Should you really start eating insects?S

Earlier this month, the UN released a paper touting the nutritional and environmental benefits of insects. The paper caused quite a stir in the media, with a mix of fascination, head-nodding, and not a little revulsion. But why is the UN advocating entomophagy? Why aren't we eating bugs already? And should you really dip your tongue in the waters of insect cuisine?

Top photo by jackiews.

The report, "Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security," came out of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization. It should be noted that this isn't a report just about eating insects, a common practice in most of the world; it's also about cultivating insects for human and livestock consumption, which is a much more recent practice, one that many entomophagy advocates believe has great potential for world nutrition, the environment, and the development of rural economies. Incidentally, if you're into this sort of thing, I recommend reading the report in its entirety. It's surprisingly accessible and filled with fascinating modern and historical anecdotes of insect eating from all over the world.

The report was authored by Arnold van Huis, Joost Van Itterbeeck, Harmke Klunder, Esther Mertens, Afton Halloran, Giulia Muir, and Paul Vantomme. If you've heard one name on that list before, chances are it's van Huis'. Arnold van Huis is a Professor of Tropical Entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands (where much of the research into entomophagy is performed), and he's a noted entomophagy advocate. Like so many scientist/advocates, he's even done a TED Talk:

Before we delve into the health, environmental, and economic issues surrounding insect eating, let's address that squeamish feeling you're having right now. Chances are, if you're not already an insect-eater, you're at least vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of downing a crunchy, leggy creature that isn't a crab, lobster, crawfish, or shrimp. When so many folks are happily chomping down on the insect bounty that surrounds them, why are so many Westerners skeeved out by eating bugs?

Why don't Westerners generally eat insects?

In most of the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America, bugs have historically been considered part of a healthy diet. Many Americans might be surprised to learn that, in some Mexican states, people still hold to a seasonal insect-eating calendar, consuming maguey worms, stinkbugs, and mesquite bugs depending on the time of year. So why has this food source passed Americans, Canadians, Russians, and Europeans by?

Well, for one thing, Americans and Canadians tend to be culturally linked to Northern Europeans, who developed their culinary traditions in colder climes. In warmer regions, various species of insects and spiders may be active year-round and grow to be meaty and large. When snow and frost kill off your bugs or force them into hibernation, they stay small, and when they reemerge in the warmer months, you're more likely to view them as a pest rather than protein. Combine that with the ready availability of large game in Northern regions, and bugs simply never landed on the dinner table. Because they were seen only as a pest, bugs tended to be viewed as dirty rather than delicious.

As Europeans ventured into other parts of the globe, they tended to see bug-eating as a sign of savagery amongst the various indigenous peoples. (When entomophagy advocate David Gracer appeared on The Colbert Report in 2008, Stephen Colbert's character drew joking parallels between entomophagy and cannibalism; Gracer says that in real life, he gets that a lot, sans the joking.) This European aversion to eating insects has held even in circumstances in which food was otherwise scarce. One example the FAO report cites is that of the white settlers who arrived in the Great Salt Lake region in the late 19th century. With no traditional knowledge of how to farm the land, the Mormon settlers found that their crops failed and turned to a local native tribe, the Ute, for help. The Ute prepared a high-protein, high-calorie food, known as prairie cakes, for the settlers. Although today the katydid that forms a main ingredient in prairie cakes is known as the "Mormon cricket," once the settlers learned just what they were eating, they abstained from further prairie cake consumption.

But even as early as the 19th century, a few American and English entomologists began suggesting that insect-eating might be a good idea. In the 1870s, a plague of locusts descended upon the western United States, and Missouri State Entomologist Charles Valentine Riley proposed eating the locusts as a means of controlling the population. (In fact, in many parts of the world, harvesting edible pest insects is a routine part of plant agriculture, and unlike most edible insects, locusts are even considered kosher.) In Victorian England, entomologist V.M. Holt published his 1885 treatise Why not eat insects?, suggesting that it was only moral to lift the taboo against eating insects, offering the poor a readily harvested source of food.

Yet many of us remain stubbornly disgusted by the notion of insects and arachnids touching our precious tongues. Consider the public uproar at last year's revelation that Starbucks' strawberry Frappuccinos contained a red dye extracted from a scale insect known as the cochineal. Certainly many vegetarians and vegans have a philosophical aversion to eating animals of any kind, and some Muslims view eating cochineal as haraam, but for many Starbucks consumers, their beef with cochineal dye wasn't philosophical; they just didn't want to eat it because bugs are gross.

