Imagine eating a cricket. Does the crunch of an exoskeleton and a warm burst of guts come to mind? Exo wants you to think of Michelin stars.
The Brooklyn-based startup announced Monday that it closed a $4 million series A funding round to bring chef-created cricket-flour foods to the masses. Investors include AccelFoods, the Collaborative Fund, and the rapper Nas. The company, which sells the bars online and at Whole Foods and Wegman's, plans to use the money to boost its retail presence. It's also working to launch new products based on cricket flour, such as ready-to-eat shakes and protein powers, to help appeal to fitness buffs—especially those cross-fitters and paleo-diehards who help make up the company's current core market—and consumers who avoid eating meat for ethical or health reasons.
"In the long term, we envision cricket powder being competitive with soy, and whey, and any other protein source," Exo co-founder Greg Sewitz, 24, said via phone. "That starts with introducing cricket protein to a consumer base with no direct experience with it and a lot of preconceived ideas that were negative."
Eww to Ahh
For that, they've turned to Kyle Connaughton. He may not be a household name, but he's something of a food-world star1 and has been developing palate-tempting recipes for Exo's cricket-flour protein bars for the past three years. In 2013, before Exo had sold a single bar, a mutual friend introduced the chef to Sewitz and fellow cricket evangelist/co-founder Gabi Lewis (the duo used to hand out cricket-powered snack bars during Brown University keg parties). Armed with a United Nations report on eating insects (pdf) they argued that compared with beef, poultry, and other animal proteins, cricket farming produces far more protein per gallon of water or pound of feed. Citing a passage from Leviticus2, they claimed crickets should be considered kosher as well. (Though ironically, crickets may trigger crustacean shellfish allergies.)
Connaughton needed no cricket conversion. In 2009, he and Heston Blumenthal teamed up to create an entomological dish for a British television show Heston's Feasts. (Connaughton used to run the experimental kitchen at the chef's award-winding Fat Duck.) They used a syringe to inject a thick tomato sauce into the bellies of fried crickets. “It had a great fried crunch and a delicious liquid center that really challenged people,” Connaughton said in an interview.
His role in this sustainable protein partnership is arguably the lynchpin: to help make Americans get comfortable with the idea of entomophagy—aka insect eating, which 80 percent of the world does, according to some estimates—and to make the company's products tasty enough that people who try one come back for seconds. The first challenge, he said, was getting into the mindset of people who eat protein bars. “From a chef’s perspective, I’m around food all day," Connaughton said, "so trying to supplement regular food with a protein bar isn’t that much part of my lifestyle.”
Cooking With Crickets
Cooking with cricket flour turns out to be relatively straightforward. Wheat flour, for instance, contains gluten that helps produce a chewy texture (while making faddish consumers shudder). Exo’s cricket flour has what Connaughton calls a "low culinary function," meaning its doesn't do much on a structural level. Instead, nut butters are used as a base and binder, although more than half the protein in the bars (10 or 11 grams, depending on the recipe) still comes from crickets. There are about 40 bugs in every bar.
Roasting crickets at high temperatures is the fastest way to make flour, but that process can impart a strong taste and aroma. Instead, Exo freezes, then dehydrates the bugs in a multistep process that results in neutral-tasting powder. The company is also experimenting with other techniques to affect the taste and function of cricket flour, Sewitz said. The insects are small enough that feeding them a steady diet of carrots, say, or apple can change the taste and color of the cricket flour.
For now, Exo's crickets are raised on a diet of organic grains and filtered water and sourced from farms in the U.S. and Canada that have cropped up in recent years to supply an increased demand for insects raised for human consumption. Specialty producers such as Entomo Farms, in Norwood, Ontario, and All Things Bugs, in Athens, Ga., are milling insect flours for Exo and competitors (Salt Lake City's Chapul sells bars and Portland, Ore.-based Cricket Flours has products that include cake mix). The market for meal replacement products, including shakes and bars, expanded to $3.2 billion last year, from $2.1 billion in 2006, according to IBISWorld.
Sweet or Savory
“We looked at the development of these bars the way a chef looks at creating a new restaurant dish,” Connaughton said. That meant using nut butters instead of the brown rice syrups many energy bar makers rely on, as well as eschewing clichéd flavor analogs such as brownies or cookie dough3 and taking chances on such savory concepts as mango curry and barbecue.
For a Mediterranean-styled bar marketed as a salve for “all your ultimate umami cravings,” Connaughton tested 15 types of sundried tomatoes and various techniques for blanching olives. After nailing the flavor on a small scale, Connaughton’s development kitchen at Pilot R+D took on the grueling process of adapting the recipe for mass production and a particular set of nutritional guidelines. Eight months and dozens of recipes later, they had a final formula incorporating almonds, tahini, sea salt, and sesame seeds and a price point around $3.50 a bar.
Despite the real ingredients and top chef, a bar is still a bar. Pursuits restaurant critic Tejal Rao thought the Mediterranean bar was "weird and malty"; Exo's cocoa nut bar tasted "very healthy, in a lean, punitive" way; and the blueberry-vanilla had a "paleo Fig Newton thing going on." Rao liked the barbecue flavor best, she said. "It tastes exactly like barbecue chips."