Irresistible Insects #3: Hunting Insect-Based in Japan
These unique companies are making the gateway-bugs to get Japan hooked on edible insects.
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We’re bringing the low down on insect-based products in the Japanese market, fresh to your inbox this Tuesday morning!
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Last week, we took a world tour of startups and companies that are shaping the edible insect market in major regions across the world. We found that the category of insect-based products is still being defined. Many companies are experimenting with products across different applications, but insects are predominantly being used in protein powders and bars for now.
The situation in Japan is refreshingly different, although companies face similar hurdles to market expansion in terms of customer aversion to insects, high cost of production, and a lack of local regulation. Let’s jump in!
History of entomophagy in Japan
Insects have traditionally been consumed in rural parts of Japan as they still are today. An example of the practice can be found in central Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, where rural communities still gather Zazamushi ― insect larvae that develop in rivers, to use as side dishes that accompany rice.
During and after World War II, the country battled food scarcity. At this time, more people turned to insects as a source of nutrition, but this fact has long been forgotten by modern consumers, many of whom would not consider eating insects today.
Traditional entomophagy in Japan has gained some attention recently, as international and local interest in the practice of eating insects has been increasing. For example, over recent years there has been a growth in the number of visitors to the annual wasp-eating festival, the Kushihara Hebo Festival.
Commercial insect-based foods emerge in Japan
Beginning in the 2010’s, Japan has seen a rise in companies producing and selling insect-based products commercially. Most are riding the wave of the world’s recent interest in insects as a sustainable alternative protein to traditional livestock proteins.
The availability of commercial edible insects increased in the early 2010s, as several companies such as TAKEO started importing products from overseas.
Consumers were initially interested in these products for their novelty which, as we know from previous cycles like alt milk, is a key driver in the Japanese market. TAKEO (2014) reported that early customers of their mail order service for edible insects bought the products for “punishment games”, which involve games in which the loser is forced to incur punishment in the form of eating an insect. Japanese social media remains infested with videos of people playing such games, a sign of Japanese consumers’ general ‘ick’ attitude to insect-based products.
Do insects have a future beyond novelty products in Japan?
Signs point to ‘yes’! More recently, we have seen a rise of Japanese startups that produce products incorporating insects such as snacks, ramen and even beer. In 2020, Japanese household goods giant MUJI released a popular cricket cracker online and via its brick and mortar stores. Forbes reports it continues to fly off store shelves as soon as it comes in. The endorsement of a product by a large company in Japan has a big sway on consumers’ willingness to try it too. We at Market Shake are confident this is a sign of increasing consumer interest in edible insects, and this will continue to grow over the next few years.
That being said, the market for insect products in Japan is still small. There’s a lot left to be done before we see growth. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges and opportunities.
Overcoming the “ick” factor: edible insects’ biggest barrier
Despite mounds of potential, one of the biggest barriers facing edible insect products in Japan and globally is the “ick factor”: the industry term for consumers’ aversion to insects.
A survey published in the Journal of Japanese Society of Clinical Nutrition found that 90% of students surveyed wouldn’t even consider eating insects. In an interview with IBM(Japanese), Japan’s foremost expert on edible insects, Shouichi Uchiyama, attributes widespread aversion to insects in Japan to associations with low-hygiene levels, disease, and distrust of foods that aren’t commonly sold in supermarkets.
The market for edible insects in Japan lags behind counterparts in Europe or the US, for example, where consumers are interested in edible insects for their sustainability benefits. In Japan, more needs to be done to give consumers the chance to try various insect-based foods.
But the work is well underway! Several events giving consumers the opportunity to try insect-based food have been held in Japan. For example, a quasi-annual edible insect festival, held by Shoichi Uchiyama, has been held over the past few years. Also in 2020, SILKFOOD LAB, a pop-up cafe serving silkworm dishes, opened in Tokyo for several months.
