The Big Bet on Bugs. Providing Palatable Alternative Proteins for Consumers
Our interview with Jason Jones, the head of Exo Protein, cricket protein bars.
Food manufacturers are betting that new protein sources are likely to become increasingly attractive alternatives as more consumers are making a conscious decision to eat less meat. The interest in consuming less meat could make insects a viable protein source in the U.S. One company that has been at the leading edge in this space is Exo Protein. We had the good fortune recently to chat with Exo’s CEO, Jason Jones, about how his company is using “pioneering technology to farm insects that have a similar protein quality to meat and an environmental footprint closer to plants.”
THG: Your brand, Exo Protein, is on the leading edge of providing alternative proteins for consumers curious to try new ingredients that have multiple positives (good for the environment, good for them). With Exo currently producing several different forms of insect proteins (energy bars, whole roasted crickets and cricket flour), do you find that consumers are just trial buying your products as novelties and as experimental protein purchases or are you finding there's a "type" of consumer buying your products?
Jones: We see both. Certainly, there is a lot of first-time purchase behavior driven primarily by curiosity. However, we also have a sustained consumer base that typically consists of individuals whose lifestyle correlates with one (or more) of the following:
- Passion for the environment/addressing climate change
- Focus on performance in endurance or adventurous activities/sports
- Interest in novel and alternative proteins
Despite other parts of the globe having traditions in consuming insect proteins, our research finds consumers reacting with an "ick" factor when asked what they think about insect protein consumption. What have been the most successful ways to respond to the level of aversion many consumers first display when presented with insect proteins?
So much of our consumption habits are indeed cultural, and in the U.S. that means we must navigate this aversion to insects. We have powerful nutritional and sustainability claims at our disposal, but people won’t purchase and regularly eat products that aren’t enjoyable, no matter the benefit to their bodies and/or the planet.
Thankfully, protein is top of mind for consumers. We’re used to hearing fairly nuanced messaging around animal livestock raised for food as well as alternative options using plants and lab technology. Our job is to position insects as a viable and even superior option to these existing protein sources. And we have the ammo to do so.
The primary work here means crafting delicious and thoughtful products that take into account where the Western consumer is today. We’re working to better understand and accommodate their preferences for everything from macronutrient profile to textural and sensory issues. We’re considering product categories that will minimize any perceived hurdles for shoppers. And over time we’ll hone our branding and messaging in supporting these products, incorporating the personal and planetary benefits that are supported through eating insects.
How hard do you think it will be to shift consumer eating and protein consumption patterns toward those that benefit the environment?
A few years ago, the answer was "it will be challenging, but ultimately, this is where the world is headed." There was a lot of noise around insects as the future of food but little substance in the way of consistent food/snacking options with solid economics behind them. Today, a major consumer shift is underway as consumers transition their diets to include non-traditional protein sources.
However, food-grade insect production has not yet achieved sufficient scale to compete on price. We are at the forefront of that industry imperative – while early adopters may pay more for a better product, mainstream consumers are clear that price remains a primary driver of purchase decisions. As with a great eating experience, shoppers will not sacrifice a reasonable price point to gain nutrition or sustainability advantages. So to answer the question, it will not be easy, but we’ve been hard at this work for years and are on the precipice of further changes that will level the playing field.
We see your products marketed and sold direct to consumer from the Exo Protein website. Is this an effective channel to sell through compared to brick-and-mortar food retailers?
The bulk of Exo’s sales have always been D2C, but our channel mix is changing. Our SKUs are in over 500 retail doors and counting, and not just in the natural channel outlets you might expect. We’re busy learning from those consumers and watching velocities and repeat purchase carefully. It’s exciting to witness familiarity of cricket protein rising, and we’ll continue pushing this normalization at the retail shelf with sensible grocery placements. Online sales will remain important for us, given the direct connection to the consumer and learning opportunities this channel affords.
Do you envision opportunity in the food service sector as a way to introduce insects in the way the Impossible Burger launched with top chefs like David Chang of Momofuku and eventually to Burger King?
We have dabbled in food service in order to learn. Our products have been featured in Michelin 3-star restaurants and sold at Atlanta Hawks games in State Farm Arena. While this won’t be a primary focus for us foreseeably, food service can be a helpful route to consumer adoption given the creativity and buy-in of chefs who develop novel and exciting ways to introduce crickets to their clientele. However, the margins of this channel make it tough, as well as the challenge of presenting a CPG brand there. That said, working with chefs could be a way we demonstrate usage occasions and goad the normalization of eating insects that’s so important to us. Chefs are modern day rock stars, and hugely influential.
Are there product categories on the horizon that you find compelling as potentials for insect proteins?
Yes, and we’re researching this in earnest. People want more and better protein, and we know that crickets are superior to both traditional livestock and plant-based and alternative sources. So as we push through the challenges of scale, we’re only limited by our creativity in thoughtfully presenting this to consumers in various forms.