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Adventure : Nutrition

Insect Energy Bars: The Next Paleo Nutrition Craze

The package’s contents were chirping loudly—plaintively, almost—and room­mates Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz, both seniors at Brown University, began to question their plan. But they’d come too far to quit, having ordered the 2,000 crickets from an online pet-food store. That evening, Lewis and Sewitz froze the insects, then toasted them in a 220-degree oven before running them through a Vitamix blender. The process resulted in a half-pound of smooth, antenna-free cricket flour. Lewis and Sewitz then mashed honey and dried fruit into the flour and molded the paste into protein bars, which they brought to their local CrossFit gym. The verdict? The bars, containing about 40 ground-up crickets each, tasted surprisingly good. “Like almond ­butter,” said one tester.

Last May, after graduating, Lewis and Sewitz moved to Brooklyn, New York, where, buoyed by their test run, they launched the cricket-flour food company Exo (short for exoskeleton). This spring they’ll release their first batch of energy bars, with flavors like PB&J, Cashew-Ginger, and Cacao Nut.

Incredible as it might seem, Exo is not the first cricket-based food company. That ­honor goes to Salt Lake City’s Chapul, which began producing its handmade Original Cricket Energy Bar in 2012. (There are now three flavors to choose from: Aztec, Thai, and ­Chaco.) There’s also San Francisco’s Bitty Foods, founded in May 2013, which will release a line of products this summer. It will probably be a while before you see any of these at your local Whole Foods, but at a time when eating bugs has become less than stomach turning, the notion of a high-nutrition bug bar for athletes may just have, well, legs.

Adventurous foodies have been eating insects for some time now. Fried crickets, caterpillars, and larvae have all made it onto the menus of some of the world’s most upscale restaurants, including Santa Monica’s pan-Asian Typhoon. The idea of eating insects got another boost last May when the UN released a report claiming that entomophagy has a “low environmental footprint.” A flurry of media reports followed, including a Sierra Magazine cover story, proclaiming that, “as protein sources go, bugs may be more sustainable than almost anything else in our diets.”

So far, food security and environmental benefits haven’t done much to persuade rank-and-file Americans to eat bugs. But the same hordes of dedicated athletes who adopted the paleo diet, ditching grains and dairy for meat and fruit, could be ripe for it.

“People have been eating insects for eons,” says John Durant, author of The ­Paleo Manifesto, the food bible of many CrossFit devotees. Insect protein, Durant argues, is a natural part of the diet: it’s normal fare for hunter-gatherers all over the world, an excellent source of protein, and a whole food. “It checks all the boxes,” he says.

Indeed, insect meal stacks up well against other superfoods. It has more protein than a wild-caught salmon, with a complete set of amino acids. Cricket flesh has more iron than beef, more calcium than milk, and plenty of the B vitamins absent from vegetable-based protein sources like hemp and soy.

But the real advantage? Surprisingly, the taste. Bug flour is relatively easy to disguise compared with whey and soy powders, so the bars made from it don’t need to contain as much sugar. While standard-issue Power­Bars and Clif Bars contain as much as 26 grams of sugar, Exo bars have as little as 13, and all of them have about the same amount of protein.

The trick, of course, is getting over the ick factor, especially when such intrepid professional eaters as Anthony Bourdain have declared bugs “disgusting.” This is why Exo and other emerging bug-bar brands grind the insects into flour: you get all the nutrition and none of the visual hurdles or textural issues that can trigger a gag reflex.   

“We combine the crickets with almond butter, a little bit of dried fruit, and a touch of honey,” Exo’s Lewis explains, “and it doesn’t taste like crickets at all—whatever crickets taste like.” Bitty Foods founder Megan Miller (full disclosure: she’s also a former editor and writer for Outside) says that she’s more interested in making foods like muffins, crackers, and even cookies, with cricket flour as the base holding the other ingredients together.

Early numbers suggest that consumers are open to the idea. Chapul’s bars are now in more than 70 health-food stores in 15 states, and Exo’s July 2013 Kickstarter campaign reached its $20,000 goal in just three days. The company’s first batch: 20,000 bars.

In the meantime, word-of-mouth anecdotes about cricket energy can only help. When pressed, Lewis will even offer one of his own. After he and Sewitz experimented with their recipe, they signed up for a regional powerlifting meet. Lewis deadlifted 495 pounds, nearly three times his body weight. The slender Sewitz didn't go that heavy but had a similar ratio. Both ended up winning their weight categories. "I would never claim causation, of course," says Lewis. "But you can infer what you like."

Which to Eat: Energy Snacks or Insect Nutrition?

Clif Bar (Apricot)

  • Calories: 230
  • Total fat: 3.5 grams
  • Total carbs: 45 grams
  • Protein: 9 grams
  • Sugars: 23 grams

Main ingredients: Organic brown rice syrup, organic rolled oats, soy rice crisps (soy protein isolate, rice flour, rice starch, barley malt extract), organic roasted soybeans, dried apricots, organic oat fiber, organic milled flaxseed, cane syrup

Probar Performance Energy (Peanut Butter)

  • Calories: 240
  • Total fat: 4 grams
  • Total carbs: 44 grams
  • Protein: 9 grams
  • Sugars: 26 grams

Main ingredients: Dual source energy blend (cane invert syrup, maltodextrin, fructose, dextrose), oat bran, soy protein isolate, peanut butter, rice crisps, brown rice flour

Exo Energy Bar

  • Calories: 290
  • Total fat: 20 grams
  • Total carbs: 27 grams
  • Protein: 10 grams
  • Sugars: 14 grams

Main ingredients: Almonds, dates, coconut, honey, cricket flour, cacao powder

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Trader Woes

Last month, on Valentine's Day, Trader Joe's held the grand opening for its first store in Boulder, Colorado, where I live. In fact, there were previously no stores anywhere in Colorado, and residents had long been begging the grocer to locate here via online petitions and Facebook fan pages. In early 2012, inklings emerged that TJ's was eyeing potential Colorado sites, including my town. The rumors headlined Boulder's Daily Camera, which would report on the $11-billion chain in some 70-plus articles over the next two years.

When opening day arrived, hundreds turned out. A jam band hammered on steel drums, while fist-pumping employees clad in Aloha shirts handed out plastic leis to swooning customers. To marshal traffic, police were on hand. So were Jim and Lisa Lucas, who ducked work to publicly profess their love to Trader Joe's in its parking lot. Elated, too, were Joe and Jennifer Boyte. The couple had been making pilgrimages to the nearest Trader Joe's, in Santa Fe, New Mexico—an 840-mile round-trip drive for items like Two Buck Chuck and dark-chocolate-and-sea-salt-covered butterscotch caramels.

Once our store opened, a trek to TJ's quickly became a right-of-passage in Boulder. "Have you been yet?" demanded my foodie friends, incessantly. Suddenly, Trader Joe's was bigger than legal weed. Resistance was futile. But I was wary. Our cookie-cutter supermarket, King Soopers, owned by the Kroger conglomerate, already carried enough organic food to feed a battalion. Our 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods is mobbed daily, like Mecca during the hajj. From what I had researched online about its offerings, I wondered how Trader Joe's expected to survive selling mostly over-processed garbage to throngs of kale-huggers.

Trader Joe's isn't hawking health food exclusively. Even so, its marketing certainly exudes an aura of clean livin' goodness. Plus, its website claims that its privately branded products—those with the TJ's label—contain "no artificial flavors or preservatives," and no "synthetic colors, MSG, trans fats, or genetically modified ingredients." They also tout vegan, kosher, gluten-free, low-sodium, and fat-free alternatives. Tantalizing! Upon arriving at the Boulder store, I grabbed a shopping cart, thinking I could fill it with actual food.