Edible insect startups are also collaborating with other companies to bring familiar products to the market, but with a twist. Startup company FUTURENAUT collaborated with baked goods company, Pasco Shikishima Corp, to launch cricket-infused baked goods and a baking kit via their online store in 2021. The release was featured on Japanese T.V., prompting the products to sell out quickly to curious consumers.
Finally, large companies in Japan like MUJI and discount store chain, Don Quijote, who sell insect-based products in their stores, are helping to raise consumer awareness of edible insects as an option for consumers in Japan.
The cost of creepy crawlies is still high
Cost is another barrier to the success of the edible insect market in Japan. Insect raw materials are currently considerably more expensive than traditional and plant-based proteins. Companies and consumers are reluctant to engage with insect products for this reason. However, with demand increasing, it’s only a matter of time before insect protein suppliers increase and costs come down, as has been the case in other countries like Finland.
So, while there are challenges to edible insects in Japan, the market is still young and Japan has several interesting players already working to popularize insect-based products.
Let’s take a look at the companies that are taking on these challenges and working to pioneer the edible insect market in Japan!
Overview of Japan’s edible insect brands and companies
First, regulations. Currently, there are no clear regulations regarding edible insects in Japan. Official regulations would equate to recognition from the government that insects are considered food for humans and pets. As you’ll read in our exclusive interview with insect-based product startup, FUTURENAUT, in a few weeks, companies are working hard to get the topic of edible insects square on regulators’ plates.
Household goods retailer, MUJI, entered the insect-based product market in May 2020 when they released a cricket senbei via their online store. In response to demand, MUJI began selling their product via brick-and-mortar stores. It has reportedly been hopping off the shelves since.
Off the back of the cricket senbei success, they released a cricket-based chocolate bar at the end of 2021. The product is marketed as a protein bar, a sign that the time may be right in Japan for insect-based protein products to take off as they have overseas.
MUJI sources their cricket powder from Gryllus, a venture-backed by Tokushima University and Japan’s leading breeder of crickets for human consumption. They recently secured ¥230 million via a funding round. In an interview with the Japan Times, CEO Takahito Watanabe explained how the demand for cricket-based protein in Japan is booming:
“Right now demand exceeds supply by about 100 times,” he says. “We produce around 10 million crickets annually, but that is far from enough. We’re currently in the process of constructing another cricket farm that should boost production tenfold.”
CEO Takahito Watanabe, “Insects: The Future of Food?”, by The Japan Times
FUTURENAUT was founded in 2019 by a graduate student of Takasaki University, Ren Sakurai. Inspired by his studies of edible insects, Sakurai started FUTURENAUT to promote edible insects as a sustainable and delicious food source to consumers in Japan.
FUTURENAUT sells a range of cricket-based products including cricket flour, cricket chocolate bars and cricket crackers.
At the end of 2020, FUTURENAUT attracted media attention when they partnered with Pasco Shikishima, Japan’s second-largest baked goods manufacturer, on a range of baked goods made with cricket flour.
In addition to producing their own products, FUTURENAUT has also partnered with SENS, a European protein bar company, as their distribution partner in Japan.
In an exclusive interview with Market Shake, FUTURENAUT’s CEO Ren Sakurai explains how he aims to expand his business in Japan by working to increase consumers’ access to insect-based products.
“I think it is important to increase the number of people who have tried insects…In Japan, we have a culture of eating things like shrimps and sea cucumbers that look more disgusting than insects. The reason why people can’t eat insects in Japan is that they don’t have the experience yet.”
CEO Ren Sakurai, Exclusive Interview with Market Shake
To read the full interview, keep an eye on your inboxes over the coming weeks!
Founded in 2018, ELLIE is a startup originating from Tokyo University that produces food and beverages using silk moth larvae. One of the few companies to use this raw material, ELLIE currently sells silk moth enriched protein smoothies and silkworm crackers via their online store, Silk Food.
In 2020, ELLIE attracted over ¥45 million in funding from investors such as Ibis Partners and Mitsui Sumitomo Marine Capital.
