Travelers who have purchased a preflight snack at Cibo Express, the chain of airport markets, may have noticed an unusual addition to the energy bar section this year: Exo protein bars, which each contain about 40 ground-up crickets.
It's not a standard preflight snack, but "they're flying off shelves," said Brenda deBuono, who is in charge of buying packaged foods at Cibo. "We were not expecting the movement we've seen." Witnessing the demand firsthand has so fortified deBuono's faith in the power of insect food that the chain last month added Chirps to its shelves — tortilla chips made from cricket flour.
That flour generally is produced by farming crickets, then freezing, boiling, and roasting them, then grinding the insects into a powder. Each pound of flour contains 3,000 to 5,000 crickets, according to Canadian cricket company Entomo Farms.
Exo says its protein bars, made with cricket flour, are an "intelligent first step towards normalizing the consumption of insects, which will in turn have enormous global impact."
It's still early days for bug consumption in the US, although an estimated two billion people around the world already have insects in their diet, from waterbugs and silkworm moth larvae in China to grasshoppers in Mexico.
Some think Americans will develop a taste for creepy-crawlies, just as we learned to enjoy other foods we once scorned. In 1876, the lobsters that were abundant along the coastlines of North America were still being used as fertilizer for farmland; in Eastern Canada, "they boil them for their pigs, but are ashamed to be seen eating lobster themselves," wrote the essayist John Rowan at the time. Lobster shells inside a house would be seen as evidence of "poverty and degradation," he said.
So could the day come when people see our aversion to eating bugs as an unenlightened cultural oddity of our time?
"If you look at the adoption of lobster, shrimp, and sushi, you'll see that people's perceptions of different types of foods that were considered unappealing at one time have actually reversed," said Lisa Friedrich, the director of marketing at Aspire Food Group, which uses "robotics and automated data-collection" to farm crickets.
Change is happening slowly, the insect industry admits. "We're under no illusion that McDonald's will serve a cricket burger a year from now," said Greg Sewitz, co-founder of Exo, which is based in Brooklyn, obviously. "We don't believe it would be the best decision to launch in Target. It's a weird product. It's too early."
But one glorious day not too far from now, he believes, big food will come to hear the chirping of a cricket as the sound of a lucrative protein source. "There are just so many applications for crickets and bugs in general in food," Sewitz told me before he teased the delicious-sounding concept of an egg replacement made from crickets and mealworms. In the US, "it's an entire food group that's completely untapped."
Do we really want to tap it? Jeffrey Lockwood, professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming and author of The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, told BuzzFeed News these companies may be underestimating the “ick” factor in cricket-enriched foods. Trading in Doritos for cricket chips isn't like swapping out hot sauce for Sriracha; it involves bugs.
"This revulsion is rooted in a combination of evolutionary predisposition...and cultural messages," Lockwood said. "Those marketing insects as food will garner attention, but the key will be to redirect the attention from dark fascination and revulsion to fascination and engagement."
And it's not as if Americans are suffering from a shortage of protein. Already, our "average intake of total protein foods is close to recommendations," according to the US government's most recent dietary guidelines. In fact, men between the ages of 19 and 70 eat more protein-rich foods than they need.
The issue, many say, is that we need to find sources of protein that are healthier, require less feed and water to produce, and are less damaging to the environment than raising cows, chickens, and pigs.
Cricket evangelists say the winged insects are the savior we need. Entomo Farms, for instance, says its bug-based food is a "viable and altruistic response to the global crises (food, water, natural resources) that will imminently be upon us."
And as one famous Disney cricket once advised us all, you should always let your conscience be your guide.
There are already other, less bug-based sources of protein, like soy, whey, and beans, but Entomo co-founder Jarrod Goldin told BuzzFeed News that it's not just about protein. Crickets are also a rich source of fiber, vitamin B12, and iron. "You have to appreciate the nutritional profile," he said. He's immune to skepticism: "If you don't care about food and the environment and health, then it's not for you," he said.
