Insects: Tasty and Nutritious
The insistent cadence of crickets already evokes the beautiful melancholy of late summer: warm evenings spent in conversation under the stars, or the knowledge that soon—though not quite yet—vacation will end with the return to school or work. But Salt Lake resident Pat Crowley hopes that crickets’ evening sussurance (or—more accurately though less poetically—stridulation) might soon have another association for people here in the US: that of a ringing dinner bell.
Crowley is a child of the West. Born in Arizona, he grew up backpacking and hiking, his adventures taking him through South America and Mexico, as he attended a surf camp in Panama and worked as a rafting guide on the Colorado river. He moved to Utah three years ago, when he fell in love with the Wasatch Mountains. With a masters in watershed management, he has worked on conservation efforts and long-term planning, focusing mainly on the Colorado River supply. Intimately concerned with the use and abuse of the West’s waterways, Crowley was troubled by the stats indicating that 70-90% of our water is diverted for agricultural usage, usually for water-intensive crops that are in turn fed to livestock, a double-waste of the most precious resource in our arid climate.
When Crowley first encountered Dr. Marcel Dicke’s TED talk (check it out here: www.ted.com/ talks/marcel_dicke_why_not_eat_insects.html), a novel idea that for ameliorating water misuse presented itself: Eat insects. “When I looked at insect production against our current source of protein, whether that’s livestock or soy, it made a lot more sense environmentally… so I wanted to do something to introduce insects to the US,” explains Crowley. Crowley along with three partners—Dan O’Neill, Ruth Arevalo and John Beers—who bring financial management, culinary science and sales experience to the team, respectively—founded Chapul Cricket Bars to do just that.
Now, gentle reader, if you are picturing the eight spiders each American famously consumes by accident each year—and are shivering at the prospect of deliberately consuming items from the same urban-legend-index/food-category that contains the famed FDA-approved-minimum of rat hair, chicken beaks, and human fingers —a perspective shift may be in order. Eighty percent of the nations around the globe eat insects, and as any strict vegan could tell you, adding insects to the diet isn’t as shocking as it might sound at first. Honey, after all, is glorified bee vomitus, and the red dye carmine, found in foods and personal products from yogurt to blush, is derived from Dactylopius coccus, the cochineal insect—and by derived, we mean the dye-stuff is created from the boiled, pulverized exoskeleton of the female insect.
Chapul currently offers two flavors of bar, inspired by a culture with a long history of insect-consumption; 10% of the profits from each bar also go back to support water-sustainability initiatives in that region. The Thai Bar contains (besides cricket flour) coconut, ginger and lime; Thailand, notes Crowley, can be seen as the global epicenter of insect production, with the UN focusing money and effort to tap into the culture’s knowledge of insect husbandry and food prep. The Chaco Bar contains peanut and chocolate—Chapul’s “all-American flavor”—referencing one of the largest pre-Columbian civilizations, flourishing along the course of our own Colorado River system until severe droughts set in. (It also inspired the name; “Chapul” comes from the Nahuatl word meaning cricket or grasshopper.)
The bars are pretty good—no mean feat for an energy bar: moist, with a fresher, richer taste than most commercial snack or energy bars… although some of that comes from the date and agave nectar binders and sweeteners. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I snacked on a few at this year’s local Food Leadership Summit, before realizing that they contained cricket—so, I had only to resign myself to the fact that the ship had sailed down the hatch, so to speak, rather than bravely wrestle with my own ick-factor.
It was this contemplation of the ick-factor (or the psychological barrier if you want to get technical) that Crowley and team are primarily combating with their current energy-bar formula. They looked for models in other industries that could help guide Chapul’s thinking: “Sushi was the one that made the biggest parallel. The California roll was strategically developed to be a gentle introduction to raw fish, which was absolutely repulsive prior to the 1970s…so we knew we had to create a “California-rollesque” product.”
The Chapul crew began experimenting with different ideas for introducing the average insect-averse American to bug-based snacks: “We found that making a flour out of the insects was a more… friendly… introduction to the idea,” notes Crowley, further disguising it by mixing it into its current energy bar form with other healthy organic ingredients.
With many millions of species of insect to choose from, the cricket became the natural choice for the insect-meal for two reasons. First, crickets have better PR than squigglier creepy-crawlies, making appearances as beloved animated characters in Disney films, or as the international symbol for lack-of-laughter after a flat-falling joke.
Secondly, the house cricket, Acheta domistica, has been raised as a food source for pets or as fish bait for many years; in fact, in warm, temperate climates such as the south or in southern California, you may find 100-year old heritage farms that are already well versed in commercially growing crickets, allowing the Chapul crew to develop relationships with the farms to have crickets grown for human consumption. Crickets destined for the table are fed plant by-products from food grown for people, like expired fruit, corn husks or broccoli stalks.
Modern American cricketry doesn’t involve a lot of cricket-wrangling: Although cricket-husbanders in places like Thailand or Vietnam will catch crickets wild, patrolling the open fields with nets that drape off the arms, another benefits of cricket-eating is that the little chirpers can be raised in plastic, lidless bins. Since crickets actually prefer a dense population under the saftey-in-numbers principle, this adds another argument for the eco-consciousness of eating insects. “You can raise them in a really small space, such as in an urban environment, closer to the food end-point for lower carbon costs,” says Crowley. For now, though, the Chapul Bar team is content to have their crickets raised elsewhere in the US. They bake, grind, and sift the crickets in-house to produce the meal. They bake their bars at their downtown kitchen, made possible by funds provided by an enthusiastic eco-conscious community: Chapul’s 18-day Kickstarter campaign last July allowed the team to rent kitchen space and up their production, gathered over $16,000 (their initial goal was $10,000) from backers in 13 countries and all over the US. The Kickstarter contributors were mainly excited by the possibility of a paradigm shift in the food landscape, says Crowley, “People who understand that this is our motivation really buy into it… although some just think it’s exciting to eat a cricket.” Responses vary, however, among would-be consumers still getting used to the idea of insect-consumption. “It’s rare that you get an immediate reaction… a lot of people have to process it for a while.” But pushing at the psychological barrier is the goal for now, and interest is already rising to the point that Chapul may, someday, begin selling the cricket-meal for foodies to experiment with in their own kitchens.
If this still sounds far-out, well, you may soon find your own psychological barrier under siege. Expect to see more insect offerings: Insects have made it onto the menu in restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and more may come as both supply and demand increase—Crowley notes that a taco vendor in L.A. was recently shut down due to issues with importing grasshoppers after failing to locate an intra-US provider. Perhaps we’ll soon be telling our friends to check out the little insect tapas place on the corner, or debating whether sushi or bee larva contributes to better first-date ambience. “We are finally ready, people have been talking about it for the last century, but psychological acceptance got in the way.” Finishes Crowley: “The time is here.”
The bars are sold through the website at http://www.chapul.com/revolutionary-supplies and locally at Cali’s Natural Foods, Earth Goods General Store, Liberty Heights Fresh Market, Mololo Gardens and Second Track Sports.