Campus News

'Bug burger' idea wins UB World's Challenge Challenge

Three University at Buffalo Students stand holding an oversized check for three thousand dollars.

From left, Anish Ajay Kirtane, Olivia Burgner and Abdulrahman Hassaballah are all smiles after winning the UB World's Challenge Challenge.


Published April 19, 2019

“We think if we can have an alternative protein source that is also affordable, we can help alleviate hunger. ”
Abdulrahman Hassaballah, PhD candidate
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

“For every 100 beef burgers we eat, that’s around 750 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s a conservative estimate,” says Abdulrahman Hassaballah, a PhD candidate in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering.

In contrast, “For every 100 insect burgers, that number is 10 pounds.”

Hassaballah, fellow graduate student Anish Ajay Kirtane and business administration junior Olivia Burgner earned first place in UB’s World’s Challenge Challenge (WCC), and $3,000, for their work on a sustainable beef alternative that addresses three of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The sustainable beef alternative, Numu, would address climate action, responsible consumption and production, and zero hunger.

“Beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars in the world combined,” according to Kirtane. “It takes a lot of land to grow food and there is a lot of deforestation. The maintenance associated with it is huge, and we don’t really notice it.”

Much of the world embraces insects as food

Insects are part of a regular diet in other areas of the world. Both Hassaballah and Kirtane traveled to different countries where people were not “repulsed” by the idea, and instead embraced it.

“I was traveling to China and Vietnam, and for me, at the time, it was more of an adventure — ‘Look, I’m eating insects,’ — but when I realized how terrible beef is, I looked at this as a sustainable alternative we are not using,” Kirtane says.

These dishes are not just a staple in Eastern countries, either. “Recently, I ate insects in Mexico,” Hassaballah says, adding, “This is a global thing, it isn’t just a faraway Eastern phenomenon.”

There are different ways to prepare insects for human consumption, and the team is cognizant of the fact that people in the United States are used to eating processed beef, or meat that looks appealing.

Patties made of mealworms, seasoning

Six mealworm burgers on buns with toppings - they look like normal cheeseburgers.

The student team behind Numu burgers conducted a taste test with friends and colleagues to gauge reactions.

Anish, Hassaballah and Burgner use mealworms and different seasonings in their patties to make them look like what one might expect from a quinoa or veggie burger.

“People tend to associate physical appearance with disgust, and that’s why you don’t eat a cow, you eat a well-seasoned steak,” says Kirtane. “That’s the end product, and that’s what we want to do with our product.”

Most people do not see the process of turning the cow into the “well-seasoned steak,” and fewer realize what goes into housing and feeding the cattle used to create beef or steak. Instead of a typical ranch, raising insects would require a micro-ranch or micro-farm, a space no larger than an average conference room. Developing and maintaining these smaller spaces instead of large ranches will lower consumption and production, says Hassaballah.

“Our agricultural land needs to double, just to sustain the population growth that will occur in the next 20 years, and that’s probably not going to happen,” he says, “Changing our diet and the land it takes to grow insects is nothing compared to the amount of land we consume, the amount of trees we cut down to make space for pastures for cows to eat.”

Way more sustainable than beef

Transitioning to Numu burgers would reduce the consumption of other finite resources like water. According to Hassaballah, approximately 1,500 gallons of water go into making a steak. Numu burgers would require a fraction of that amount. The burgers can be transported at room temperature, and would not require the large and costly frozen trucks and shipping containers.

Fewer resources associated with Numu means faster food production. These burgers require less land, and the insects take less time to mature than cows.

“There is a lot of environmental cost associated with beef. A cow needs to grow for four years before we can eat it,” says Kirtane. “An insect needs to grow for two months, and they reproduce much faster.”

The rate at which insects reproduce, and the process of creating Numu burgers, allow for a greater quantity of food to be developed in a shorter period of time. With more food to go around, this alternative can help address the hunger crisis in the U.S. and around the world.

“Hunger is not like a ‘Third World vs. the West’ concept. A malnutrition problem does exist here,” says Hassaballah. “I think the number globally was one in nine people expirences food insecurity. The number in the rural U.S. is one in six. This isn’t a far-fetched thing. We think if we can have an alternative protein source that is also affordable, we can help alleviate hunger.”

Students held 'bug banquet'

The first step in trying to expand Numu will be working on product validation. The three students held a “bug banquet” with some friends and UB colleagues in order to test how people react to the burgers. They plan to hold more bug banquets, and they are also working with the group’s mentor, Zach Schneider, founder of Ru’s Pierogi.

“One of the ideas is to have a sustainable food truck with our burgers, veggie burgers and other sustainable foods to see if consumers are going for it,” Kirtane says. “If it piques curiosity and if people are coming back for seconds, we may have something.”

If the production validation phase goes according to plan, the next step is to manufacture Numu at a larger scale and distribute the burgers to restaurants.

The team will travel to Canada to participate in the international World’s Challenge Challenge competition this summer, and they are utilizing some of the support services at UB.

“Blackstone Launchpad is offering a lot of help like coaching sessions with mentors,” Hassaballah says. “We’re very appreciative for the opportunity to do something like this. Anish and I work with the same adviser (Lauren Sassoubre), and she is really supportive.”

Tastes sort of falafel-y

The group will compete at the international level to receive funding to progress Numu burgers. The idea for the product came during a lab discussion between Kirtane and Hassaballah.

“We just happened to meet in lab one day and discussed the advantages of eating insects and Anish mentioned WCC and it snowballed from there,” says Hassaballah. “We spent a lot of Sunday afternoons, the three of us together, experimenting with recipes and poking our fingers into patties asking ‘is this good?’ we went through the experimental phase together.”

The recipe the team settled on could vary depending on who the cook is. Hassaballah describes Numu as “better than a veggie or quinoa burger” in terms of taste. One of their colleagues described the taste as “falafel-y.”

Numu is meant to be served with the typical hamburger toppings — ketchup, mayonnaise, etc. — and Kirtane suspects why their colleague may have compared the taste to falafel. “I’m from India, Abdul is from Egypt,” he says. “It’s inevitable that we add more spices.”

Burgner, Hassaballah and Kirtane will compete at the WCC Global Final June 2-June 6 at Western University in London, Ontario, for a chance to win up to $30,000 Canadian.


This is a really neat initiative! However, I do want to point out that it's the way that industrially farmed cattle are raised that leads to excessive greenhouse gas emissions, not the cattle themselves. For instance, cows raised in harmony with their surrounding ecosystem can actually help sequester more GHG emissions than they produce. I encourage anyone reading this to look up the world-famous farmer "Joel Salatin" and his farming techniques to see what I mean!

Unfortunately, it's unlikely his techniques will ever be applied on a large enough scale to affect significant change worldwide.

As such, alternative solutions like these are great options!

Russell Barbera

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have already supplied us with delicious substitutes for beef; we do not need to kill anyone to make either. Please stop exploiting anyone and anything that cannot speak for themselves in the name of saving the planet. We have evolved and are better than this. 

Brenda A Morris

It is good to know that insect burgers have fewer calories than regular beef burgers. I believe it will be a great way to conserve the environment and also help those who want to lose belly fat.

Lilian Rowland