In terms of environmental impact, crickets need about 2 kilograms of feed for every 1 kilogram of added body weight, according to an oft-cited United Nations report on eating insects. "The resources needed to create 10 grams of cricket flour is 12 times less than the resources required to create 10 grams of beef protein," according to to Entomo.
Yet as the makers of oh-so-banal veggie burgers have found, getting consumers to turn their backs on meat is no easy task. And they're working with soybeans and mushrooms — can we really expect crickets to get any further?
Investors are willing to take a shot. Exo has raised more than $5 million, while fellow bar company Chapul won $50,000 on Shark Tank in 2014. Aspire Food Group received $1 million from Hult International Business School and the Clinton Global Initiative. All Things Bugs has received over $750,000 in research grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the USDA.
The market remains small. Entomo's Goldin says the company's sales were in the "low seven figures" in 2015 and plans to expand from 60,000 square feet of farm space to 100,000 by the end of the year to keep up with growing demand. All Things Bugs said it has sold more than 10,000 pounds of cricket powder since 2014.
So far, Exo's main consumer base has been protein-chugging fitness buffs and CrossFitters. It's still a fairly specific consumer base, and about 90% of the company's sales are made online.
Word is spreading, gradually. Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie are among cricket-eating's celebrity advocates. Jolie said her kids "ate them like Doritos." But even that praise highlights a real problem with cricket-based snacks: The best possible thing someone can say about them is that they couldn't tell they were eating a cricket.
Salma Hayek eats crickets.
Last year, BuzzFeed News' Katie Notopoulos prepared crickets three ways for Thanksgiving: in stuffing (dried crickets), in pecan pie (frozen crickets), and ground up in the crust of a pumpkin pie (cricket flour).
For the pecan pie, the crickets arrived whole and frozen. "The most notable thing with the frozen crickets was the smell when you defrosted them. The instructions were to boil them in water, then strain them like pasta," she told me. "The water ran brown. It was FOUL. The stench was primal."
As for the taste: "The crickets were surprisingly well-hidden on first glance at the pie, but as soon as you looked at the slice on your plate, you could clearly see gross little bugs sticking out," she wrote.
This kind of reaction is not surprising to Exo's Sewitz, who admitted even he has a hard time swallowing a taco full of whole crickets, a common dish in Mexico. He's had crickets powdered, whole, in ice cream, stir-fried, in cocktails, and "the easiest to eat, for sure, is cricket powder. At that point, it doesn't even register," he said.
Since consumers are more likely to take to crickets in powder format, Sewitz said, their main competitors at the moment are other protein additives and supplements — it's still a long way from replacing meat in dishes.
This is an important distinction. What it means is that all those comparisons about crickets' environmental impact compared to beef and other meats are not particularly relevant, at least not yet. Unless we start eating snack bars instead of burgers, the comparison should really be cricket powder versus soy, peas, whey, or other protein supplements, rather than crickets versus beef.
But cricket entrepreneurs say this is just the beginning. "We look at Chirps as our 'gateway bug' food and the future is endless!" said Rose Wang, CEO of Chirps maker Six Foods.
"We'll be in 70+ stores in airports, big online markets, and natural food chain stores," said Wang. "And the stores that we are in, we are doing very well in terms of how quickly we are moving product off the shelves. And you'll see more cricket products in more stores in the next year. We're talking thousands of stores!"
So will the giants of the food industry, who hold the key to making any ingredient mainstream, consider putting bugs on the menu? A spokesperson for Hormel, maker of everything from Spam to Skippy peanut butter and Muscle Milk, said the company is "not exploring this avenue."
General Mills, which makes Cheerios and other breakfast cereals — prime cricket flour territory — said it currently has no cricket-based products on the market. But is there any chance down the line? "We do not discuss any current innovation that we may be working on," they said.