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Introducing crickets to the American palate
Pat Crowley doesn’t know what all the fuss is about eating crickets. “I’ve traveled around the world and seen insects on a multitude of culinary menus,” says the founder of Chapul (Salt Lake City), the company that brought us The Original Cricket Bar. “So the concept of eating insects wasn’t new to me.”
But perhaps more pivotal in his motivation to create Chapul was the fact that, with a graduate degree in hydrology and experience as a whitewater-rafting guide, Crowley knew all too well the inimical consequences that contemporary agriculture imposes on the environment, and on water resources in particular.
So all it took was a TED Talk on the health and sustainability benefits of entomophagy-the practice of eating insects-to convince Crowley that giving bugs a place at the table is a sound strategy for feeding the planet in the not-too-distant future, when demand for finite resources will surely outstrip supply. The only trick, of course, would be convincing the rest of us of the same.
Which is where those cricket bars come in. “Knowing that our cultural perception of insects was the main barrier to entry,” Crowley says, “I started Chapul in 2012 to address this by introducing insects into our diet in a culturally friendly way.” With the Aztec Bar (dark chocolate, coffee, and cayenne), the Chaco Bar (chocolate and peanut butter), and the Thai Bar (coconut, ginger, and lime), you could argue that he was introducing them in a gastronomically friendly way, too.
And as far as timing goes, the company couldn’t have scheduled a more opportune moment for giving the cricket bars their debut. “Bugs are as ‘paleo’ as you can get,” Crowley points out. “Humans were eating insects long before the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. In the case of some Native American groups, there’s evidence that insects were even the primary source of protein.”
And therein lies the appeal of crickets as food. The “flour” Chapul uses-basically, milled crickets-clocks in at 60% high-quality, easily digested, complete protein. “Of the almost 2,000 known varieties of insects eaten around the world,” Crowley notes, “crickets rank high in overall nutrition.” For example, in addition to protein, they supply iron, vitamin B12, and other micronutrients.
And they convert what they eat into this nutritive value much more efficiently than do other animals we raise for food, using about one-tenth the amount of land and water resources as other forms of livestock, Crowley says. “They can also be grown in mobile or urban environments,” he adds, “relieving the current need to clear-cut Amazonian rainforests to grow soy fields” for feed.
So despite a virtually nonexistent market for cricket cuisine when the company started, “our guess was that our target customers would be concerned not only about the health of the planet, but their personal health as well,” Crowley says, generating enough demand to get Chapul hopping.
And in a tribute both to their faith and to the American consumer’s gastronomic temerity, Chapul bars have taken off. The two years since their launch have “been a wild ride,” Crowley says, prompting press coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, and NPR and-most significantly, says Crowley-an appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” The show is a family favorite, and “it was gratifying to know that we may have spurred family conversations about what was on the plate that night for dinner,” he says. It also didn’t hurt that the appearance netted an investment from Mark Cuban.
That’s not to say that selling Americans on cricket bars has been a stroll down Easy Street. Whether from the absence of any supply chain or FDA guidance to commercial kitchens “weary of our product and store owners not giving us the time of day,” Crowley says, “we were met with adversity at every corner.” Fast-forward to now, and you’ll find dedicated insect farms producing food-grade product, definitive FDA statements, and-thanks, in part, to Chapul’s NEXTY award for most innovative food product with a healthy and sustainable mission at the 2014 Natural Products Expo West trade show-“a lot of very receptive retailers eager to bring in our bars.”
To the company’s credit, it “tries to make it as easy as possible for people to take that first step,” Crowley says. By milling the crickets into a mild, slightly nutty-tasting flour matched with “delicious and familiar flavors” like fruits, nuts, and chocolate, the company lets the bars speak for themselves. And with his background in science, Crowley finds the experimentation inherent to product development “a fun process.” The biggest lesson he’s learned so far: “There is no such thing as perfect, and we just commit to constantly improving both our process and our product.”
Take, for example, the “fun flavors and new products” Chapul has in the pipeline and hopes to debut in the coming months via its website. “Our philosophy is to be a positive, solution-based option for the growing population of concerned foodies,” Crowley says. “A measure of our success will be in five years when you can purchase insect-based foods at your local farmers market-and, of course, a Chapul bar in your local grocery store.”