Bitty Foods founder Megan Miller gave a TED Talk on whether insects are the food of the future. (Courtesy Bitty Foods)

Last year, Stefanie Bishop, an endurance coach who competes in demanding ultra-marathons, tried a new protein bar at her friend’s prodding. Made by a New York company called Exo, the $3 bar contains 10 grams of protein, 260 calories -- and 40 powdered crickets.

“Crickets sounded a bit strange at first," Bishop said, "but I was actually more intrigued by the fact it was made with crickets.”

Bishop, who lives in Long Island and trains up to 25 hours a week, said that she's "open to trying new things" and that "it just seemed like a good option for me on a nutritional basis.”

The 33-year-old athlete liked the Exo bars so much she has since gone on a “cricket kick.” She buys them by the box online, and generally eats from three to 10 a week, depending on her training schedule. She favors Cocoa Nut, which besides crickets contains dates, chocolate and coconut, and Peanut Butter & Jelly, which she says tastes a lot like the real thing.

While the United Nations estimates that 2 billion people consume bugs worldwide -- the formal term is entomophagy -- most Westerners still find the prospect rather creepy, according to a 2013 report from the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). Still, a growing cadre of early adopters, many of them serious athletes like Bishop or adherents of the Paleo diet, are seeking out cricket-based foods for their own personal health and as an alternative to other proteins that take a much bigger toll on the environment.

“For me, it’s definitely more about health, but the fact that there’s a sustainability factor helps me feel better,” says Bishop.

Within the last few years, several dozen startups have introduced cricket-based products, everything from protein bars and shakes to chips, crackers and cookies. Typically, they buy the crickets from farms in the U.S. and Canada; the bugs are usually slow-roasted, then milled into a fine powder that many companies like to call cricket flour.

“There’s definitely an amazing movement happening,” said Gabi Lewis, who co-founded Exo (as in exoskeleton) with his roommate Greg Sewitz during their senior year at Brown University and went on to raise $1.2 million from investors after a successful crowdfunding campaign.

“When we started three and a half years ago, we’d walk into a store like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s and the vast majority of people we’d speak to wouldn’t have cared about cricket protein. Now, whenever I do a demo or a trade show, everyone’s already sold on the concept,” Lewis said.

Cricket entrepreneurs like to cite the U.N.’s report on edible bugs, which touted the potential of insect protein to help feed a resource-challenged planet and reduce carbon emissions  as the world population edges toward 9 billion by 2050.

Crickets, just one of some 2,000 edible insects worldwide, get high points for nutrition: They’re  low in fat, high in protein and rich in B vitamins, iron, magnesium, calcium and other nutrients, proponents say.

From an environmental perspective, crickets and other insects are even more compelling. It takes about 100 pounds of feed, usually from corn and soybeans, to produce 5 pounds of edible beef protein. That same amount of feed can produce 60 pounds of edible cricket protein.

Water conservation is another big benefit to farming crickets. It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef protein, but just one gallon to grow a pound of cricket protein, said Megan Miller, co-founder of San Francisco-based Bitty Foods.

“We could even say that crickets are on the cusp of becoming trendy,” she noted in a TEDx Manhattan talk last year.

Proponents of entomophagy often joke that crickets are the “gateway bug” because they are easier to stomach, culturally speaking.

“I felt from the get-go that the creepy-crawly factor would have to be eliminated,” said Miller, who co-founded Bitty with her friend Leslie Ziegler in 2013. They later enlisted Food Network celebrity chef Tyler Florence as the brand’s culinary director. They sell three flavors of cookies made with crickets, as well as a gluten-free flour blend with cricket protein for adventurous home cooks.

“We wanted to make insects invisible and a part of foods that were already familiar. Our main priority is getting Americans used to the idea of eating insects at all,” Miller added. They plan to expand into other carbohydrates like pasta in the future.

In Austin, Tex., Leah Jones and Megan McDonald met while interning for the Sierra Club on clean energy projects during their senior year in college. They were so taken with the environmental advantages of crickets that they started their own company, called Crickers Crackers.

In April, they successfully raised $33,250 on Kickstarter to produce their crackers, which come in three flavors: Original Sea Salt, Rosemary Garlic  and their newest, Everything.

“The cricket taste is nutty and savory and pretty delicious,” McDonald said. “We’ve actually made the same crackers without the cricket flour, and it’s much better with the crickets.”

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