With a global population expected to be anywhere from 8.1 to 10.6 billion by 2050, finding sustainable ways to feed the planet is a challenge that we need to start thinking about now. While the idea of eating insects as part of a meal is a relatively common practice in many countries around the world, getting most Westerners on board is a tougher sell. That’s not stopping former college roommates, Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz, from introducing a new kind of protein bar to the marketplace, one made from cricket flour.
Their company Exo recently launched a Kickstarter campaign and the pair are hoping that their new product will do for insects what the California Roll did for sushi. PSFK had a chance to talk to the duo to learn more about the health and environmental benefits of eating insects, the challenges of marketing their bars to skeptical audiences and of course, what it tastes like.
Greg: Gabi and I went to college together and actually met the first few days of our freshman year. A few months ago, Gabi was independently working on trying to develop a protein bar that tasted good but wasn’t just a candy bar disguised as health food. He was struggling to find the right protein source. I went to a conference at MIT around that same time on the breakdown of global systems, resource scarcity, etc, and was reminded of an article I’d read a while back about how insects could be the protein of the future if we could just convince people to eat them. We were also roommates during that time so in talking to each other, we realized that it made sense to combine the ideas.
As far as why it makes sense to eat insects, the facts are pretty astounding. Firstly, we clearly have a huge food problem on our hands. By 2030, the world will need at least 50% more food and 30% more water, but livestock already accounts for 70% of all land cleared for agriculture and 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, far more than cars, planes, and trains combined. There’s not really any room to grow that in a sustainable way. Almost half of global water is used to produce animal-based foods.
However, crickets need 12x less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein and they produce 80x less methane. They require barely any physical water or space and produce offspring much faster. If you take all this stuff into account, crickets are about 20x more efficient as a source of protein compared to cattle.
Gabi: Coupled with the environmental arguments are the nutritional ones. Insects in general are just really good for you – high in protein and micronutrients such as B-vitamins, beta-carotene and vitamin E. Crickets in particular offer a very high quality bioavailable protein and, unlike alternatives such as soy, contain all the essential amino acids. They also contain more iron than beef and are high in calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.
So from the joint perspective of the individual and the environment, cricket flour is a really great protein option.
How are you planning to market the bars so they’re more palatable to Western consumers? Can you describe the taste?
Gabi: We mill the crickets into a fine flour so they’re barely perceptible. So while there are around 25 crickets in each bar, you’d never know. We then combine the cricket flour with very natural, healthy and familiar ingredients so the bars don’t actually appear foreign in the slightest.
Greg: We also have an incredible chef, Kyle Connaughton, previously Head Chef of Research & Development at The Fat Duck restaurant in England which has three Michelin stars, who has helped develop the recipe. We think they taste pretty great which is rare among protein bars. Our first flavor is chocolate-based. We add almond butter, dates, and coconut flakes for texture, some honey, a touch of sea salt to cut the sweetness, and there are chopped almonds and raw cacao nibs for crunch. We thought it was a cool opportunity to not only change the protein source that traditional bars use but also really make a protein bar that has taste as a priority, not just an afterthought.
What are the chief hurdles that you face bringing a product like this to the market?
Greg: Obviously, people are grossed out by bugs, so convincing them to eat try the product is a fairly big task. What’s encouraging is that this kind of thing has been done before many times. Lobster used to be considered prison food in the 1800s; now it’s considered super luxurious. Crickets are actually part of the same phylum as shrimp and lobster. Shrimp even look a lot like insects if you think about it. We’re betting that if we can change people’s assumptions about what crickets taste like, for example, then we can overcome that irrational disgust mechanism. Also, the crickets are ground into a flour, so the bars look and taste like normal, delicious protein bars.
Gabi: Sushi is another good example. In the 1960s, the idea of eating raw ﬁsh was gross to Westerners. But a chef in LA replaced the toro with avocado, wrapped it in rice, and people loved it. Now people pay high prices for sashimi. We hope that our bars will act as a similar vehicle to introduce insects to the mainstream.
What’s your sense of the insect-eating community in the US? Do you see people DIY-ing these kinds of foods in the future? (i.e. raise their own crickets and make their own bars?)
Gabi: There have been a few bug eating societies that have existed in the US for several years now. There’s a food truck in the Bay Area that serves Mexican-inspired insect food, so it’s definitely becoming more popular. In terms of DIY-ing these kinds of foods, some home devices for raising your own grasshoppers have already appeared, and we expect more and more products to pop up as edible insects become more mainstream. Raising insects on a small scale is actually pretty easy.
Greg: Maybe it will become as cool as having chickens in your backyard.
Do you foresee additions to the product line down the road, expanding into other insect-categories so-to-speak?
Gabi: Absolutely. Protein bars are the first step into a broader range of products that use cricket flour, which is itself a stepping stone to a diversified range of insect-based food products. This is the California Roll but the sashimi is coming eventually.
Thanks Greg and Gabi!