Most Americans already know the benefits of ingesting protein. But are they ready to eat snack bars and other foods made from protein-rich cricket powder?
Two college students in Rhode Island thought so back in 2013, when they ordered crickets on the Internet and used them in powered form to replace whey in protein bars. That led to their forming a company called Exo.
Two years ago last month, Austin-based Aspire Food Group acquired Exo, which is now known as Exo Protein. It markets cricket-infused snack and energy bars—along with cricket powder—online and at supermarkets in Texas.
The company developed a way to produce crickets at roughly half the time it takes in the wild, using far fewer natural and human resources than are required to raise protein stalwarts like chickens, cows and pigs. It hopes to educate U.S. consumers and food manufacturers about the benefits of bugs as food ingredients.
That challenge was summed up in a report from research provider The Hartman Group: “For most consumers, eating insects has a high disgust factor and is viewed as simply taboo because insects are associated with contamination, even if consumers rationally know better.”
In this interview, Jason Jones, CEO of Exo Protein and chief growth officer at Aspire, talks about the prospects for bug-based foods.
CPG FYI: Tell us about your background.
Jones: I’ve been in the natural foods space for more than a decade and was part of the early team at Vital Farms in Austin. What we sought to do was produce a better egg, where animal welfare was at the fore, and the lifestyle of the animal really was taken into consideration. We pioneered a scalable version of pasture-raised eggs.
CPG FYI: Whence came the notion of people eating bug-based foods?
Jones: About five years ago, many of us in the food industry were hearing a lot about crickets and other insects being the future of how we would be eating—mainly due to the sustainability and environmental benefits of that type of animal protein production.
There was a lot of sizzle and, I think, little in the way of fundamentally sound and scalable companies and brands underneath that.
In addition, consumers might have thought that’s a good idea, but probably weren’t ready to incorporate that into a diet beyond a novelty play.
That’s what Aspire saw when it looked out at the human market a couple of years ago and decided to make the Exo acquisition.
CPG FYI: Who buys Exo’s products?
Jones: The Exo brand is positioned to the cross-Fit and outdoor enthusiast community, as well as conscious consumers who really pay attention to the sustainability aspects of the protein choices they’re making.
CPG FYI: So you’re primarily a D2C company?
Jones: We do a lot of business on our website and on Amazon. Some of our customers get a monthly subscription delivery of our bars. We’re focusing more on retail going forward. H-E-B is our anchor retail account—we’re in roughly a third of them, all in Texas. It’s a really strong relationship and we’re doing very well there.
CPG FYI: What have your marketing efforts consisted of so far?
Jones: It’s mostly been digital marketing, as it’s a very education-focused play. What we have found is, people are very open to insects as a protein source and as a serious food option. They just need to be told why. Social media and other digital marketing are a highly effective way to do that.
CPG FYI: What are Exo’s aspirations with regard to food manufacturers?
Jones: We are happy to partner with other brands that are looking to incorporate cricket powder as a primary ingredient. We have a number of conversations going on with other snack brands and supplement companies.
We want to support people eating crickets and having a great experience doing that—because a lot of people are going to be doing that for the first time. We would very much like it to be our powder that they’re experiencing. It doesn’t have to be our brand, but we would like it to be our powder.
CPG FYI: Ingesting bugs has already caught on in other parts of the world, right?
Jones: Yes, in regions like Asia, Africa and Central America. There are places in Europe where this is becoming a little more common.
Culture is funny. It’s so specific to where you happen to find yourself, but it’s a very strong influence. We’re just not used to looking at insects as a food source.