"Our company exists solely for the purpose of making this normal. To make the idea of eating insects not be weird," Gabi Lewis says of Exo, the cricket-based protein bar company he co-founded with his college roommate, Greg Sewitz. "So today we have to disguise it and turn it into a protein bar, hide it somewhat. If we’re successful then in ten years we’ll see people eating whole crickets."
An admirable goal, but one that prompts the question: Why eat insects in the first place?
THE CASE FOR CRICKETS
"People, the first time they hear about this, have the most intense visceral disgust reflex. It’s just, like, instant," Lewis says. But despite what your initial reaction might be, eating insects isn't all that weird—people all over the world, in many different countries, count insects as a part of their diets. Ultimately, it all depends on your perspective. "[Drinking] milk is so weird if you think about it," Lewis says.
Then there's the fact that crickets are great for you. These chirping insects, which are more often associated with camping than culinary excellence, are a veritable superfood. They have more iron than beef and more calcium than milk. They're low in saturated fat and sugar. And they're a complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids.
Eating them is environmentally responsible, too. Crickets require less food, less water, and less space to farm than most other forms of protein. They reproduce efficiently, reach maturity quickly, and produce 80 times less methane gas than cattle. All of this is good news in combating climate change and supporting increasing populations. (If you're interested in learning more about the benefits of eating bugs, check out this report that the United Nations published on the subject last year.)
TURNING CRICKETS INTO PROTEIN BARS
Despite all those facts, Lewis didn't immediately take to the idea of crickets as food. As a senior at Brown University with a job offer at a large hedge fund lined up he was, in his own words, "coasting." Skipping class quickly got boring, so the fitness and nutrition buff began experimenting with making his own protein bars. It was Sewitz who suggested crickets. He got the idea from a conference on climate change at MIT and thought they might present a solution to his roommate's quest for the perfect protein.
After a little convincing and a lot of research, Lewis was sold—so the pair ordered 2000 live crickets from one of the dozen or so domestic farms that raise crickets for fishing bait and reptile food. The insects arrived at their on-campus house in something resembling shoeboxes. And although they lost a few especially jumpy crickets in the process, Lewis and Seitz successfully froze, cleaned, roasted, and ground the crickets into a powder. With it, they made their first batch of cricket protein bars.
After receiving positive feedback from fellow students and athletes at a local crossfit gym, the pair decided to look into what their next steps should be. "I started talking to a professor of entrepreneurship about it, drew up a business plan, got more serious, raised a little bit of money from family and friends," Lewis says. And when they graduated in May 2013, they agreed to dedicate their summer to giving the company a real shot—starting with a Kickstarter campaign. They gave their campaign a $20,000 goal. When it raised close to $55,000 in the allotted time, Lewis decided not to join the hedge fund, Seitz scrapped his plan of teaching neuroscience to Tibetan monks, and the two dedicated themselves to Exo.
It wasn't immediately smooth sailing. The Kickstarter campaign ended in August and they produced their first commercial batch of 50,000 bars in March. Finding a manufacturer proved particularly tricky because there's a small overlap between shellfish allergies and cricket allergies, and companies were unwilling to contaminate their equipment in that way. "We were using crickets and they spend their whole lives trying to keep crickets out of their facilities," Lewis says.
Eventually, Louis and Seitz secured a manufacturer in upstate New York, partnered with some commercial cricket farms to set up separate all-organic facilities for the human-consumption crickets—although Lewis says that's more about consumer perception than necessity—and joined forces with a world-class chef.
After working as Head Chef of R&D at The Fat Duck and Culinary Director at Chipotle, Kyle Connaughton was designing a new curriculum in food science for the Culinary Institute of America when a friend of a friend introduced him to Lewis and Seitz. They expected to be handed off to one of his students, but Connaughton, who had participated in a BBC documentary about eating insects, liked the idea so much he joined the team.
"We knew that if this was gonna work, these bars had to be delicious—at least as far as protein bars go—and they had to taste better than most protein bars in a category that’s comically overcrowded," Lewis says.
Connaughton helped them to do just that. Though they currently have just two flavors—cacao nut and PB&J (there was a cashew ginger bar, which had ardent fans but was discontinued for not having a widespread enough appeal)—there are plans to develop more; blueberry vanilla and apple cinnamon are already in the works. And so far, people have liked what they've tasted: Exo can barely keep up with the demand. Every production run has sold out, with around 90 percent of those sales occuring online.
Being a "weird" food is good for word-of-mouth business (and media attention), but normalizing eating insects would be even better. Lewis compares his hopes for crickets to the trajectory of lobsters, which were once considered prison food, and sushi.
"Our attitude towards these things change," he says. "Granted, lobster took a hundred years. Sushi was introduced in the ‘60s in LA and now you can find a sushi bar in the Glasgow airport. And now, with people’s focus on nose-to-tail dining and farm-to-table cuisine and, I don’t want to sound old, with social media, these things happens quicker. So it’s feasible that the shift we’ve seen with lobster that took 100 years and sushi that took 30 with crickets could take five to 10."