You’re first reaction is probably, Eeeeewwww. Or if you’re more charitable, Huh???
But a new generation of food entrepreneurs is out to change the way you think about crickets (less “summer night,” more “dinner plate”). And from the looks of things, they just might be succeeding.
Megan Miller recently founded Bitty, a San Francisco startup that uses high-protein cricket flour as the basis for energy bars and gluten-free baked goods, after backpacking through Mexico and Thailand, where insects are a common part of the diet. She’s been successful enough to be invited to speak about crickets as a sustainable protein source at TedX this year.
Exo (as in skeleton, get it?) was launched by two Brown University students in 2013 to sell cricket-based protein bars to Paleos, gluten-phobes, and the sustainable-food set. By September of this year, Grub Street reported that they’d secured $1.2 million of seed funding, and a few weeks after that, Exo’s parent company, AccelFoods announced that JetBlue would be offering the insect bars on select flights this winter.
Is this just the latest crazy-stunt eating trend?
Gabi Lewis, who founded Exo with Greg Sewitz, believes in their staying power—and in crickets’ nutrient quality. He cites a 200-page UN report from several years ago that argues that widespread adoption of anthropoentomophagy—the use of insects as human food—is the answer to feeding a growing global population in a world whose climate may be going bonkers, and states that “there is ample evidence that the nutrition offered by several [insect] species matches or surpasses that which is contained in traditional non-vegetarian foods.” (Rock star chefs like Alex Atala and Rene Redzepi have been arguing the same point on the food festival circuit and on their boundary-pushing menus at DOM and Noma.)
He also mentions the company’s own research and “a decent amount of academic literature” (much of which is cited in the UN report) showing some pretty impressive facts: Gram for gram, the chirpers have more iron than beef and more calcium than milk. And of course, they are high in bioavailable protein—10 grams per soy-, gluten- and dairy-free bar—with all the essential amino acids.
But how to make the food source palatable to Americans? “We thought that figuring out how to get people past the mental barrier [of eating insects] would be a worthy cause,” says Lewis. “So we partnered with a world-class, Michelin three-star chef [Kyle Connaughton, an alum of that other avant-gastronomy temple, the Fat Duck] to create these bars as an introductory vehicle for insect protein.”
Getting past the ick factor
He’s been surprised by how quickly people have gotten past the ick factor once they try the bars, which have a slightly nutty flavor, and have no legs or antennae in sight. (One Well+Good writer confirmed it didn’t taste bad but that it’s hard to forget what you’re chewing.) Lewis likens crickets to formerly eeeewwww-inspiring foods like lobster, kombucha and sushi: “Raw fish was viewed as disgusting in the U.S. until the 1960s when a chef in L.A. created the California roll by hiding the fish inside rice and seaweed. These bars are Exo’s California roll.”
A further note about the ick factor, at least in theory, is the clean diet of insects: The UN report states that “Most of us who’ve perceived insects as loathsome creatures all our lives will find it difficult to believe that a lot of insect species are strict herbivores with much cleaner eating habits than…lobster, fowl, pork and even rumen [cattle].” That diet also makes their production far less resource-heavy than raising the animal protein we’re eating now.
Among the converts is Erica Giovinazzo, MS, RD, a Brick New York CrossFit coach and nutritionist, who eats Exo bars and recommends them to clients as a healthier alternative to other protein bars on the market (though like many bars, their fat, sugar, and calories can run up to 20 grams, 18 grams, and 300, respectively).
“I liked the concept because it is a good source of protein and hugely sustainable,” she says. “I tried them out and they taste good too, so…that was that!” —Ann Abel