The company has invested in marketing activities to increase consumer awareness of silkworm-based foods by opening a pop-up cafe in Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando district.
“Compared to when we started our company in 2018, the reception toward edible insects has improved substantially…I can sense that consumers are picking up on the trend and how it could benefit our environment.”
CEO Takahiro Kajikuri, “Insects: The Future of Food?”, by The Japan Times
MNH Co. Ltd is a food manufacturing company that utilizes a community partnership model to manufacture food and beverage lines. They launched their Cricket Confectionary line in 2017, which includes a range of products such as cricket crackers and whole edible insects.
In 2021, they also launched a home-baking cricket kit to promote the consumption of crickets as a future food source that can contribute to achieving the UN’s SDGs. The product targets kids to teach them about food’s role in the SDG’s. Younger consumers are more open to trying insects as they haven’t formed any biases against bugs yet, making them a high-potential demographic for producers of edible insect products.
MNH Co. sell their products online via their own website, BugsFarm, and Amazon.
Established in 2014, TAKEO’s vision is to create a world where insects can be enjoyed in the same way that vegetables, meat and fish are today. To do this, TAKEO develops its own insect-based products such as cricket-based soft drink, TAKEO Cidre, in addition to importing insect-based products from overseas.
TAKEO primarily sells products via their online store. They also operate a brick and mortar store- cum-cafe in Tokyo. It sells products from its site and serves a range of insect-based food and drinks including Cricket Pasta and Silk Moth Tea.
ANTCICADA is a pioneering insect-based food restaurant that opened in 2020 in Tokyo. The company was founded by Yuta Shinohara, who was inspired by the UN 2013 report on insects we mentioned in our first post.
The restaurant serves cricket-based ramen and also an insect-based course menu of food such as steak made with ingredients like cricket soy sauce.
ANTCICADA has partnered with several producers in Japan to produce products for their restaurant and commercial sale. In 2020 they partnered with Noda Miso Shoten Co. Ltd on a soy sauce made from crickets, and Tono Brewing Co. to create a cricket-based stout.
In addition to high-quality insect-based products, Anticiada’s gourmet food and classy website design is testimony to the company’s mission to help customers see insects as a delicious, sustainable food source.
MOG BUG is a brand of insect-based product vending machines dotted around Tokyo that launched in 2019. The vending machines are operated by Asia Tokyo World Co. Ltd, a company that owns and manages bars and restaurants in Tokyo.
Vending machines include products such as cricket ramen, whole insects from Thai company JR Unique, and products like TAKEO’s Cricket Cidre.
The vending machines use cute logos and an active Instagram account to target young women who, according to the company website, are drawn to the low calorie, nutrient-rich benefits of insects.
Overseas brands available in Japan
There are several overseas edible insect products available in Japan. The majority come from Thailand’s JR Unique (trading name: Thailand Unique), which we introduced last week. Their products are sold online via edible insect marketplaces like BugsFarm and TAKEO, and also in the large national discount chain Don Quijote.
Pet foods and animal feed
Yora Pet Foods
Yora, one of the U.K’s leading insect-based pet food startups, launched their product in Japan in 2020. Their dog food is a cocktail of black soldier fly protein and plant-based ingredients. It is available online and has attracted positive attention from pet blogs.
MUSCA launched in 2016 as is a startup that produces organic fertilizer and fish feed from housefly larvae.
MUSCA’s houseflies have been engineered to grow to produce feed and fertilizer much faster than conventional means. Though still in a pilot stage, the company has received hundreds of millions of yen in Investment from companies including ITOCHU and Marubeni. This is a reminder to companies with their sights set on Japan that large trading houses are always on the lookout for sustainable investment and partnership opportunities.
That’s all, folks!
Next week, where we will hear directly from consumers in Japan about their thoughts on edible insect products. Stay tuned for some fascinating edible insect insights!
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