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Crickets have descended on the cafes and restaurants of St. Louis, and they’re selling like hotcakes.

And they’re selling in hotcakes.

More specifically, the nocturnal chirpers are providing a protein boost for SqWires’ buckwheat and banana pancakes, one of the insect-infused meals, snacks and desserts available through October at 40 local eateries.

Crickety curry vegetables, chocolate cricket bonbons and crickety creamy tomato-basil bisque are on menus for the #CricketChallenge, a monthlong marketing push by the Mighty Cricket, a St. Louis company that has been selling cricket powder and cricket cereals since last year.

“It just tastes like tomato-basil soup,” said SqWires manager AJ Miller, of the soup that’s gotten a lift from the colder weather. “It’s such a great way to get protein.”

The Mighty Cricket touts itself as an alternative protein source, one that makes less of an environmental impact than beef, pork or chicken but has more essential nutrients than plant-based proteins such as beans and legumes.

Across the world, bugs are a dietary staple. About 2 billion people, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, eat insects daily, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

In the U.S., the industry is still niche, but growing — using gimmicks such as the #CricketChallenge to woo skittish consumers used to eating meat that doesn’t take up residence in the dark corners of their basements.

Cricket powder, or cricket flour, is one way to ease the bugaboo of swallowing six legs and a pair of antennae. The Mighty Cricket uses ground-up crickets from Canadian suppliers, packaging the chestnut-colored particles at its Old North plant.

Founder Sarah Schlafly spent almost a decade in the food industry before launching the Mighty Cricket with partner Adam Kronk. When her daughter was born, Schlafly started worrying about the long-term sustainability of the food system.

“The world’s resources are getting more and more scarce,” she said. “Insects require a fraction of the resources of other protein.”

Pancake and waffle mix and three flavors of oatmeal — dark cocoa, coconut cream and apple cinnamon — are for sale on the company’s website, cricketcereal.com.

The website shares recipes for chocolate chirp cookies, mighty banana bread and no-bake protein bites. The crickets themselves don’t add much in the way of taste. Maybe a little nutty. Kind of earthy. But mostly undetectable, she said.

Eco-conscious eating

“Crickets are the gateway bug,” said Tad Yankoski, the senior entomologist at the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House. “I think it’s becoming more mainstream, but it’s coming in as a trickle rather than a flood.”

Yankoski has taught classes on cooking with insects for the past three years, christening himself the St. Louis Bug Chef.

“Crickets are one of the easiest insects to farm in large quantities,” said Yankoski. “They’re not too finicky and picky in what they eat. They’re fast to grow.”

And their ecological footprint matches their size.

For every pound of protein produced by what Yankoski calls “the big three” — chickens, pigs and cows — about three pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted, he said. Every pound of cricket protein produces about a gram of the greenhouse gas. Farming crickets requires about 1% of the water needed to raise equivalent amounts of traditional meats.

The tiny scavengers also punch above their weight when it comes to nutritional content.

Pound for pound, crickets have seven times the iron and five times the calcium as beef. Two tablespoons of cricket powder — the amount you might add to a smoothie — has 10 grams of protein, four more than a large egg. And it provides a whole day’s allotment of vitamin B12.

But the cost can put cricket powder out of reach as a daily staple. The Mighty Cricket’s quarter-pound bags sell for $12.99, about twice as much per serving as whey protein powder. If demand continues to build, however, economies of scale should help bring those prices down.

In the past few years, there has been an uptick in insect-based food startups in the U.S, with one company, Chapul, nabbing investors on the TV show “Shark Tank.”

But the progress has been slow. Products with insect ingredients grew an average of 5% each year between 2013 and 2017, according to Innova Market Insights. That was far exceeded by the 36% spike in pea protein products. Black bean protein leapt 14% in that time.

Bug bites

Of course, crickets have something that peas and black beans lack: novelty.

At Kirkwood Pop Co., owner Anna Carr has been selling a cricket-challenge chocolate popcorn alongside her pink vanilla and pumpkin spice flavors.

“A lot of people who we have coming in here are looking to try something new,” Carr said.

Crickets fit the bill.

And for every person who squirmed when they read the description of The Cup’s crick-cake, another has been curious enough to give the cupcake a try, said Emily Hart, the Central West End bakery’s production supervisor.

Cricket powder is mixed with the dry ingredients for the caramel-cinnamon cake with buttercream frosting. Sales of the crick-cake have been on par with the café’s other limited-edition flavors, Hart said.

“It’s a pretty yummy little cake,” she said. “It came together pretty easily.”

The recipe did undergo one significant modification. Her first iteration had pecan pieces baked inside the cake, but it was rejected by her taste-testers.

The bite-sized crunch was just a little too reminiscent of the special ingredient’s source.

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