By Amanda Woerner for Life by DailyBurn
That’s right, protein derived from creepy, crawly, and even winged creatures is generating buzz among the health obsessed as the new go-to food for fueling your workouts and staying fit and lean.
“When it comes to bugs, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has identified almost 2,000 types of edible insect species,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In fact, in 2013 the UN released a report arguing that insects are a viable — and highly nutritious food source, rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
Beyond that, eating insects might be good for the environment, offering an easy, cheap way to feed people worldwide as the planet’s population steadily climbs towards the nine billion mark. And now, entrepreneurs are catching on, making a splash in the bugs-for-food marketplace with innovative edible insect powders, flours, protein bars and more.
But is bug protein really any better than traditional protein sources, like chicken, or your go-to protein powder? Read on to find out what you need to know before whipping up bug-infused banana bread.
Don’t worry: If you want to jump on the bug-eating bandwagon, you won’t be expected to dig up your own ingredients. In fact, Fast Company predicts that edible insects are already a $20 million industry in the U.S.
The Black Ant, a restaurant in New York City, offers a menu featuring sautéed grasshoppers, while the company Chapul recently won a $50,000 investment from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank for their gourmet cricket bars (on sale now, in flavors like coconut-ginger-lime). And more products are emerging in the startup space: A business called Six Foods has plans to begin selling chirps — cricket flour tortilla chips — after raising funding on KickStarter.
Exo Protein, which sells Cricket Flour Protein Bars online at $36 for a 12-pack in flavors ranging from Apple Cinnamon to Cacao Nut, is one company that’s gaining momentum in the marketplace. Each bar boasts 10 grams of protein — and from the packaging you’d never guess they’re chock full of ground up crickets. “I started Exo with the mission to normalize consumption of bugs” says Gabi Lewis, co-founder of Exo Protein.
Lewis wasn’t always a bug eater. But as a nutrition-obsessed senior at Brown University, he struggled to find a protein bar he actually liked. “They’re mostly about as healthy as candy bars or if they’re good they taste terrible,” Lewis says. One day, his roommate Greg Sweitz (now co-CEO of Exo) came back from an on-campus conference raving about the benefits of bug protein. “Like anyone else, I thought it was ridiculous,” Lewis says. But soon, Lewis was sold.
Related: 10 Delicious Protein Pancake Recipes
Two thousand live crickets later, the roommates had concocted their own cricket flour and developed a recipe for what they considered to be the perfect protein bar. “Because cricket flour is not an isolated protein source, it’s not highly processed,” Lewis says. “So we don’t have to mask that processed flavor with syrups and artificial sweeteners.”
They brought the bars to a local CrossFit gym and it didn’t take long for the initial testers to see past the initial gross-out factor inherent in eating a snack made of bugs. “Once they can take a bite of our bars and realize there are no legs or antennae… and they realize it’s delicious, they’re convinced,” Lewis says.
Nearly two years later, Exo Protein has sold hundreds of thousands of bars. The popular snack has also struck a cord with Paleo dieters, according to Lewis. “Most research suggests our earliest ancestors were eating insets and berries, not meat with every meal. So crickets and other insects are among the most truly Paleo forms of protein you can imagine,” Lewis says.
It’s not just hype: Bugs really are a great source of protein. You’ll find about 12.9 grams of protein per 100 grams of cricket — compared to the seven grams of protein you’d find in one egg, according to Sheth. “Insects can have approximately 60 to 70 percent protein and they’re also fairly low in carbohydrates,” she notes.
Exo says through their own research, they’ve determined that cricket flour is 69 percent protein by dry weight, compared to 29 percent for sirloin, or 31 percent for chicken.
Plus, if more of the population started eating bugs on the regular, it might be good for the environment. “When talking about carbon footprint, that might be why people are looking at insects as a source of nutrition as well, there would obviously be a smaller carbon footprint to cultivate insects than chicken, beef, pork or fish,” Sheth points out.
Yet, before you become a full-time insect-arian, here are a few things to consider:
Don’t DIY it. Tempted to harvest from your local dirt pile? Don’t do it, says Sheth. “You can’t go pick an insect from the wild, you don’t know if there are traces of pesticide, and it could be poisonous.”
That means eating bugs produced by establishments that have a proven track record of safety — like a well-known restaurant, or food company.
“There’s not any kind of group that’s providing guidelines, so if you are adventurous and want to try some, make sure you’re getting your insect flour or insects from a reputable source,” Sheth says.
Lewis says they’ve taken plenty of precautions with the crickets in their bars. “We’ve had to run a variety of tests on heavy metals, microbials, and do in depth nutritional analyses,” Lewis says. “It’s been a process but hopefully it will be worth it.”
Start small. As with any dietary change, it’s best to go slowly to make sure a new food doesn’t harm your health instead of helping it. “Everything in moderation,” Sheth says. “Add it to your diet in a small portion and see how you’re doing.”
It’s also wise to start simple when it comes to insect meal prep. In other words, don’t attempt to serve gourmet ants if you have no clue how to cook with creepy crawlies. “Flour, like cricket flour, would be good way to start, because you can add it to something you’re already making,” Sheth notes.
While Lewis says Exo’s chef is working on innovative ways to incorporate cricket flour into everyday food items, we’ll leave the cricket flour pizza dough to the experts.