Is the idea of eating insects for protein -- rather than as part of a reality-TV show contest --really that weird anymore?
John Beers of Chapul Cricket Bars doesn't think so, and he's on a mission to change hearts and minds -- by chirping about the health and environmental benefits of eating cricket corpses.
I've eaten bugs before. I adore those Crickettes -- sour cream & onion is the best flavor -- and Larvettes that Hotlix makes. My friend's mom introduced me to fried mealworms and locusts. And I've even downed a fried grasshopper here, a fried beetle there, and a few handfuls of ants -- both plain and chocolate-covered. So I have no qualms about stuffing my craw with crickets for business or pleasure, and am more than happy to try Chapul's two protein bar flavors: the peanut butter and chocolate Chaco bar, and the coconut, ginger and lime Thai bar.
But first things first. I have to ask Beers the most obvious question: Why the chirping hell would the folks at Chapul use crickets in their protein bars when they could just as easily use more traditional ingredients that would be more palate-normative?
"It sounds a little wacky, I know, but there's an environmental consciousness behind our use of bugs," says Beers. "All of us at Chapul have a history with water. Our staff is comprised of whitewater rafting guides, watershed management specialists and amateur anglers. Because of these backgrounds, water conservation plays a major role in our lives. By using crickets as the primary source of protein in our bars, we move away from the standard but water-intensive energy bar protein sources of soy and dairy (whey)."
So using more crickets equals using less water? I can dig that, and even shorten the message to "Save water: shower with friends while eating milled cricket flour protein."
Chapul started production last year, and then gave the company a boost. "Over the summer we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that has enabled us to begin distribution all over the western U.S., beginning with Colorado," Beers explains. "Being a very young (a year) and small (four people) company, we've managed to find a niche in the food business and have begun to swing folks out of the commonly-held notion that insects are not meant to be on the table."
I just have to ask Beers the second most obvious question: "What is your opinion about Americans' issues with eating insects? What specific things have you done to try and bring people around to eating crickets?"
"The biggest issue we have in the acceptance of our bars is the cultural shift needed in the mindset of Americans that it's not only acceptable, but responsible to eat bugs," he replies. "Because the only edible insects on the market in the U.S. today are novelty items, we've tried to make Chapul bars both palatable and accessible to the average consumer."
No antennae or legs sticking out? If you ask me, Chapul is skipping the best parts.
Beers continues: "We purchase our crickets from a ranch in southern California, bake them, and mill them down in to what we call cricket flour. We in turn use an amount of this cricket flour, averaging two to three crickets per bar, in our Chapul blend with dates, almonds and other all natural ingredients. Milling the crickets instead of using a coarser break-down of the bug helps us to make the bar accessible to folks who wouldn't initially enjoy seeing a cricket leg sticking out of their energy snack."
And one more tough question: How do they go down? I have to answer this one for myself.
I try the Thai bar first. It smells as delicious as one of those fancy room candles -- very coconutty and gingery -- and is moist and chewy. The chopped cashews give it a nice texture, and it has just enough ginger to warm up the flavors. I look for any stray, obvious cricket parts, but find none. Not even a buggy aftertaste.
The Chaco bar is even better, because it smells just like a delicious candy bar, full of chocolate and peanut butter, with chopped walnuts for texture. No wings or legs in this one, either. In fact, both bars taste no different from any other good protein bar.
I notice that the ingredients lists on the bars read "cricket flour made from Jamaican crickets," and ask Beers why Chapul doesn't use Colorado crickets.
"As far as the 'Jamaican Cricket,' that's only a scientific name," he replies. "Our crickets are born and bred on a ranch in California and shipped live to our kitchen in Salt Lake City."
One last question: Who has the unpleasant task of dirt-napping the bugs before they go into the hopper? Is it the same person they probably have parading the streets in a giant cricket suit, giving out bar samples?
"We haven't branched out to costumed mascots," Beers admits, "but we do have a pretty sweet cricket hat floating around the office."
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Chapul Cricket Bars are available through the company's website at Chapul.com and locally at the Tattered Cover at 2526 East Colfax Avenue. They retail for $2.89 per bar or $30.99 for a dozen, with 10 percent of Chapul's profits donated to water conservation projects in the Southwest.