UO graduates pitch crickets as appetizing protein supplements
After blood tests and lab results forced Charles Wilson to remove roughly 70 allergy-inducing foods from his diet – including wheat, dairy, various fruits, chicken – he decided to start eating crickets.
“I basically had to rebuild my personal nutrition and what I needed for ingredients,” said Wilson, who graduated from the University of Oregon School of Law in May. “So cricket protein was a great option.”
Last January, Wilson released the cricket cookbook All Cricket, No Bull, which includes about thirty recipes – from spiced French toast to sweet lemon balsamic vinaigrette dressing – all of which employ the insects in some edible fashion.
Working with UO business school graduate Shean Ellis, the two co-founded Cricket Flours, a cricket-oriented business that offers an alternative and novel form of nutrition.
Crickets as food are usually destined for the novelty candy shelf, preserved in lollipops or next to the worm larvae dusted in nacho cheese powder.
“Yeah, you still might see a cricket inside those lollipops next to a scorpion, and it might be the gateway bug that let people try it,” said Wilson, who hopes consumers will move beyond the novelty and appreciate crickets’ value as a meal supplement. “We’re delivering it as an added protein and ingredient.”
Crickets contain an immense amount of nutrients, including iron, calcium, amino acids and several vitamins. However, vegans and those with shellfish allergies are barred from eating crickets.
During his childhood, Wilson learned he was allergic to casein (a protein found in milk.) This led him to discover alternative plant-based proteins and, eventually, cricket flour. It worked for his diet, but it was nearly impossible to find in the market.
“I started seeing it as a market opportunity to not only provide myself with another protein source, but other people who either had dietary restrictions, allergies or who were just looking for a more sustainable form of protein,” said Wilson.
Cricket Flours first began selling cricket powder, a protein-heavy grind made of 100 percent crickets that can be added to smoothies and baked goods. The business has since expanded its product line with chocolate peanut butter-flavored cricket powder, Cricket Fuel protein powder and, as of last Saturday, cinnamon-raspberry cricket instant oatmeal.
Many of the foods in All Cricket, No Bull are Wilson family recipes that he’s tinkered with and folded cricket powder into, including his great-aunt Myrtle’s fudge sauce recipe. Cricket Flours recently put out a cricket fudge sauce, made with 186 crickets per jar.
You won’t find spare antennae or insect eyes staring back at you when you try a Cricket Flours product. The process of mashing crickets into powder is very similar to how grain is milled into flour. The taste doesn’t indicate anything buggy. If anything, crickets add a subtle nutmeg taste.
The United Nations released a report in 2013 saying that Earth will be home to about 9 billion people by 2050, and to feed everyone, we might have to start eating crickets for protein. Entomophagy (humans eating bugs) is so common that humans intentionally eat insects in their diet in 80 percent of the world’s nations.
Although thousands of cricket farms are based overseas, compared to a relative few in the states, Wilson and Ellis work with North American suppliers based in Canada and the southeast U.S. to source locally and reduce their carbon footprint.
Ellis and Wilson collaborated in summer 2014 and pitched the idea at the UO Lundquist School of Business’ venture program, during which students conceptualize and refine business models. Cricket Flours stood out since Ellis and Wilson had already been selling cricket powder online.
The online commerce proved they’d already made good strides toward having a real, sustainable company, said Nathan Lillegard, Cricket Flours’ faculty advisor and business school instructor.
“There were more doubters than believers [in class], because crickets are icky,” said Allan Cochrane, an instructor in the entrepreneurship program. “When you hear about crickets, you don’t go ‘Great idea!’”Cricket Flours competed against other budding businesses at three competitions over the span of three months this year. In February, they competed in the Mai Bangkok Business Challenge at Sasin Graduate Institute, a prestigious Thai school. More than 20,000 insect farms exist in Thailand.
During the competing businesses’ trade show in Bangkok, Cricket Flours offered samples of spiced granola to passersby.
“Invariably, half the people would walk up and look into [the sample cup] to see if they find something that looks like a bug,” said John Hull, assistant dean for the UO Centers of Excellence, who accompanied Ellis and Wilson to Thailand. “When they don’t see a head or a leg sticking out of the samples, then they’ll try it. It’s an amusing phenomenon.”
An emissary of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand, approached Cricket Flours’ booth. He tried the cricket granola and accepted a copy of the cookbook from Wilson, which he handed off to an assistant.
“So somewhere in the King’s collection of gifts is a cookbook on crickets,” said Hull.
The following month, Wilson and Ellis traveled to Canada, competed and placed first in the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition at the University of Manitoba, the self-proclaimed “Super Bowl of Investment Competitions.” They took home 20,000 Canadian dollars. In May, two months later, they competed at the University of Texas in Austin, where they placed in the semifinals.
Cricket Flours has partnered with other businesses throughout the country, including the Wayback Burger chain, which borrowed one of Wilson’s recipes and seasonally sells an Oreo Mud Pie Cricket milkshake. The Cricket Fudge Sauce can also be found at SubZero Ice Cream in Clackamas and Beaverton. Cricket Fuel is sold next to the PowerBars at The Duck Store.
As early as next week, the Duck Store will begin selling a pumpkin-spice cricket smoothie, a cross between a dessert and a protein shake. The shake will be sold through October and November.
“It’s a real thing,” laughed Conrad Hulen, Duck Store food manager.
With its newest beverage, Cricket Flours may convince the ultimate demographic, the pumpkin-spice-adoring mainstream, that crickets can be tasty.
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