Daniella Martin, an entomophagy advocate who runs the site Girl Meets Bug (and is also working on a book about entomophagy, due out early next year), finds this incident especially amusing since coffee isn't exactly bug-free to begin with. If you take a peek at the Food and Drug Administration's Defect Levels Handbook, you'll notice the acceptable defect notation for "Coffee Beans, Green" states "Average 10% or more by count are insect-infested or insect-damaged." We're all eating bugs all the time, she notes. We're just in deep denial about it.

Should you really start eating insects?S

Photo by istolethetv.

This Western revulsion with insect consumption doesn't just mean that insect-eating is rare in parts of North America and Europe; it's also partially responsible for the decline of insect consumption worldwide. Many countries are experiencing an overall Westernization of their diets, and insect dishes are among the traditional culinary casualties. And Western media plays a role as well; Patrick Durst, the Senior Forestry Officer at the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, explains that, as people all over the world are exposed to Western media (and, consequently, Western views of insects and arachnids), insect consumption is increasingly seen as backwards and old-fashioned.

Thailand, where Durst is based, is an anomaly in that insect consumption has actually increased over the last few decades, as residents of Bangkok and other regions in central Thailand have come to appreciate the cuisine of the country's outer regions. But as the FAO has begun working with insect farmers in Thailand, some Thai officials are nervous about how Thai insect agriculture will look to the outside world. Even as the demand for insects has grown, some Thai folk are still worried that Westerners will view their insect eating habits as déclassé or bizarre.

Part of the problem, Durst believes, is that modern Westerners tend to view insects and arachnids as a famine food, something consumed only by the poorest peoples and during the leanest of times. And it's true that there are some miraculous stories of non-crustacean arthropods saving humans from famine. In the 1970s, for example, many Cambodians survived the famines brought on by the rise of the Khmer Rouge because wild tarantulas were readily available. (Fried tarantula is still considered a delicacy in Cambodia.) But bugs are far more than a famine food; on the contrary, certain insects are among the most desired foods in Thai and other insect-eating cultures. Just as folks in Louisiana look forward to crawfish season and folks in the Pacific northwest delight in Dungeness crab season, so do folks in Thailand feel an eager flutter in their stomachs when weaver ant season begins. Durst notes that when he goes to the supermarket, he sees insects selling for more per pound than chicken or pork. These aren't foods of desperation; they're foods of desire.

But it isn't easy, in the United States at least, to develop a taste for bugs. I was surprised that, in such a foodie region as the Bay Area, it's still difficult to find a spot that will serve up insects. Martin explained that the lack of food regulations surrounding bugs makes it tricky for restaurants to serve them. Occasionally, a restaurant will put a buggy item on the menu, only to have the local health department step in with a wagging finger. Certainly there are restaurants and catering companies that will build you a grasshopper taco, top your ice cream with mealworms, and host a cicada boil. But without clear government health and safety standards, many of these dishes exist at the whim of the local health department.

Bug: It does a body good

So assuming you can overcome your culturally ingrained disgust with consuming bugs (if you possessed such a disgust to begin with) are there legitimate nutritional reasons for making insects one of your major protein sources? Can humans truly live on bugs?

Naturally, the nutritional makeup of bugs varies from species to species. Birgit Rumpold and Oliver Schlüter of the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering in Postdam, Germany, compiled the nutritional composition of 236 species of edible bugs, which was published this month in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. Their research concludes that many edible insect species provide satisfactory caloric, protein, and amino acid content for human diets, while being high in monounsaturated fats and/or polyunsaturated fats and rich in micronutrients such as "copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium, and zinc as well as riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin, and in some cases folic acid."

The FAO report includes additional nutritional data on a handful of species, notably species of grasshoppers, crickets, termites, weevils, and caterpillars. Many edible species are rich in iron, a mineral that is deficient in many diets, and some, like palm weevil larvae, contain considerably higher levels of zinc—another frequently deficient nutrient—than does an equal weight of beef, for example.

A couple of charts in the report compares the nutritional content of mealworms, which the authors assert would be easy to farm on a large scale in the West, with that of beef. On many fronts, mealworms contain similar or superior nutritional composition to beef:

Should you really start eating insects?

