Chowing down on insects might sounds like a challenge out of an old Fear Factor episode to most of us, but for the fitness enthusiasts behind Exo protein bars, it was a brilliant solution to a frustrating problem.
Gabi Lewis, co-CEO and founder of Exo, had a passion for protein bars—good ones, that is. A self-proclaimed fitness nut, Lewis competed in power lifting and CrossFit, and couldn't get behind most store-bought options.
"Pretty much everything on the shelf is a glorified candy bar, or if it really is good for you, it probably tastes like cardboard," he said.
Instead, he started making his own snack bars in his dorm room at Brown University. Made from almond butter, cacao powder, raw honey, and protein powder Lewis bought in bulk, his bars tasted great. But though he tried a wide variety of ingredients, he was frustrated by his options for the protein component of the bars.
"Looking around at all the standard options—whey, soy, hemp—most of them have drawbacks of some kind or another," he explained. "Maybe they contain dairy, or maybe they are an incomplete protein."
At the same time that Lewis was struggling to find a protein source, one of his roommates attended a sustainability conference at MIT, and came back with a out-of-the-box suggestion: edible insects.
So Lewis and his roommate and co-founder Greg Sewitz gave it a shot.
"We ordered live crickets from a farm, and literally, in our dorm room, we turned 2,000 crickets into the very first iteration of cricket flour," Lewis said.
To make cricket flour, Lewis and Sewitz dried out and finely milled crickets. The result? A fine powder comprised of 70 percent protein, essential amino acids, and healthy fats. Nutritionally, crickets provide more omega 3s than grass-fed beef, more iron than spinach, and more calcium than milk.
Turning to insects for protein also uses a lot fewer environmental resources. Raising crickets as food uses much less water, releases far fewer greenhouse gases, and is overall much more efficient than raise cattle, chickens, or other livestock.
And though cricket flour undoubtedly comes with something of an "ew" factor, Lewis is quick to point out that "there's no hidden taste or texture," and that the bars really do taste great. Since the founders knew they would have a hard time convincing people to eat less-than-flavorful cricket bars, they recruited chef Kyle Connaughton to formulate the bars.
With a resume that includes working as the Culinary Director for Chipotle and in research and development for The Fat Duck, a U.K. restaurant that won three Michelin stars, Connaughton's Exo flavors don't disappoint. When you sink your teeth into their cacao nut, peanut butter and jelly, apple cinnamon, or blueberry vanilla bars, you get the sweet flavors of Exo's high-quality ingredients—plus a hefty dose of protein you can feel good about.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont