Greg Sewitz, 22, and Gabi Lewis, 23, never imagined that protein bars — much less protein bars made with insects — would be in their future.
When the two met as freshmen at Brown University in 2009, Sewitz planned on a career in science — but leaning toward neurological rather than naturey subjects — while Lewis thought he’d pursue a more conventional business route. Neither cared much for cooking, and they certainly were not in the habit of bringing six-legged creatures into the apartment they soon decided to share as roommates.
But edible insects hopped into center stage of the young entrepreneurs’ lives. Today the roommates, who relocated from Providence to Williamsburg, have just launched Exo, a protein bar–producing company named for the exoskeleton of its key ingredient: crickets.
“It’s just really crazy we’re not eating insects yet, especially because the only reason not to is purely psychological,” says Sewitz, who is now a culinary cricket convert. “There’s just no way you can feed the world — or even the U.S. — purely on local grass-fed, organically raised beef,” he continues. “We’re really looking at this as a solution to a large-scale food access problem.”
These ideas all began with a senior project. Bent on eventually starting a business, Lewis undertook an independent study with Brown’s director of social entrepreneurship. While searching for a topic, he began pondering things in his own life that needed improvement and soon set his sights on improving the protein bar. An avid weightlifter, Lewis munched through his fair share of that body builder dietary staple, so he knew they tasted like cardboard candy bars — and often fell short of their nutritious reputation.
“Most bars are pretty unhealthy, despite their claims, and they don’t taste good, either,” he says. The basis — protein powder — would be a logical starting place for building a better bar.
While Lewis pondered protein, Sewitz headed to MIT for a conference on climate change and resource scarcity. One session he attended was on entomophagy, or human consumption of insects. While Westerners tend to shudder at the thought of putting bugs in our mouths, in 80 percent of countries worldwide biting into beetles or snacking on scorpions is as commonplace as American’s love for ripping the heads off boiled crawfish or slurping down a dozen raw oysters.
More importantly, the conference speaker promoted the idea that insects could be a solution for the resource-scarce future. Crickets, for example, are 20 times more efficient a protein source than the equivalent amount of beef, requiring less space, water and food than larger livestock, and they produce around 80 times less methane — a major driver of climate change — than cattle. Their protein-rich bodies, which put other examples of head-to-tail uses of an animal to shame, are rich in essential amino acids and packed with nutrients like iron, calcium and vitamin B.
In other words, Sewitz had struck protein bar gold. Lewis, surprisingly, took little convincing and jumped feelers-first into crafting cricket bars. Crickets became his star ingredient because of their ease of access (they are the choice food for reptilian pets and are popularly used as fishing bait) and because of crickets’ positive rap in people’s minds (think lucky crickets, pleasant cricket chirps and Disney’s Jiminy Cricket). So they ordered a box of the little guys from a pet store and promptly froze them. Once dead, Lewis and Sewitz roasted the formerly sprightly insects, blended them and then ground them until all that remained was a fine powder that would look right at home on a spice shelf alongside cinnamon and paprika.
“There’s a fundamental difference between eating something with insects blended in versus eating a whole insect,” says David Gracer, an entomophagy expert with whom Sewitz and Louis consulted early on and who encouraged them to develop the bars. “It makes a lot of sense to meet the public halfway by offering a processed product.”
Next came the real challenge: making the cricket powder — which tastes a bit like almond flour — into something exceptionally tasty rather than simply palatable. The two tinkered with protein bar recipes they found online, concocting a paste of dried coconut, raw cacao powder, dates, almond butter, honey, sea salt, vanilla and ground crickets. Eventually they landed on a product that was not just palatable but downright delicious. When Lewis presented his protein bar at school, his supervisor was impressed.
“I passed,” he says. “My professor loved it.” Friends were enthusiastic, too, and urged Lewis and Sewitz to go pro.
After graduating last May, Sewitz and Lewis decided not to move back to their native Los Angeles and Glasgow but instead put their idea to the test in New York City’s startup-friendly environment, following the in-depth business plan Lewis had designed as part of his project. For starters, they knew, they’d need significantly more than a few boxes of pet shop crickets. They began phoning cricket farms across the U.S., narrowing down their list from 10 to two farms according to cricket breeders’ reactions to the unconventional proposition.
“When you call up a cricket farm and say, ‘Hi, I’d like to place a massive order for humans,’ they’re, like, ‘What!?’” Sewitz explains.
