Gabi Lewis is one of those guys who’s obsessed with all things related to nutrition. So during his senior year at Brown University, he took it upon himself to build a better protein bar—one that didn’t taste terrible but was still packed with protein and nutrients. After his former roommate Greg Sewitz came back from a conference at MIT that discussed the need for new sustainable protein sources to feed the ballooning world population, Lewis had an idea: why not create a protein bar filled with cheap, protein-rich crickets?
Together, Lewis and Sewitz started Exo, a company that produces protein bars (and in the future, other types of food) filled with cricket flour—slow-roasted, milled crickets that fade into the background of the other ingredients, like dates, raw cacao, almond butter, and coconut.
Even though cricket flour makes up 20% of each bar (there are 25 crickets in each one), Lewis maintains that you can’t taste them—not that you would know if you could. "Most people say 'I can’t even taste the crickets!' As if they would know what it tastes like if they could taste the crickets," he says.
The recipe for the first bar comes from Kyle Connaughton, the former head of the Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in the UK. Lewis and Sewitz emailed Connaughton cold—the chef, who had participated in a documentary on crickets in the past, loved the idea, and signed on to help make the cricket bars tasty. Connaughton is currently tweaking the recipe for the first bar and working on future recipes, including more protein bars and granola. "Ultimately, we’re just creating a very healthy, sustainable and ultimately cheap protein source. We can make shakes, bread, pancakes, or baking products," says Lewis. "It’s a protein powder that you can use for anything.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because we’ve written about other cricket food ventures before. A group of graduate students in London are working on a project called Ento, which serves insect-based dishes of all kinds across the U.K. And a finalist team for the Hult Prize is developing cricket-based food intended for people in urban slums who lack access to affordable protein.
Exo is aiming squarely at Western consumers who most likely have a natural aversion to eating insects (in other parts of the world, like Thailand, crickets are eaten as street food). And that aversion will be the company’s biggest hurdle. Lewis maintains that people are "easily convinced" once they decide to try the protein bar. "The protein bar looks very normal. There are no insect fragments, just a finely ground power. It’s amazing how quickly people get over that initial disgust response," he says. The trick is getting them to try it in the first place.
Lewis and Sewitz may have found their perfect initial market in people—like Lewis—who are obsessed with nutrition. "They’re willing to do anything for the sake of nutrition, and are easily convinced that this makes sense," he says. In fact, cricket flour has more protein per 100 grams than dried beef, sirloin steak, and chicken breast. It has nearly has much calcium as milk, according to Exo, and more iron than beef. The bars are also compliant with the paleo diet.
The other big challenge will be creating a big cricket supply chain, assuming Exo takes off. At the moment, the company is working with cricket farmers in the U.S. who normally breed the insects as reptile feed and fishing bait. In the future, Exo might launch its own cricket farms. "You can feed crickets basically anything—agricultural byproducts like broccoli stalks and corn husks," says Lewis.
Exo’s projected delivery date for Kickstarter backers is October 2013—a goal that Lewis believes is realistic. "That’s more time than we think we need," he says.
Check out Exo’s cricket protein bars here.