Friday, August 8, 2014

In praise of the cricket...as a protein source

Courtney Jackson is a member of the English Department and a foodie who enjoys cooking as much as she likes reading...and plans to add insects into her diet.

This Spring, the students in my spring term English elective, The Literature of Food, (and I) tried out a new food. We tried crickets. But before I tell you how they tasted, let me first tell you WHY we tried them…

The Literature of Food focuses on sustenance and sustainability by exploring the politics, economics, social and environmental aspects of our food systems. We considered terms and labels like organic and local, free-range and natural, we investigated the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate, labor issues connected to different forms of agriculture, nutrition, and the overall sustainability of what we put on our plates. After teaching the course over the summer for the past two years at The Advanced Studies Program at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH, I was excited to have the opportunity to teach a more concise version at Peddie this year and am pleased to say that it was a lot of fun!

The term began with us reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and discussing the ethics of eating meat by considering its environmental impact, the treatment of animals, health reasons, and cultural norms. From there, we read excerpts from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and then finished with The Locavore's Dilemma: Praise for the 10,000 Mile Diet, which is written by two economists who advocate for the global food system and aim to dispel several “myths” of the locavore movement, in order to consider other perspectives and think more critically about what each side of the local/organic debate has to offer.



During our reading of Eating Animals, students learned that raising meat, and cows specifically, is an incredibly energy-intensive practice with significant environmental consequences. According to EarthSave.org, “It takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of feedlot beef.” Cows also are one of the largest producers of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. The average cow can produce as much methane a day as a car does. Cows aside, pigs, chickens, turkeys, lambs, sheep, goats, ducks, and rabbits are also raised for meat and slaughtered each year, and according to the USDA, about 9.1 billion animals were slaughtered in 2013, and that figure doesn’t include fish or crustaceans. Eating meat can also bring with it issues of animal welfare, religious beliefs, health, and personal comfort, but just learning about the carbon footprint and overall impact that cattle and other animals have on the environment made some of my students want more sustainable protein options. Earlier this year, I’d read an article in the NY Times about a couple of companies who started making protein bars with cricket flour, so I decided to check them out and see if my students would be interested in giving them a try.

After perusing the websites of Chapul Energy Bars ($3 per bar + $3.95 shipping/handling) and Exo Protein Bars ($3 per bar and FREE shipping), I discovered that both companies developed their bars in order to offer a more sustainable, nutritious, and tasty protein bar that had the potential to change the world. According to Exo, crickets “produce virtually no methane, reproduce extremely quickly, and require minimal feed, water and space.” They are also estimated to be “20x more efficient to raise for protein than cattle.” Nutritionally, the positives kept coming. Crickets are “high in protein and low in saturated fats and sugars” and they are “a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids, and are also high in micronutrients such as iron, calcium and B-vitamins.” Crickets even have more iron than beef.

Soon enough, two variety packs from each company were on their way to my mailbox in Hightstown, and I told Headmaster Quinn about the taste test and extended an offer for him to join us. He enthusiastically accepted and we organized the culinary experience for a recent Friday morning.

That morning, I passed around the bars so everyone could consider the labels: what were the ingredients? What were the nutritional facts? Any allergy concerns? What did the labels say? Were they appealing? Then, we opened the bars, cut them into squares, and tasted!
Here are our results…

Chapul Energy Bars
Pros:
  • 10% of Chapul’s profits are donated to water sustainability projects worldwide 
  • The date the bar was made is on the bar so you know how old it is 
  • Founded with the health of the Colorado River and general water conservation in mind 
  • Soy Free, Dairy Free, Gluten Free 
  • Small size, so easy for traveling and having on hand in a pocket or bag 
  • 150-200 calories - good snack size 
  • Just a few ingredients and all of them are things you can recognize! 
  • Many of the ingredients are organic 
Cons:
  • Chapul is Aztec for cricket or grasshopper but the average American consumer doesn’t know that, and most of my students thought that the name, Chapul, was “lame” and that they could be named something more catchy and appealing to help encourage potential consumers to give them a try. 
  • The bars have images of crickets on the packaging, which given the western world’s aversion to eating insects, could deter people from trying it even though so much of the world’s population eats insects regularly. 
  • Crickets, like most shellfish, are arthropods, so if you have a shellfish allergy, you should not eat cricket bars 
  • Less than ideal sugar to protein ratio. Because the first ingredient of all the bars is dates, the sugar content is high, making the bars a great choice for a post-workout snack, but not an ideal snack during the day. 
  • Not all of the ingredients are organic 

Taste Test Feedback:

Chaco: (Peanut Butter & Chocolate) This bar was the favorite of the three that Chapul makes. Its consistency was appealing and students likened it to a Lara Bar. The peanut and chocolate combo is hard not to like, and while some students didn’t like the smell of the bar, as soon as they tasted it, they liked it.

Thai: (Coconut, Ginger, Lime) This bar was a hit with some students, but not everyone was a fan of the ginger/lime combo. So unless you like those flavors, you probably won’t like this bar. The finish on this bar was nice and left the taste of ginger lingering on the palate.

Aztec: (Dark Chocolate, Coffee, Cayenne) Everyone was excited to try this bar because of the flavor combination. It sounded like the bar form of a good Mexican hot chocolate. But upon tasting, everyone agreed that it was the worst of all of the bars we tried. It was bitter, had too much cayenne, and had terrible coffee flavor. If you’re thinking about trying this flavor, DON’T!!!

EXO Protein Bars
Pros:
  • Exo’s founders worked with a chef to make sure their bars would actually taste good 
  • Soy Free, Dairy Free, Gluten Free 
  • 10g of protein per bar no matter the flavor 
  • Appealing packaging - more so than the Chapul bars - there was lots of info and they are eye catching 
  • At 270-300 calories, these bars can serve as a substantial snack for an active person as well as a meal replacement for a less active person, especially when on the go 
  • Compared to the Chapul bars, all of the Exo bars had fewer grams of sugar even though they were larger bars AND they had more protein. As a result, these bars are a smarter snack/meal option during the day when activity levels are moderate. 
  • Because Exo doesn’t use any preservatives in their bars, they recommend consuming them within 6 months. To help you, they put a “Best By” date on each bar. 
  • They taste great! 
Cons:
  • Same shellfish allergy concern as described for the Chapul bars above 
  • At 270-300 calories, these bars are a high calorie snack 
  • Some students thought the texture was a little chalky (others thought it was fine) 
Taste Test Feedback:

Peanut Butter and Jelly: Everyone LOVED this bar and it earned the first place title. The consistency was perfect: not as dense and sticky as the Chapul bars but dense enough that the bar stayed together and didn’t crumble and didn’t feel dry in the mouth. The peanut pieces added a nice crunch, and the sweetness level was perfect with the strawberries making it taste like a PB&J sandwich. If you try any of the bars from this review, GET THIS ONE!

Cashew Ginger: Everyone expected this bar to be like the Thai Bar from Chapul because of the ginger, but it tasted more like a gingersnap and more people than not liked it. The sweetness level was good, and people liked the cashews. Many bars that have nuts either have almonds or peanuts, and peanuts are actually legumes. So cashews were a nice addition to this bar. The texture of the bar was more dry and it crumbled a bit when I cut it up for sampling, so eating this bar out of the wrapper with one hand while doing something else with the other might be a problem but the overall flavor was a hit.

Cacao Nut: This bar was generally liked but is the least sweet of the three Exo bars, so some preferred the other two for that reason alone. The texture was closer to the PB&J bar and had rich cocoa flavor, which made us feel like we were eating a chewy chocolate bar. The almonds in it added an appealing crunch to boot.

Once all of our tasting was over, we opened the discussion up and talked about the realistic potential of bars like these taking off and having a real effect on the way we eat as a school, as a country, and as a world. If Peddie’s bookstore started selling Exo bars, would kids buy them? They taste good...but they have crickets in them and our class agreed that the idea of eating crickets would be a more powerful deterrent than knowing they are a moral and nutritious food choice. Could we start seeing crickets and other insects popping up in other things like baked goods, cereals, and crackers? Time will tell. In the meantime, we hope that you check out the aforementioned books, think more critically about your food choices, and consider trying out a cricket bar. You might just like it and start down the road to a more sustainable diet.

For more information about other kinds of edible insects, check out this article from National Geographic or this story from NPR







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