Around the world, the statistic goes, two billion people already eat bugs—beetles, cicadas, locusts, dragonflies, caterpillars, mealworms, termites. But in North America and the United States specifically (one of the world’s largest consumer’s of livestock, not so incidentally) the thought makes people gag.
Which, it turns out, is a shame. In 2013, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization released a 162 page report extolling the virtues and benefits of an insect diet. Not only are insects, centimeter per centimeter (they’re tiny, after all), packed with way more nutrients, protein, and healthy fats than other meaty animals like cows, pigs, and chickens, but harvesting them is almost astronomically healthier for the environment, requiring relatively minuscule helpings of feed to sustain them, and scant amounts of greenhouse gases to cultivate them.
So while insects are regularly consumed in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Europe and have been for quite some time, the UN’s 2013 report finally made a handful of American entrepreneurs take note of how smart it is to eat bugs. Since then, companies have begun to crop up here whose products—chips, bitters, health bars—are based in mashed-up cricket parts (i.e. protein). These items, they hope, will serve as gateway foods that will ease many more Americans into the idea of consuming bugs like it ain’t no thang, rather than one that turns their stomachs.
And now these early adapter products have made a big-enough splash in the market that large food makers have started to take note. One New York-based company in particular, Exo (as in exoskeleton), who has been making delectably flavored cricket protein health bars (in flavors like Blueberry Vanilla and Peanut Butter & Jelly) for the past two years, and whose chef used to head up R&D at the Michelin-starred restaurant, The Fat Duck, says it is only a matter of time before your local grocery store is carrying main-stream products with cricket powder.
“It’s really fascinating—every major food conglomerate has reached out to us over the past six months, to keep their eye on us, and to try to integrate cricket powder into their existing food products,” says Exo Co-founder, Greg Sewitz. “We’re trying to be careful now and trying to build a brand that consumers trust, because we’re asking them to try something that may make them uncomfortable—at least at first—but it definitely is exciting for sure that in the pretty near future we’ll be joining forces with a larger brand.”
Sewitz and Gabi Lewis first created their cricket bars in their dorm room at Brown, after Sewitz saw and was blown away by the UN report. Neither were interested, necessarily, in starting a business, but Sewitz was, generally speaking, environmentally concerned, and Lewis was a health and fitness guy—both factors that make cricket powder attractive. Their offices are now on the Lower East Side and most of their products are sold direct to consumers from their website. They have also partnered with Whole Foods retailers and Equinox. Sewitz and Lewis thought they could rely on these consumers—typically younger, environmentally-conscious and more open minded than most—to spread positive words about insect eating.
Since Sewitz and Lewis launched their own Kickstarter campaign for Exo in 2013 (and reached their goal of $20,000 in the first three days), Sewitz says there have been at least six other campaigns based around cricket powder products. Most recently, two Brooklyn-based makers Kickstarted $24,477 to make their cricket bitters. “Drinking cocktails won’t save the world, but eating insects might,” their page reads. “Critter Bitters take the ‘ick’ factor out of eating insects.”
Critter food might be inching closer to your shopping carts sooner than you suspected. But, this begs the question—the rest of the world seems pretty amped on chomping on a whole slew of insects, not just crickets. Why are we fixated, for now, on the little chirping variety? Practical reasons, says Sewitz: that’s what we’re good at now.
“It’s mostly a supply chain thing,” he says. “There actually already are fairly large farms raising crickets for humans with a lot of quality control, but we don’t have that for other insects yet,” he says, referring to North American producers. “In Europe, mealworm farms are most common. In North America, mealworms will pop up next.”
Hooray! I’ve always wanted to eat mealworms. No, I’m totally kidding. I am more scared of any worm than I am of tigers and spiders. But with Sewitz and Lewis’ help—and if I can suck it up and think of the environment before my stomach—I guess I could think about chowing down on them soon.
And it’s not like critters don’t taste good, after all. Cricket powder is said to have a nutty flavor. Sewitz is currently fixated on eating their own Blueberry Vanilla bar, and is planning to move onto Apple Cinnamon next. Next year, they’re releasing a couple more exciting flavors that he can’t tell me about, he informs me.
“I fall asleep thinking about crickets and wake up thinking about it,” says Sewitz.
Just wait, America. It might not be long before you’re falling asleep not just appreciating lovely cricket chirping, but also dreaming about adding them to your next meal.