Americans Should Eat More Crickets

Exo bars at Willy's Local Foods in Providence. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Exo bars at Willy's Local Foods in Providence. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By ecoRI News staff

If you care about saving the planet, then you really should be eating bugs. While the practice may not be widely accepted in the United States, Exo, a New York company with local connections that makes protein bars using cricket flour, wants to change that.

Exo, which is headquartered in Brooklyn, was founded in 2013 by two recent Brown University graduates, Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis. The two co-CEOs are hoping their line of products will normalize eating insects, which, in other parts of the world, are a common low-impact source of protein. In fact, insects contain more protein per 100 grams than dried beef, sirloin steak or chicken breast.

Insects require little water and minimal acreage. They emit 10 times less methane than livestock and produce 300 times less nitrous oxide — also a global-warming gas.

The challenge is getting Westerners to eat them. That’s where Exo bars come in.

Exo bars themselves resemble any of the other protein bars currently on the market. They come in a variety of flavors, such as Blueberry Vanilla, Peanut Butter and Jelly, and Apple Cinnamon. Where Exo bars differ is that each bar contains the equivalent of 40 crickets. And that’s a point of pride.

“Getting people over the 'ick' factor is the biggest hurdle,” said Kate Lyons, a former Providence resident who heads up Exo’s operations and finance. “But, once people see that this looks like a protein bar, they get over it. We intend for our bars to serve as an introductory vehicle for eating insects by combining cricket flour with more familiar ingredients like nut butters and fruits."

Lyons believes Exo bars will normalize insect eating the same way California rolls brought sushi into the mainstream for Americans.

Exo prides itself on being paleo-friendly and on its minimally processed, pronounceable ingredients. The crickets that go into the bars are raised on U.S. and Canadian farms, where they are fed an organic, non-GMO diet. While the company's mission may appeal to tree-hugging types, Exo markets its bars to the nutrition-obsessed paleo-diet crowd.

Currently, Exo’s distribution is focused in the New York City area, but outside of New York, consumers can find Exo bars online or at Willy’s Local Foods in Providence. Will Sherry, the store’s owner, said sales of Exo bars, which have a primo spot right next to the register, have been brisk, and, in fact, they’ve been outselling Clif Bars. He also noted that he’s been seeing quite a few repeat purchases of the Exo bars.

An ecoRI News staffer recently ate her first Peanut Butter and Jelly Exo bar. It was soft and chewy with some crunchiness — probably the puffed brown rice, not cricket legs. Oaty and nutty with some sweet undertones, it tasted a lot like many of the other protein bars on the market.

The staffer's 71-year-old father, however, had a much harder time getting over the “ick factor,” and only begrudgingly tried a bite after much prodding.

“There’s a lot of education that goes into the selling our products," Lyons said. "It would be great if one day people were more comfortable with eating insects, but we’re a long way from that."

But with the younger generation growing up exposed to an ever-increasing array of alternate-protein products such as soy milk and seitan burgers, tiny insects just could be the next big culinary trend.