Will Americans eat insects? Dave Baugh and twin brother Lars are betting on it.
Kurt Perkins rarely eats before 10 a.m. and usually not until afternoon, a practice he calls “intermittent fasting.” When the time comes, he reaches for a protein bar made of cricket.
The Colorado Springs chiropractor said fasting promotes health by minimizing strain on the digestive system. He likes cricket bars because of their exceptionally high protein content and keeps a supply on hand for patients, too.
“I brought ’em home to my kids — five, three and a one-year-old,” he said. “They chowed it down. It passed the kid taste-test.”
Billions eat bugs worldwide
Perkins gets his flavored cricket bars — blueberry vanilla, banana bread and dark chocolate brownie — from Lithic Nutrition, a start-up health foods company founded by former U.S. Marine Dave Baugh (Mgmt’10) and his identical twin brother, Lars, a University of Arizona Graduate.
For all Perkins’ enthusiasm about the Baughs’ bars, he isn’t oblivious to the challenge they face in selling Americans on insects as food.
“The biggest hurdle is going to be Western culture,” he said. “The ‘ick-factor.’”
The Baughs, 28, know it, too: “There’s a huge education component to the whole thing,” said Dave, who discovered insect-eating while stationed in Asia with the Marines.
That’s why the amiable brothers, clean-cut and quick to laugh, are starting with flavored cricket bars and cricket-protein powders for mixing into smoothies and baked goods. None of their products look anything like insects or insect parts, and their packaging bears no bug imagery, though it’s clearly labeled “cricket protein.”
“This is a nice easy way to ease people into it,” said Dave, who lived in Arnett Hall at CU and played water polo. “Everybody’s used to what protein bars look like.”
Americans may find the thought of eating insects unappetizing, but elsewhere in the world bugs are a dietary staple. A 2013 United Nations report estimates that at least two billion humans eat insects, primarily in Asia and Africa, but also in Latin America. Beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and crickets are common fare. As the Baughs and a handful of other insect protein entrepreneurs see it, bugs could, and should, have a place in the U.S. diet, too. The brothers know of a handful of domestic competitors, one of which, Utah-based Chapul, appeared in the reality TV show Shark Tank in 2014 and ultimately received an investment from Mark Cuban.
The marketplace has sent other encouraging signals.
In March the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about insects as an emerging food fad titled “Millennial Entrepreneurs Think Americans Should Eat More Bugs.” In April the Baughs were invited to participate in Twitter’s annual “snack fair” at the firm’s San Francisco headquarters. And Amazon has agreed to add Lithic products to its inventory this summer, starting with pure cricket flour. The flavored bars, which retail for $2.99 each and typically sell in variety packs of 12, will come next, the Baughs said.
They believe one consumer category will be especially receptive: Hard-core, diet-conscious athletes — “people,” Dave said, “who might already eat things considered different for the nutritional benefits.”
Advocates of insect-eating, or entomophagy, cite a few basic arguments for it, all practical: Bugs are plentiful, nutritious and generally easy to cultivate at low environmental cost.
Crickets, for example — the Baughs use a tropical species, Acheta domesticus — offer more calcium per gram than milk, more iron than spinach and more vitamin B12 than salmon, they said. Crickets are also rich in protein: Pure cricket flour is 67 percent protein by weight, they said, compared with about 35 percent for lean ground beef.
Said Dave: “This is a superfood.”
The brothers cast insect protein as an alternative to better-known protein-rich food sources, such as whey and soy products. They emphasize that humans are well adapted for processing insects, having eaten them for millennia.
“We’re giving you what your body’s used to,” Lars said.
Then there’s the environmental benefit: Raising crickets is less resource intensive than farming cattle, a traditional protein source for Americans. Growing one pound of cricket protein requires less than one gallon of water, according to the UN report “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security,” which runs nearly 200 pages. For one pound of beef, it takes 2,500 gallons.
100% Pure Cricket Flour
Dave was the first of the twins to give bugs a try. It was 2013 and he was in Asia with the Marines. During a jungle survival exercise with the Thai military, the Thais began roasting whole grasshoppers and crickets over an open fire and offered to share.
“I’m a try-everything-once kind of guy,” said Dave. “I said ‘absolutely!’”
Roasted and salted, they tasted “kind of like a potato chip,” he said.
When Lars, then working in corporate sales in Denver, saw a picture of Dave and his snack on Facebook, he remembered reading an article about insect protein and eventually began wondering if there might be a business in it.
The twins’ entrepreneurial bent was well established. As preteens they'd collected and resold stray hubcaps and golf balls. And while living apart for nearly a decade, they exchanged ideas for future enterprises.
“We began thinking, ‘This is the one,’” said Lars. “‘We could be on the leading edge of a food supply revolution.’”
The timing was right, too. In high school, both brothers had their sights set on CU Boulder. But the twins agreed it was important for them to experience life separately for a while, so they flipped a coin to decide who would apply. Dave won, and they’d been apart ever since, at times separated by oceans and continents. They were ready to reunite.
In fall 2014 a business plan began taking shape. Within six months, Dave, then stationed in San Diego and surfing before work most days, told his commanding officer he planned to resign to start a bug-food business.
“‘You what?’” Dave said, recalling the commander’s reaction. “‘That sounds crazy! I don’t understand.’”
I'm a try-everything-once kind of guy."
Lars left his job, too, and in September 2015 the brothers moved in with their retired parents in Centennial, Colo., and got to work.
They applied for and received FDA and other licenses. They rented a 1,000-square-foot factory-warehouse in Aurora, east of Denver, and they began importing finely ground cricket powder from a farm in Thailand. They also hired a contract food scientist to help develop their first products, the all-natural flavored protein bars, introduced in mid-2016.
Along the way, they raised more than $12,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, won CU Denver’s business plan competition and its $9,500 prize and assembled a board of advisors that includes Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s Nut Butters, the Boulder firm acquired last year by Hormel Foods, maker of Skippy and Spam.
“If there’s a window of opportunity to go for it, it’s now,” said Dave, mindful that he and Lars are young, unencumbered bachelors.
To be sure, Lithic is still a start-up. The brothers, who have mainly financed Lithic from savings, are still living with mom and dad and have yet to pay themselves a salary. As of May, they were personally making and packaging every one of their cricket protein bars.
But good things are happening.
By early 2017 demand had grown sufficiently to warrant plans for mass production through a third-party manufacturer. This will allow the brothers to devote more of their time to sales and marketing.
Already they’re regulars at trade shows and food fairs, and they make appearances at gyms that stock their bars. In January they participated in a “Bug Banquet” hosted by Linger, said to be Denver’s only restaurant with insects on the menu (cricket-and-cassava empanada, for instance). In April they flew to San Francisco for the Twitter event. And in May they planned to attend Los Angeles’ Annual Bug Fair for the second year running.
Amid all this, they’re filling orders for paying customers: One Tennessee family regularly orders two pounds of 100-percent pure cricket flour for blending into smoothies and pancakes.
“That’s our ultimate goal,” Dave said, “to get that normalization in the American diet.”
Hooking more Americans on insect protein will take time, and bugs may never become a staple food source. But as the Baughs' fellow industry pioneers have observed, another critter, once ignored, has managed to find a secure niche in the national cuisine.
“At the turn of the [20th] century,” Dave said, “nobody ate lobster.”
Photos by Glenn Asakawa