Beyond the weirdness factor, Sewitz and Lewis were presenting farmers with a big ask: to breed crickets for human consumption in a separate facility with much higher quality control standards than those destined for reptile chow or fish lures, and to feed those crickets an all-organic diet. Still, they managed to find a couple farms that, with some explaining, understood their vision.
“It’s important to us to be working with people who are committed and understand this idea at every level,” Sewitz says.
With crickets in hand, taste became tantamount. Haphazard experiments in home kitchens would no longer suffice. While searching for culinary expertise, a mutual friend offered to connect them with Kyle Connaughton, an author and advisor at the Culinary Institute of America, and the former head chef of research and development at the Fat Duck, a Michelin three-star molecular gastronomy destination in England.
“Edible insects are not my background,” he admits. But the sustainability aspect appealed to him, so he agreed to act as Exo’s culinary advisor and began cooking with crickets. “We’re trying to make the best-tasting bars on the market,” he says. “The more delicious they can be, the more we can get people over the hump of being able to eat them.”
Connaughton first created cacao nut, a flavor based on the team’s original chocolatey senior project sample. Recipe in place, Sewitz and Lewis launched a Kickstarter campaign last August to give the idea one final palatability test. It promptly met its $20,000 fundraising goal in less than three days and went on to raise more than double that amount.
Sewitz and Lewis asked Connaughton to develop a few more potential recipes and invited some lucky Kickstarter backers to sample the prototypes. Cashew ginger and peanut butter and jelly, born of Connaughton’s experiments, came out on top.
Each bar contains about 40 crickets — not that you’d know. There’s no odd flavor, little cricket faces staring back at you or exo-skeletal crunch. Instead, biting into an Exo peanut butter and jelly-flavored protein bar recalls the experience of biting into any other power bar — only this one tastes fresher and more flavorful than many currently on the market. Connaughton nailed the ratio of strawberry jam to lip-smacking peanut butter, and the bar’s brownie-like texture is pleasantly studded with the occasional peanut.
The bars, which are produced upstate, are dairy-, soy- and gluten-free, and two adhere to the paleo diet (the peanut butter and jelly version contains oats, disqualifying it). This is not a coincidence, as the crossfit community — the popular exercise program that emphasizes a diet free from refined sugar, dairy, cereal grains and processed foods — will be Exo’s first market.
“We gave samples out at one crossfit gym in Providence,” says Lewis, “and everyone loved it.”
Following that success, their e-commerce store went live earlier this year and they plan to start distributing across the city as you read this, first at gyms and then expanding to natural food stores and coffee shops. For now, the bars are set at $2.99 each, but Sewitz says that price should drop as production scales up. Within the next few years they plan to be on the West Coast, and within 10 years, all over the country.
The Exo guys realize, however, that the shift from entomophobia to six-legged love will not happen overnight.
“I don’t think we’re going to get the local Biloxi man or woman to pick the Exo bar up any time soon,” Sewitz admits. “We’re working to convince the most receptive people first, hoping they’ll spread the message and it’ll eventually trickle down.”
Still, the Exo team has decided not to keep mum about their key ingredient. The label prominently reads “Made with cricket flour.” At the same time, they made a conscious decision not to sensationalize the source. There’s no cartoon cricket on the package or “Fear Factor”-type font.
“These aren’t novelty products like, ‘Oh, this is crazy!’” Connaughton adds.
The protein bars, they say, are only the beginning. Next, they plan to commercialize cricket flour, which could be substituted for flour in any recipe ranging from pancakes to breads. If successful, they may even dabble in different insect species.
“Entomophagy is coming,” Graver says. “Like it or not, it’s going to be a major part of our lives over the next 50 years.” He cites resource shortages due to climate change and overfishing, escalating food prices and growing global populations as factors that will force a shift. “Embracing it makes sense because it’s inevitable,” he says.
As improbable as that sounds, history shows many transitions from disgust to delicacy. Lobster was once considered a trash food worthy only of convicts, while Americans considered sushi repulsive when it was first introduced in L.A. in the 1960s. Until, that is, sushi was Americanized by throwing in a chunk of avocado and a slice of cucumber.
“We’re creating the California roll of insect cuisine,” Lewis laughs. “We’ll use that as a vehicle for eating insects, and only after will we introduce the sashimi — sautéed crickets.”
Still hungry? Find a conversation with Exo’s founders here.
Photo Credit: Credit: Tag Collective