Hopping Mad?

Is a cricket-based energy bar a crazy idea or the snack that will save us?

by Steve Wilson • Photography by Molly Winters

Most people these days rarely stop to consider the most ancient rule of cooking: Make sure the ingredients don’t come back to life. But then, most people don’t cook with crickets. 

Last summer, when Jack Ceadel, his wife Marta Hudecova and their lawyer pal John Tucker perfected their recipe for an energy bar made from crickets, they tried to kill a batch of the bugs the humane way—by putting them in the freezer. Crickets are cold-blooded and, as far as anyone knows, feel no pain when they freeze to death. (At the very least, it’s a more peaceful way to go than a lizard terrarium.) The only problem was that they didn’t freeze the crickets long enough, and as they thawed, the bugs readjusted to the temperature and started thwacking against the confines of the container. Still, it could have been worse. In another attempt, the crickets got loose and jumped all over the house.

This sounds like a lot of trouble to make an energy bar few Americans would even want to eat. But Hopper Foods has a mission: sustainable, socially aware snacking. It also has a plan: Hide the taste. “Crickets have a nice nutty flavor, but our other ingredients cover that, so you don’t taste it,” Hudecova says from the Hopper booth at SXSW Eco in Austin’s Brush Square Park last October. At her side, Ceadel and Tucker restock a pile of brown and gooey samples glistening in the sun. “Our approach right now is to desensitize people,” Ceadel says. “And once that happens, everyone will be much more open to eating bugs.”

Why, exactly, would they even want us to be open to eating bugs? The Austin-based company has several answers to that question. Humans may well number around 10 billion by 2050, and it’ll take a lot of food to feed them. Rather than use up all the land and accelerate global warming by raising methane-farting cows, they think humans could get a far more efficient protein fix from bugs. Insects consume infinitely less food and water, don’t need much space, reproduce like crazy, never get mad cow disease, and their bodies simply ooze with nutrients. Many cultures around the world eat bugs, a tradition dating back to the days when they flew into our open mouths as we ran screaming from saber-toothed cats.

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Even so, it’s almost impossible to imagine bugs on the American dinner plate, which is why Hopper is targeting the much larger American snack bowl, instead—specifically, the snack bowl of adventurous, trend-setting Americans. Only a few months and one Kickstarter campaign old, the company chose an energy bar as its inaugural product (instead of, say, a cricket ice cream bar) to attract hiker-biker types who see the value in food that might help the planet. Hopper Foods caters to this crowd by including progressive flavors such as kale and cacao in their recipes, and sells their wares at the local, eco-conscious and (mostly) package-free store in.gredients. Down the line, Ceadel and company plan on targeting Paleo dieters with a cricket cereal called Caveman Crunch. “It’s about transition,” says Tucker. “We know it’s not going to happen overnight, but the more people that hear about it, the more it becomes a normalized idea.”

Doing his part to spread the word at the Hopper booth, 20-something Nathan Leamer hands Ceadel his phone to capture photographic evidence of his first bite of a Hopper bar on his Twitter account. Ceadel promptly retweets the picture on Hopper’s Twitter feed. Leamer then weighs a bag of finely ground cricket flour in his hands. “Every time I get woken up at three in the morning by the crickets at my house, I’ll think about this,” he says. Meanwhile, Chris Brooks, a middle-aged, middle-school environmental studies teacher, explains his scheme to give the bars to his students—without telling them what they’re eating. “It’s the only way to get them to try it,” he says. 

I should have used that trick on my 7-year-old, who refuses a sample and challenges me to eat it, instead. I can’t back down. Crunching into a berry and pistachio Hopper bar, my mouth fills with sweet and savory goodness, but zero trace of bug. Then comes the aftertaste—a purely psychological one, perhaps. I imagine the bristly legs, wavy antennae and alien-like heads of the 25 bugs that went into this chewy sensation. But since the wrapper advises that we “Eat. Think. Live.” I move past the ick. Next I try a peanut butter, cherry and cacao Hopper bar. It tastes even better.