UPDATE: “As of now we are catering events but we will be starting online sales soon. You’ll be able to order it from Protein Responsibly very soon.” –Anish Kirtane, Co-Founder
We had the opportunity to sit down with Protein Responsibly (formerly Numu Burger) and discuss what they have been up to recently, and where the business is headed.
The idea for the business itself blossomed from the conversations and educational interests of co-founders Abdulrahman Hassaballah and Anish Kirtane, both postgraduate engineering students at the University at Buffalo. The discussions they had around the topics they were exposed to in class led them to seek solutions to the problems they learned about. The environmental issue they focused on was beef production, one of the largest sources for carbon emissions in the world. A viable, sustainable, low-carbon alternative to beef in a modern diet, even if eaten only once every now and then, could potentially have a huge beneficial impact on the environment. The team is in no way against beef consumption. They’re just looking to add another option to the menu. Their idea: a burger composed of insects.
Anish, originally from India, and Abdul, originally from Egypt, are both used to having bugs be a routine part of human nutrition from their native countries. The major hurdle they face in the United States is getting over the cultural hindrance to insect consumption. To combat this, they’ve attempted to transform the insects into a more palatable form. In the same way cow meat is transformed into a burger, or poultry is transformed into chicken nuggets, Protein Responsibly transforms mealworms into a patty that is able to be eaten like a burger. (And yes, the mealworms are FDA approved for human consumption and shipped in from a farm in Colorado.)
To assist with the business aspect of things, the engineers reached out to the Sustainability Fellows at UB, an on-campus organization of students focusing on implementing sustainability education and practices. From their ranks they were able to find Olivia Burgner, an undergraduate business major from Long Island with a focus in finance. The fit was perfect and the team has gelled ever since.
After testing different ingredients and cooking methods, the group found a tasty, consistent recipe. They sought validation from other sources, like holding a large tasting for students and faculty at UB. A major boost came when they placed third in the World’s Challenge Challenge, an international collegiate competition where students present solutions to effectively address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals. Apart from the acclaim of placing at such a prestigious competition, they additionally won some seed money to continue growing the business.
While balancing studying, writing papers, and going to school full time, the students prioritize and pursue furthering Protein Responsibly’s mission. They do this by exposing as many people as they can to their product to overcome the typical American’s reluctance to eat bugs. We were fortunate enough to get a taste and see how they are made when we visited Anish and Abdul’s apartment in Buffalo. The mealworms themselves can be eaten like a snack, and tasted like sunflower seeds when I popped a handful in my mouth after Olivia pulled a bag out of their freezer. After blending up the mealworms, adding binding agents and spices, and cooking the mixture on a George Foreman grill, we were presented with Protein Responsibly burgers. Anish dressed it up with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, and mayonnaise, standard dressings on any burger. It tasted like falafel, which was definitely not what I expected. When you eat something new and different, you almost expect it to taste like something different. But falafel? The thing we can eat to combat global warming tastes like falafel? That’s easy enough to work into a meal plan. I just thought the environmental culinary holy grail would be a bit harder to swallow, not something I’d stuff my face with.
Esteemed photographer, Luke Copping, directed the conversation with Protein Responsibly and created the portraits featured here.
Videographer, Andy Morin, lent his skilled eye (and hardware arsenal) to capture Abdulrahman, Anish, and Olivia in motion.
And Buffalo Rising’s Devin Chavanne (who, with Andy, shared Director of Photography responsibilities) shot the Protein Responsibly team in action. Devin also edited the piece.