’” Kopf said.
This month, Bugeater Foods introduced the Bugs-a-Roni product, which Kopf spent about two years developing.
“It was a lot of trial and error, with various amounts of wheat, and trying different grind sizes of cricket flour,” Kopf said.
The recipe has been perfected now, and the pasta is similar to whole wheat pasta in look and taste but offers much more dietary iron and protein. Kopf said they started the product line with macaroni-shaped pasta because it can be shipped easily, without much breakage. She said the company will likely offer more shapes and types of pasta in the future, including a gluten-free variety.
Kopf said there are also plans to incorporate additional insects into the products of Bugeater Foods, and is in the midst of writing grant applications to secure funding for new product research.
“Mealworms are next,” Kopf said. “I prefer to work with mealworm powder. It has a better flavor and reminds me of tofu in the way it takes on flavors better.”