"You don't want to buy that," warned Melanie Warner, who I had asked to tag along. "But it's just dried peaches?" I pleaded before glancing at the second ingredient: sulfur dioxide. Warner wrote Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, which The Huffington Post named one of the best food books of 2013. I trust Warner because not only can she pronounce "tert-butylhydroquinone," she also knows that it's a suspected carcinogen added to many fast foods, Cheez-Its, and Pop-Tarts.

According to the FDA, sulfur dioxide is not natural (though it is a common preservative, and also used by vintners in wine). We made a beeline to the customer service counter, where a "crew member" named Kerrie was happy to assist. How does sulfur dioxide reconcile with your "no artificial preservatives" policy, I asked? This kind of inquiry is hardly uncommon around our health-obsessed town. She was stumped and telephoned corporate. The answer: "It's 100-percent natural," insisted Kerrie. "Like the sulfur dioxide you get from volcanoes." So, like the crude oil you find underground? Warner said later, "Poor Kerrie. She's got her job cut out for her in Boulder."

Indeed, Kerrie tells me she's been with Trader Joe's for eight years at locations in Vancouver in Washington State, Portland, Oregon, and Rochester, Minnesota. "We're getting more questions from customers in Boulder than at any other store I've worked at. People are more conscious, and they're also skeptical because we're the new kids on the block. But we knew this was going to happen here."

I give Kerrie huge props for engaging us with patience and a smile. She wasn't defensive but appeared genuinely concerned that her company wasn't living up to its pledge. Scripted? Perhaps. Nonetheless, when I gave her a long list of Trader Joe's private label products that contained questionable preservatives—sodium phosphate (Pulled Beef Brisket), trisodium citrate (Bacon Cheddar Cheese), sodium lauryl sulfate (Bibimbap Bowl), sodium phosphate (Pork Roast Florentine)—Kerrie promised to investigate.

Three hours later, she called me at home. "I looked into sodium lauryl sulfate," she said. "It's used to control acidity. We've received a lot of concerns about it, so we're in the process of reevaluating it. And I'm still researching the rest of your list."

Kerrie rocked. But neither she nor Warner could help me fill my cart. "They're creating whole new categories of crap," declared Warner, palming a jar of Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie Butter, made with "crushed biscuits," something called "raising agent," four different types of sugar, and margarine (people still use that?).

I spent nearly 90 minutes scouring the aisles with Warner, using our iPhones to Google the ingredients of dozens of products. Natural or artificial, the place is a preservative shit-show. The entire freezer section might as well be the poster-child for What's Wrong With the American Diet because boxed meals with 20-plus ingredients and scads of sodium aren't healthy—with or without the bonus mystery additives.

And if you're worried about GMOs, you're going to have to take TJ's word that they're absent because company executives won't reveal their outside vendors or allow for third-party verification. As for meat, a handful of shrink-wrapped steaks touted "all natural," while a "Go Texan" logo emblazoned packages of turkey cold cuts. My inquiry to an employee restocking the deli aisle got a polite and honest reply: "If it doesn't say organic, you can pretty much assume it's raised conventionally with antibiotics and hormones." Yikes.

We ventured to Trader Joe's at 11 a.m. on a blustery and frigid Tuesday morning in early March when we figured the place would be deserted. But the Cult of Trader Joe's is strong in these parts. It was packed with salivating Boulderites, who, like me, probably assumed there was something healthy to be found inside. At checkout, the clerk gave my forlorn cart the once-over. "Did you find everything you need?" Need? Well, no. But it wasn't a total loss: I scored some organic chicken breasts, a few cans of low-sodium organic black beans, and four tins of wild-caught sardines.

Now before you get all huffy and post vitriolic missives in the comments thread of this piece, know that I'm writing this in the context of Boulder, where even 7-Eleven stocks organic milk. This is not about Trader Joe's operating in urban food deserts, places like Atlanta or Memphis. And it doesn't concern Trader Joe's in Northern California, where a friend who lives in Marin County informed me his only alternative, Safeway, is a Soviet throwback. In these cities—assuming the abundance of cheap, prepackaged fare doesn't sucker you in—Trader Joe's is a godsend.

Trader Joe's old-schoolers whose dietary choices I respect advised this: Don't go for grocery shopping. Treat it like a flea market—a place to hunt for the few prized gems hidden amid mostly worthless junk. With any nascent retail endeavor in finicky Boulder, there is a learning curve. Though Trader Joe's appears to be a willing student, I won't be making another trip anytime soon. And yet with employees like Kerrie compiling customer wish lists and addressing complaints from sticklers like me, I'll never say never.

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Foobler Dog Feeder

You’re at work and your dog is bored, hungry, and probably chewing on the couch in revenge.   

To avoid this scenario, a development team created the Foobler—a puzzle-feeder hybrid that releases kibble according to a schedule you set with a phone app. The designers and engineers—who previously developed pet toys for Sharper Image—decided it was time to come up with a toy that could both feed and entertain your pet.

The Foobler has six internal feeding pods that will dispense food every 15 to 90 minutes. So rather than one big meal, your dog eats in small increments for up to nine hours. It’s a nifty solution to both overfeeding and boredom.  

You can program the Foobler so it rings when it’s about to release kibble—your pup will probably start drooling all over the carpet. The device runs on two AA batteries and will go on sale this April. You can pre-order the Foobler now.   

$65, foobler.com

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Watch: Cocoa-Brown Sugar Lamb Ribs

There’s a reason we associate delicious ribs with warm afternoons and sunny skies: The blanket of snow covering your grill can kill any hankering you had for barbecued bones in the winter.

Leave it to a master griller to find a way to shake up the summer specialty. In his new cookbook Man Made Meals, due for release in May, Steve Raichlen gives us a recipe for not just an oven-roasted rack, but also one that trades the traditional pork ribs for a rack of lamb.

Lamb ribs are more tender than beef, and more flavorful than pork, so with the right seasoning this meat offers a mean alternative to your conventional rack. And even if you’re not a fan of lamb, you’ll like these ribs because it’s not the choice of meat that matters—Raichlen’s cocoa-brown sugar rub is so delicious, you’ll never want to eat any kind of meat without it again.

The cocoa and brown sugar surprisingly don’t overpower the ribs with sweetness, but instead give the rack a deep, rich flavor that melts in your mouth. With a touch of piment d’Espelette—a Basque chile powder—the rub has just the right amount of spice, and the salt brings out the flavors of the lamb. And while you could certainly cook them on the grill, the oven allows the rub to sizzle and seep into the meat over two hours without requiring any extra work from you.

The recipe actually comes from Raichlen’s stepson, Jake Klein, chef-owner of Der Kommisar in Brooklyn. Some of the ingredients may be a little hard to find—you’ll probably have to preorder lamb ribs from your grocery store, or find a rack at Greek, Middle Eastern, or halal meat market—and Raichlen gives instructions on how to skin the ribs yourself. But if you stick with it, your hard work will be generously rewarded on the first bite.

Ingredients

  • 4 racks of “Denver cut” lamb ribs, each about 1 pound
  • 2/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 1 tbsp piment d’Espelette  or hot paprika
  • 1 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 275°F
  2. Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a baking sheet. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as the tip of an instant-read meat thermometer, under it; the best place to start is on one of the middle bones.
  3. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane.
  4. Turn the ribs over and, using a knife, score a crosshatch pattern on the meat side, making cuts about ½ inch apart and ¼ inch deep.  Scoring helps render the fat and crisp the meat.
  5. Repeat with second rack of ribs.
  6. Place the brown sugar, salt, cocoa powder, piment d’Espelette, and black pepper in a small bowl. Stir to mix, breaking up any lumps in the sugar with your fingers.
  7. Sprinke the rub on the ribs on both sides, rubbing it onto the meat.
  8. Line a baking sheet with alumimum foil to facilitate cleanup. Place a wire rack on top of the foil and arrange the ribs, meat side up,  on top.
  9. Bake the ribs until sizzling, browned, and very tender (about 1.5-2 hours).
  10. Transfer the rack of ribs to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes.
  11. Cut into individual ribs and serve with favorite barbecue sauce.

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