This isn’t a "Fear Factor" inspired nightmare, but a hope. The Salt Lake businessman wants to attract Americans to what most of the world’s population already knows: Edible insects are a rich source of protein that’s easy on the Earth.
But Crowley, 33, realizes he has to take baby steps down the path of this culinary revolution. That’s why he chose the friendly cricket — think Jiminy — as his first menu item.
"Our main mission is to make it culturally acceptable" to eat insects, Crowley said. "We thought the cricket was a fairly easy transition, as opposed to a worm or a beetle."
Crickets ground into a flour — that way there are no legs or antennae to think about — provides the protein in the energy bars Crowley and his three partners started making last September.
The business is small but growing steadily, with 2,000 bars sold last month. The Chapul Bars — it means cricket or grasshopper in Aztec — are sold for about $3 in 30 locally-owned stores in 12 states, and Crowley expects to double the retail locations in the next month. He also is about to double the number of energy bar flavors — bringing it to four — and will soon be moving to a larger kitchen.
While a company called Hotlix sells lollipops and toffee with crickets, worms, scorpions or ants inside as a novelty, Crowley says
"It’s about time," agrees Florence Vaccarello Dunkel, associate professor of entomology at Montana State University, who runs The Food Insects Newsletter, which promotes the use of insects as food for humans and other animals.
She calls insects "land shrimp," since they’re genetically cousins to ocean shrimp. She uses the wax moth larvae, crickets and mealworms in the quesadillas, stir frys and dream bars she’s been serving for 25 years at her university’s annual Bug Buffet.
"It’s very odd that we feed our turtles and lizards and other reptiles this high-quality protein and we eat things like chicken, beef and pork," she said in a telephone interview from her Bozeman office, noting that a 100-gram serving of insects is higher in protein, calcium and iron than 100 grams of beef. There’s no cholesterol in insects and they have the healthy omega 3 fatty acids, she said.
"The insects are like mushrooms — they take on the taste of what you put with them," she added.
She and Crowley agree that Americans are more receptive to insect protein than ever.
"People are ready for a change," Crowley said. "They’re more in tune with where their food comes from and the unsustainability of our mainstream food products.
A global food
Some 80 percent of the world’s population intentionally eats 1,700 species of insects for food. People eat red tree ants in Cambodia, bee larvae in Japan and grasshoppers in Mexico, Crowley said.
Americans and Europeans are notably absent from the guest list.
Of course, we eat bugs as well — but just not on purpose. The Food and Drug Administration allows all kinds of "insect fragments" in food — up to 60 per 100 grams of chocolate, 30 per 100 grams of peanut butter, and up to 10 whole insects per 8 ounce of raisins, according to its Food Defect Action Level booklet.
As Crowley mixes up a batch of his Thai flavored bars — cricket flour stirred with coconut flakes, dates, almond butter, agave nectar, cashews, ginger and lime — he says the flavors are inspired by cultures where insects are traditionally consumed as part of their diets.
The brown flour that smells fishy comes from out-of-state cricket farms that primarily raise them for pet food. Crowley says he bakes the insects to kill bacteria and then grinds them into a flour. Each 51 gram energy bar contains the equivalent of 12 crickets, for 6 grams of protein.
Utah has its own cultural tradition of eating insects. Like about 50 percent of Native American tribes that used insects as food, the Utes and Southern Paiutes did, too. In the 1870s, John Wesley Powell noted that grasshoppers and crickets were collected in droves, roasted like seeds and ground down to be eaten as a mush or in cakes.
They were eaten whole, salted and sun-dried, "much as residents of any present-day neighborhood lounge consume beer nuts," David B. Madsen, Utah’s former state archeologist, wrote in his article "A Grasshopper in Every Pot" published in a Nevada historical quarterly in 1989. Madsen has also written that Mormon pioneer diaries were full of references to eating insects.
Not only were insects widely used as Native Americans’ winter food storage, they also were a delicacy. The mixture of insects, pine nuts and berries left to dry in the sun was called "desert fruitcake."
Dunkel tells these Utah stories in her lectures on how insects can save lives, saying Native Americans’ reserves of bugs helped Mormon pioneers survive.
And Crowley is using it as inspiration for his newest energy bar, to be called Wasatch.
But the first new flavor, out in April, will be called the Aztec bar. Made with dark cocoa, coffee and spices, Crowley had to tweak the recipe because a taste-tester thought the crunch was from the crickets. It was the coffee.
Now, the kick just comes from the cayenne.
Saving the planet
Crowley, who runs the company with three partners, support from friends and family and an infusion of $16,000 from Kickstarter, doesn’t want the bars to be a novelty product. However, sales were strongest at Christmas as stocking stuffers. And he jokingly guesses that half the customers who buy the bars plan to give it to their wives to eat before they know the ingredients.
While the packaging features artistic pictures of crickets, Crowley is hesitant to have actual crickets photographed in connection with the food. He considers the energy bars the "California roll of bugs," easing people into trying insects just as the California roll — which was free of raw fish — helped Americans feel less wary about eating sushi.
Steven Rosenberg, owner of Liberty Heights Fresh — the top seller of Chapul bars — said he was hesitant to sell them at first. But he was sold on the mission of the product, and the taste.
He said customers who buy it are those who "share some of the same values that I share. People who want to eat healthy food that’s delicious, nutritious and not a great burden to the planet."
It was the planet — its water in particular — that put Crowley on the path from hydrologist and whitewater rafting guide to rolling dough in a kitchen in Artspace Commons. Experts say the agriculture industry consumes most of the world’s freshwater, using it on land to grow livestock. It’s estimated that producing livestock also creates one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases. After hearing a TED talk called "Why not eat insects?," Crowley saw a solution to this pressing environmental problem.
Insects, Crowley calculates, use one-tenth the amount of water needed to produce the same amount of beef. Put another way, 10 pounds of feed creates 1 pound of beef, but 8 pounds of crickets.
"This is a project that is a game changer, if you change a fraction of our protein to rearing insects instead of cows," he said. "It’s not a silver bullet, which doesn’t exist, but it’s an example of something that’s radically different."
He’s finding customers are willing to try it once. But will they keep coming back?