After garnering $4 million this spring in venture capital, funded by cultural icons like Nas, a young start-up in the protein bar business moved into a trendy co-working space in Brooklyn. That company is Exo, and their product’s main ingredients include fruits, nuts . . . and the powdered remains of crickets (about 40 in each bar, if you’re counting).
But Exo is just one of a bevy of popular start-ups in New York and beyond crawling their way to the forefront of entomophagy, the act of eating insects. As discussed in a popular 2012 TED talk, insects require minimal land and feed to farm, emit fewer greenhouse gases than traditional livestock, and produce more lean protein- and vitamin-rich food—making them not only a smart investment for businesses, but also the new culinary world darlings.
Alongside a handful of restaurants, including Alex Atala’s two Michelin-starred restaurant D.O.M. and Enrique Olvera’s Pujol in Mexico City, both of which feature ants on the menu, a $20 million insect-eating industry has emerged like a worm from wet soil in the U.S. alone. Entomophagy devotees are betting on the notion that in the near future a rapidly receptive American consumer base will run on beetle juice and bug paste.
While the UN recognizes 1,462 edible species of insects, the majority of the entomophagy scene built on crickets—mostly in powder form. That wouldn’t be so odd if the cricket was the most commonly eaten of the world’s edible insects, but it’s actually a distant third, behind the beetle and caterpillar.
According to Gastrobug's Brian Hogg, we partially favor crickets because they have a slightly better nutritional profile than other commonly farmed insects. They also just feel less gross than many other insects. According to Jess Tran, Exo’s chief of communications, when the company’s founders were starting out, they actually consulted experts on the science of fear and “realized that crickets provoked the most minor fear response in comparison to other edible insects.”
Crickets are “about as mild as you can get,” Kevin Bachhuber of Big Cricket Farms says. “Which is kind of lame.” But it does lend crickets to being ground into pastes, powders and flours, making them easier to put into baked goods and staple products. Hiding them within foods essentially tricks people into eating them, and eliminates the initial taboo of eating insects. That’s why many consider crickets America’s “gateway bug.”
Bachhuber and Gordon, along with a few others, think that if the American scene is to expand beyond crickets, it’ll probably happen by creating gourmet, small-batch lines of diverse bugs and marketing them to a high-end crowd. Gordon equates this to the sushi pathway: An elite good becomes a cultural touchstone through celebrities and icons, which then leads to wider cultural embrace. There are already a few companies offering these more diverse and interesting selections, but they have not yet built up strong, attractive brands for haute American consumers.
The duo also notes that restaurants tend to be more interesting and adventurous than start-ups. New York City has a number of restaurants like Black Ant offering whole grasshoppers, silkworms in various forms, red ant eggs and worm-salt-rimmed cocktails.
The resources for a diverse and truly rich and inventive American entomophagy scene are out there. And it’s up to avid eaters to turn them mainstream.