ANAHEIM, CALIF. — When Pat Crowley launched his cricket protein bar business in 2012, he didn’t want to create a company. He wanted to create an industry.
“Multiple players are essential for the validity of it as well as the growth,” Mr. Crowley said in an interview with Food Business News.
His Salt Lake City company, Chapul, Inc., was joined by two other cricket-based brands at Natural Products Expo West, held March 10-13 in Anaheim, showcasing such products as protein bars, snack puffs and baking flour formulated with crickets.
Touted as a sustainable alternative to animal protein and already consumed in many regions of the world, edible insects may be critical to stabilizing the global food supply. Even the United Nations is chirping about crickets; its Food and Agriculture Organization published a report in 2013 proclaiming edible insects a viable food and meat substitute. Cricket protein contains the nine essential amino acids, provides more iron than spinach and as much B12 as salmon, according to Chapul. Crickets also require minimal resources and produce a fraction of the greenhouse gases as cows.
The concept of consuming crickets may be becoming more palatable to the American public. Exo, a Brooklyn-based maker of nutrition bars made with cricket flour, earlier this month raised $4 million in a Series A funding led by Accelfoods. Investors include bestselling author Tim Ferris, rapper Nas and endurance athlete Amelia Boone.
“We’ve spent the last two years perfecting our product and growing the community around Exo; we’re barely keeping up with demand,” said Greg Sewitz, co-founder of Exo. “This new capital will help us accelerate the edible insect movement and execute on our huge vision for insect protein in all its potential forms.”
Mr. Sewitz and Gabi Lewis founded the company during their senior year at Brown University with the mission to “normalize the consumption of insects.” Exo protein bars debuted on shelves in March 2014. Later that year, the company closed a $1.2 million seed round from investors, including Collaborative Fund, StartGarden and AccelFoods. Exo’s head of research and development is a three-Michelin star chef, who developed the brand’s recently launched line of savory meal bars, featuring such flavors as barbecue, mango curry, and Mediterranean. Exo also offers protein bars in cocoa nut, banana bread, apple cinnamon, blueberry vanilla, and peanut butter and jelly varieties. The products contain 10 or more grams of protein and 270 to 300 calories per serving and contain no gluten, grain, soy, dairy or refined sugars.
Another brand at Expo West, San Francisco-based Bitty Foods, introduced Chiridos, a line of snack chips made with lentils and cricket flour. With three times the protein of traditional chips, varieties include Baja Ranchero, salsa verde and spicy mole. The brand also offers cricket-based baking flour and a line of cookies made with cricket flour in such flavors as cocoa chai, chocolate chip and orange ginger.
Bitty Foods’ culinary director is Tyler Florence of Food Network fame. Crickets are dry roasted and milled into a fine powder blended with cassava and coconut to create the grain-free baking flour used in Bitty Foods’ recipes. The crickets are sourced exclusively from farms in the United States and Canada and are fed a bioengineered-free diet, according to the company.
The latest innovations from Chapul are cricket protein powder and high-protein baking flour made with a blend of gluten-free flours from crickets, brown rice, sorghum, garbanzo bean and hemp. The company also offers its original line of protein bars featuring such flavors as coconut, ginger and lime; dark chocolate, coffee and cayenne; peanut butter and chocolate; and matcha tea with goji and nori.
“When we launched our first insect-based product we wanted to make it as convenient as possible,” Mr. Crowley said. “But now that there is a growing awareness of it and a growing movement about the health benefits and environmental benefits, we’re comfortable in taking that step back in convenience in order to allow for that step forward in the creative potential of the crowd.”
Mr. Crowley said retail growth of Chapul bars has increased by more than 200% each year. Having recently entered into national distribution through United Natural Foods, Inc., the company is expecting 500% growth this year.
“We’re going from about 500 locations to 2,000 to 2,500 by the end of this year,” Mr. Crowley said.
Regarding additional competition in the marketplace, Mr. Crowley said: “We’re thrilled… The only way that this was going to work was through entrepreneurs and startup companies. It’s a really collaborative effort right now amongst the startup community to build this industry.”
From his perspective, American consumers are opening up to the idea of eating bugs, particularly in the natural channel.
“When we go and demo at Whole Foods or Sprouts or Natural Grocers, probably 90% of people have at least heard of the concept,” he said.
His appearance on the television show “Shark Tank” in 2014 helped foster awareness of entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food.
“There were 8 million people who viewed that episode,” Mr. Crowley said. “And several new companies launched immediately right after that … and it’s kind of paved the way for a lot of the consumer perception.”
Still, more education may be required. Mr. Crowley said his business is much more successful in stores where the products are demoed. He said he shies away from marketing the products as a novelty, but in some cases, the intrigue of eating insects prompts consumers to try the bars.“That’s one thing we’ve found that can drive a lot of first-time interaction with our bars, but we also wanted to have a product that was competitive without that element,” he said. “So the taste of our bars and the nutritional properties are really what drive the second purchase… Even if it is a novelty purchase that causes that first time, then the second time it’s just so much easier for the consumer to be willing to, from a cultural standpoint, to accept there is some merit to novelty purchase for the end of having a viable new agricultural ingredient.”