Free Enterprise Staff  | October 26, 2016

Bug Appétit! Crickets Put the Crunch in this Startup’s Chips

Rose Wang bit into her first bug while traveling in China. The critter, a thick scorpion on a stick, was as crunchy as it was packed with protein, and she was immediately hooked. Once back stateside, Wang, a student at Harvard, started experimenting with cooking crickets purchased from a neighborhood pet store alongside her then-college roommate, Laura D’Asaro, who had eaten a caterpillar while traveling in Tanzania (a moment D’Asaro describes as “love at first taste”).

The two convinced their friend and fellow Harvard student Meryl Natow to try the cold-blooded creatures, too. Natow didn’t require much nudging: She’d tried insects in her tenth-grade science class and liked them. Just like that, an entrepreneurial idea of the creepy crawly variety was hatched.

In 2013, the three foodie friends with their budding appetites for bugs decided to go all-in on a sustainable foods startup centered around insect-centric recipes. Their venture is called Six Foods, because when it comes to eating, as the three co-founders like to say, “six legs are better than four.”

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company bakes and sells what it calls Chirps – tortilla chips made with ground cricket flour. More specifically, tropical house crickets of the gryllodes sigillatus and acheta domesticus varieties are the star ingredients in Six Food’s quirky snack recipes.

Chirps chips are packed with protein-rich cricket flour, pea flour and chia seeds.

Chirps chips are packed with protein-rich cricket flour, pea flour and chia seeds.

Six Foods claims the crisps (which come in three flavors: Cheddar, Sea Salt and BBQ) are packed with three times the protein and half the fat of traditional potato chips. High in iron and rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, the buggy salted snacks are non-GMO and gluten-free as well. Some of the other healthful and trendy ingredients they contain are pea flour, chia seeds, rice flour and carrot sugar.

Sure, all those good-for-you-ingredients are great, but there’s no getting around the fact that the chips contain bugs. Or is there? Natow tells Free Enterprise that combatting the unavoidable “ick-factor” was the biggest hurdle she and her co-founders faced, but it actually helped them narrow down the list of foods that their company would roll out first.

“When we decided to start a company that made a food product using crickets as the main ingredient, we realized immediately that we needed a product that would be ultra-appealing to consumers,” she says. “We settled on chips because, well, I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t had chips before. This made it easier for people to stomach the idea.”

She also points out that you “can’t see any little [cricket] arms or legs in Chirps” – which helps reduce the potential gross-out factor. Oh, and in case you’re wondering (be honest, you are), crickets tend to taste like ground up nuts, at least according to Natow. “Crickets are not an overwhelming flavor like cinnamon,” she says. “Most people generally cannot taste the cricket in our chips, but if you’ve had crickets before, you can probably detect a subtle hint of cricket.”

Six Foods Chirps cricket chips come in three flavors – Cheddar, Sea Salt and BBQ.

Six Foods Chirps cricket chips come in three flavors – Cheddar, Sea Salt and BBQ.

To develop the chips, Natow and her team worked closely for months with chefs, food scientists and recipe creators. “A joke could be made that there were ‘too many cooks in the kitchen,’” she says, “but, for us, every person was imperative to the process.” Of course, taste-testing their wares often was key, a task with which Natow and her co-founders were more than happy to chip in.

Wang, D’Asaro, and Natow hope to eventually introduce more sustainable insect-based foods to the marketplace to compete with more traditional protein-packed foods. Among the protein types they’re taking on are chicken, pork and beef, all of which require significantly more water to produce than their smaller, exoskeleton-covered counterparts. For example, it takes approximately one gallon of water to produce one pound of crickets, Natow explained. It takes a whopping 2,000 gallons of water to produce the same amount of beef.

To change minds and palates about bugs, Six Foods is looking to a particular subset of open-minded eaters – children.

“Our generation and the older generations before us are probably forgone conclusions when it comes to eating bugs,” Natow says. “We have been indoctrinated to believe that insects are gross and should not be eaten on purpose. But kids are impressionable and can help bring about the mass change we need to see in considering insects a part of our everyday diet.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Natow and her team have some stiff competition in the creepy crawly cuisine space. Other buggy nibbles to try – if you’re feeling a little adventurous – include Exo’s slow-roasted cricket protein bars, Chapul’s cricket energy bars, Licket whole cricket lollipops, and Crick-Ettes Snax’s bacon and cheese-flavored whole crickets, to name a few.

Should you take the leap, be warned: You may well get hooked, Natow says.

“Chirps are the perfect first-bug product,” she says. “That’s why we call them gateway bugs!”