“Once people take the first bite, the barrier is overcome, so it’s all about getting people to take that first bite.” – Greg Sewitz.
Gabi Lewis ’13 and Greg Sewitz ’13 — now of New York Times fame — are co-founders of the food startup Exo, which makes protein bars with cricket flour. With equal parts of both skepticism and curiosity in tow, BlogDH took a field trip to Brooklyn to interview them on crickets and what it’s like to be a real adult.
It turns out that crickets are one of the most nutritious bugs out there, and they don’t taste terrible either. But before you get too grossed out, remember that it could be worse: two of the most protein-rich bugs are actually the dung beetle and the cockroach (although eating cockroaches does sound like a cheaper and more reliable solution to your insect infestation).
Gabi and Greg walked us through all the benefits of eating these crunchy critters. Crickets are:
- Good for the environment — Crickets require 12 times less feed than industrial cattle, they barely use any water, and you can raise tons of them in a really small space.
- Good for the economy — Crickets have a life span of roughly 6 weeks; they reproduce very quickly, and in huge broods. “Right now crickets aren’t that cheap because we don’t have infrastructure, but they would be very cheap if there was that demand,” Greg added.
- Good for you — Crickets are exceptionally high in protein, and that protein is of good quality: According to Gabi, “Not all protein is created equal, and you judge the quality of protein based on the amino acids. Soy, for instance, doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids that crickets do. Crickets have lots of micronutrients, and the bars, as well as the powder itself, are gluten/grain/soy/dairy free.” They are “basically free of anything anyone might be scared of… except perhaps crickets.”
So, why crickets? Greg tells us that “part of the reason [they] went for crickets was because the infrastructure already existed.” Cricket farms for reptile feed are fairly prominent and well-established, and they have been able to work with these farms to make the crickets more suitable for human ingestion. Crickets eat grain and corn; Gabi and Greg are feeding them non-GMO foods, but the eventual goal is a plant-based diet.
Lewis and Sewitz came up with the idea for Exo when they were living together on campus. Like most Brown students, they had diverse interests. Gabi was doing an independent study at the Swearer Center to make a protein bar that was delicious and good for you. In the meantime, Greg was attending a convention in Boston about climate change, food scarcity, and entomophagy (the eating of edible insects). Next thing you know, some of Greg’s insects found their way into Gabi’s protein bar. As Lewis remembers it, “All of a sudden we ordered a bunch of crickets to our house, and then we just went for it.” We asked them whether it was hard to get this thing rolling so close to graduation, and how their experiences at Brown helped make this possible:
Gabi: “Just getting it off the ground was the hardest part, but it was fun to test the different recipes while at school. In drunken honesty, all of our friends would tell us exactly what they thought of the bars. It’s not easy to start talking to investors and raising money when you’re 22 or 23 with little experience in business, but it’s also incredibly exciting. We’re meeting new people every day and doing a little bit of everything.”
Greg: “We also met with Professor Rachel Herz, who specializes in the psychology of disgust. She wrote a book about how irrational our fear of eating insects is.”
So what do they actually taste like? According to Greg, they taste “kind of like a brownie, maybe rocky road? The main ingredients are almonds, dates, and cacao. You can’t taste the crickets.” Gabi chimed in to remind us that “it’s also the first protein bar formulated by a three star chef.” And don’t worry about finding a random insect head in a bar either; it’s all cricket powder. Damn.
Exo’s mission is to normalize eating insects in the same way that eating raw fish in sushi was assimilated into American culture only a few decades ago. Cricket flour is a steppingstone, and Gabi and Greg may eventually segue into using other insects as well. The response to the bars has been great thus far; Sewitz assures us that “for every one person who thinks it’s gross, three people push back saying it’s awesome.”
In 30 days, they raised almost $55,000 on Kickstarter, pre-sold almost 20,000 bars, and had over 1,200 people backing them.”There’s almost an article every day now talking about eating insects. It’s really not that weird, especially in protein bars,” Greg informed us.
If you’re still skittish about crickets, imagine what’s in a Big Mac. Are you seriously going to tell us that after all those burger ingredients have been through, you think a little cricket in your snack is gross? You may want to side with the insects on this one.