Kyle Connaughton is a chef on a mission. An insect mission. This Renaissance man of the culinary world has worn many hats during his decades working in the culinary industry. He worked for French chef Michel Bras in Japan for several years, headed up the research and development lab of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck, was an editor of Nathan Myhrvold’s modern classic Modernist Cuisine, and is an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America. But his real passion these days is crickets. Yes, crickets.
Connaughton has spent the past several months developing a cricket flour based energy bar for Brooklyn-based company Exo. It’s not a novelty for the chef. He truly believes that cricket flour, which is packed with protein and other nutritional benefits, is the key to a sustainable future. He therefore approached this project with a focus on “deliciousness” rather than trendiness. The bars will soon be available throughout the country and as we find out, it’s changing people’s diets…Paleo diets.
Why did you decide to use crickets, as opposed to other insects?
Crickets have the most complete protein and iron content of many other insects. Plus, they’re already being raised for pet food and pet consumption. Ours are of course raised for human consumption but the template already existed. They eat well, process well, are easy to care for, and are nutritional powerhouses.
Did you run into any problems figuring out how to process crickets during the research and development phase?
Not as much as you might expect. During the drying process, the shell itself becomes a carrier for the other, wetter elements of the insect and serves to help dehydrate them. Once they’re dry they can be easily ground down to a fine powder and used just like any other flour.
How did you approach the development of Exo’s cricket flour bars?
The co-owners of Exo, Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis, and I wanted to develop something that’s not about being a novelty that someone eats on a dare. We approached it seriously and the fact that it’s made out of crickets is not as relevant as the fact that it’s delicious and packed with nutritional benefits. This philosophy begins with the packaging that does not include an image of crickets. You don’t think of soy protein when you eat a soy based protein bar and we incorporated that same mentality into the development of our product.
Insect protein has one of the least amounts of environmental impact in the world and is a sustainable and viable long term solution to meeting protein needs in an overpopulated world. Our bars are not bulked up with fillers like maltodextrin, they’re not overly processed, and the protein isn’t extracted like it so often is in energy bars.
How are the crickets raised?
They’re given an organic feed very similar to what crickets would eat in the wild. They’re not picky and they don’t require whole corn and soy to maintain their bulk like many other protein sources. They eat bio-materials that are found wherever there is agriculture, which means they are able to thrive on whatever the by-product is from the farms where they are raised.
They don’t need something specific which makes them an excellent protein that could be raised virtually anywhere in the world. At two weeks, their life cycle is so fast that it means they have a minimal amount of impact on the environment. For example, there are 40 crickets in each bar and we just completed a 50,000 bar run which used over two million crickets whose lives had virtually no impact on their surroundings.
Insects are a fundamental part of the diet in many parts of the world but there is still a stigma attached to their consumption in Europe and America. How do you go about changing the perception of eating insects in the United States?
The Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen have made a robust argument for insect consumption in parts of the world like America and Europe where insects are not normally eaten. Their efforts serve to normalize the concept of insect consumption in western culture. Through our protein bars, we too hope to contribute to the idea that eating insects is as normal as eating another protein source.
When I first visited this dilemma, I decided that my main objective must be to make our bars delicious. People already accept the fact that insects have a positive impact on our environment but in order to convince them to try the bars, they had to be delicious. The ultimate goal was to figure out how to make them taste good. We’re not trying to gross people out and we don’t want this to be a novelty item.
We used the crickets to make a densely packed, nutritionally rich protein bar. Most bars out there are ultimately not delicious, there’s not a culinary driver attached to their development. It’s solely about nutrition or many of the bars that do taste good are essentially candy bars void of nutritional benefits.
At two weeks, their life cycle is so fast that it means they have a minimal amount of impact on the environment. For example, there are forty crickets in each bar and we just completed a 50,000 bar run which used over two million crickets whose lives had virtually no impact on their surroundings.
How did you make your protein bars different from others in the marketplace?
I approached the development of our cricket flour bars from a chef’s point of view. I asked the question that chefs ask themselves when developing a recipe, “How do I make these ingredients taste delicious?” I incorporated appealing flavors into the bars like peanut butter and jelly, cacao, and cashew ginger that would aid me in my mission.
We are also motivated by the paleo diet and the owners of Exo challenged me to avoid the use of sweeteners such as brown rice syrup. Except for our peanut butter and jelly bar, the others are all suitable for a paleo diet. Ultimately, there’s no trickery in our bars, our ingredient labels are very clean.
Do you have any other plans for cricket flour in the works?
Yes. We want to move beyond protein bars. There’s a large humanitarian side to this. To be able to create a good, satisfying, and ultimately delicious meal replacement for people who find themselves in disaster zones or in areas of the world lacking in other protein sources is a big goal of ours.
When working on this aspect of the business, I consider what someone would need who is away from civilization such as a person working in a remote jungle of desert region or who has just survived a disaster that destroyed a region’s infrastructure. They not only need to take care of their basic nutritional needs but they also need to feel cared for, they need to be comforted and again I ask myself, “From a chef’s perspective, how can we make this taste delicious?” This is a really exciting aspect of this business for me.
What will indicate to you that Americans are ready to accept insect consumption as a part of their everyday lives?
The main thing we want to see when people eat our products is that they forget they contain crickets and instead focus on the fact that it tastes so good. We’re trying to normalize the insect eating experience. It’s similar to how early Japanese chefs cooking in the United States normalized the concept of eating raw fish. At first this idea was reviled in this country but now you can find a sushi restaurant in virtually any town in America. This is true today but in the 1980’s, eating raw fish was considered bizarre.
We are like those early sushi restaurants. I never hear people disgusted by the idea of eating raw fish any longer. It became normal and is something people enjoy and love. I firmly believe that in ten years time there will be the same acceptance of insects in this country.
Are your products currently available in retail stores?
The first step is to release them to the paleo community, at CrossFit gyms, natural health food stores, and smaller markets. Our goal is to develop personal relationships with our distributors in order to put a face to the product. We want to have an honest relationship with retailers and remove the middleman. They’re available at various places around the New York metro area and also online. We’re hoping they will soon be available in small and large grocery store chains and outdoor stores. Eventually, we hope that as insect consumption becomes more normalized for the consumer, they will be as readily available at convenience stores as a chocolate bar or a bag of chips.
More from the Weird or Delicious frontlines: