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