The Secret Behind Exo Protein Bars? BUGS.

According to New York-based Exo, maker of popular protein bars, the future of body-building nutrients is in bugs, specifically crickets. When flash-frozen, dried, and ground into a fine flour, the chirpy insects become a protein-packed ingredient that contains more than twice the iron of spinach and 1.5 times more calcium than milk.

Exo bars, which come in nine flavors, weigh in at around 300 calories, 10 grams of protein, 20 grams or less of fat, and 5 to 7 grams of fiber. Paleo-friendly and free of dairy, gluten, and soy, each Exo bar contains 40 crickets. Before you cringe, consider the product’s popularity. It was just a few years ago that Gabi Lewis, the company’s co-founder, stumbled upon a United Nations’ report about edible insects while a student at Brown University, where the Scotsman was studying philosophy and economics. The 200-page document, which became the most downloaded U.N. report in U.S. history, asserted that insects were the future of food. Lewis discussed the report with fellow co-founder and L.A. native Greg Sewitz, then his college roommate, and the idea for an insect-based bar was born.

“It really struck us that there’s this entirely untapped food group—1600 species of insects, eaten by 80 percent of the world’s countries—and they’re all incredibly nutritionally dense, they’re all very sustainable and easy to farm, yet for no good reason, apart from cultural aversion, we’re not that into them in this country,” Lewis says.

The duo ordered 2,000 live crickets off the Internet, had them delivered to their college digs, roasted and ground them down, and used the cricket flour as the basis for a protein bar.

 Exo, protein bars

They sampled the early version of the product at farmers’ markets, across campus, and at their CrossFit gym. “Everybody loved the product and everybody loved the idea,” Lewis says. “Nobody had ever really considered eating crickets before, yet when we explained to them the nutritional and environment benefits of doing so, they were immediately sold.”

After graduation in 2013, the duo moved to New York and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Exo. They reached their $20k goal in only three days, then went on to bank $55k from more than 1,200 backers within a month. Seed and Series A funding to the tune of $5.6 million followed. The company, which currently has a staff of six, sells bars online and at flagship retailers. 

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Exo overrides consumers’ insect-ingesting aversion through off-the-charts amazing flavor. “There are a bunch of foods that cross this chasm from being icky or weird or foreign to now being mainstream or normal. If you look at kombucha, lobster, sushi—there are so many foods that 10, 20, 50 years ago, we thought were supposedly gross but now we embrace,” Lewis says.

With acclaimed chef Kyle Connaughton—formerly of The Fat Duck and Chipotle—on board, Exo expanded their line, first to familiar, American tastes like chocolate, banana bread, and peanut butter and jelly. “We’re already asking consumers to eat crickets, so we didn’t want to say, ‘Not only should you switch from soy or whey protein to cricket protein, but you should switch from eating a chocolate protein bar to eating green tea, matcha, goji bar.’ We wanted to make that switch as easy as we could,” Lewis says. For the more daring palates, they developed a savory line that now includes barbecue, mango curry, and Mediterranean flavors.

Lewis compares Exo bars to the California Roll of insect cuisine (hard to believe, but sushi wasn’t always a “thing”).  He credits the change in cultural perception to a combination of grassroots marketing and positive shout-outs on social media. The company’s most effective marketing strategy has been getting the bars into the hands of people with a substantial following—be it athletes, nutritionists, recipe developers, or musicians—and asking them to spread the gospel. Paleo celebrities, the rapper Nas, and top-tier investors are among those who have sparked conversations about bug protein, encouraging others to give it a taste-test. “When people try it, they realize it’s delicious, and healthy, and they tell their friends,” Lewis says. 

 exo, protein bars

The company also taps the hive mind for input on future flavors or its next T-shirt slogan, which have included “Crickets are the new kale” and “Crickets are the gateway bug” thus far. “Because this idea is so polarizing, people who get into it, really get into it. We’re very focused on building a community of passionate fans,” Lewis says.

But the bars are just the first step. Exo’s larger goal is to introduce a variety of foods that incorporate insect ingredients—though the specifics are still under-wraps.

The company has been quite the curveball in both of the founders’ plans. Before Exo took off, Lewis was planning to work at a hedge fund while Sewitz was headed for a Ph.D. in neuroscience. “We both had very different plans, but then this happened,” Lewis says. “It’s more enjoyable than whatever else we were going to be doing.”

Photos courtesy Exo.