In many countries, bugs make up for other nutritional deficiencies in the regional diet. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 40 percent of the animal protein consumed is lysine-rich caterpillar, the typical diet is otherwise deficient in the essential amino acid lysine. In Papua New Guinea, a root-heavy diet would leave the population deficient in lysine and leucine if not for consumption of palm weevil larvae. Insects are often touted as a valuable source of protein, but their other valuable nutritional properties shouldn't be ignored.

Can you catch bugs from eating bugs?

Non bug-eaters may regard insects as dirty, but can you actually get sick from eating them? Consumption of mammal and bird meats opens us up to all manner of zoonotic infections, from salmonella to Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. Although parasitic infections from the consumption of insects are not unheard of—uncooked insects can carry nematodes that can infest human hosts, for example—the authors of the FAO study note "that no significant health problems have arisen from the consumption of edible insects." Insects, after all, are far more distantly related to human beings than pigs, cattle, and sheep are, and it's far less likely that the pathogens that affect insects would affect us. Be sure you thoroughly cook those crickets, though.

If we're talking about shelf life, however, bacteria from spoilage is a concern, even in insects that have already been cooked. Last year, in a paper published in Food Control, researchers from Wageningen University (that aforementioned hotspot for edible entomological researcher) found that, while enterobacteriaceae were easily killed during heating, spore forming bacteria were a concern even for cooked mealworms and crickets. The researchers did, however, achieve promising results with simple preservations methods like drying and acidifying without refrigeration.

Should you really start eating insects?S

Photo by Jude Adamson.

However, even if we're not going to catch the insect equivalent of the common cold, humans could still be susceptible to food-borne illnesses that result from farming, processing, and handling food insects. After all, we're susceptible to pathogens not just from animal agriculture, but from plant agriculture as well. The study authors note that food safety and handling standards will need to be established for insects to reduce the risk of food-borne illness, especially if large-scale insect agriculture catches on. It's all about keeping our insects clean.

Even certain insects that are toxic to humans can make a safe and delicious meal as long as they're prepared properly. Zonocerus variegatus, a grasshopper common to west and equatorial Africa, store toxins from the plants they consume, making them poisonous to humans and animals. However, cooks in Cameroon and Nigeria render these grasshoppers safe for human consumption by heating them in tepid water, and then changing the water before cooking them. Fortunately, when it comes to preparing insects, we don't have to reinvent the wheel; we have centuries of traditional cooking methods to study and build upon.

Another concern, one more troublesome than pathogens, is humans experiencing allergic reactions to insects. After all, humans with Immunoglobulin E-mediated allergies have been known to suffer food allergies to crustaceans, and may suffer food allergies to other arthropods as well. There is some anecdotal evidence of people developing food allergies to water bugs and other edible insects, but the FAO report authors believe that individuals with no history of arthropod sensitivity are unlikely to experience allergic reactions to insect consumption. It's the people who work with insects—researchers, laboratory workers, farmers, processors, and the like—who would likely be most susceptible to allergic reactions. After all, these folks wouldn't be merely consuming insects; they would also be inhaling insect fecal matter and touching irritating hairs. We might have squishy feelings about eating bugs, but chances are it's the people involved with bringing those arthropods to our tables who would be at risk for ill health effects.

It's the environment (and the rural economy), stupid

Of course, when entomophagy advocates tell us when need to start eating bugs, they're not just concerned about our health. Animal agriculture is an expensive business, one that requires vast swaths of land and nutritional resources and produces boatloads of waste in the form of greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. As the demand for meat increases, we've seen rampant deforestation as farmers clear acres of land for grazing and livestock feed plants like soybeans. Insect farming, by contrast, requires extraordinarily little space, both for the insects themselves and for their feed.

Should you really start eating insects?S

Photo by avlxyz.

In fact, one of the reasons that insects are being touted as such an environmentally friendly food source is that they are incredibly efficient at converting feed into edible meat. A 1991 study found that 80 percent of a cricket's body, for example, is edible digestible; crickets are twice as efficient at converting feed into edible mass as chickens, and 12 times as efficient as cattle. And unlike cattle, which require acres and acres of crops to keep them fed and happy, insects can live on organic waste streams, like agricultural compost. Currently, insects that are raised for animal feed are fed on waste products, and currently research is being done on the safety of raising waste-fed insects for human consumption.

The rearing and keeping of livestock is also a huge contributor to greenhouse gases. In addition to the waste emissions produced from clearing land and growing and transporting feed crops, cows and pigs produce emissions—in the form of methane and nitrous oxide—merely by existing. Cockroaches, termites, and scarab beetles are the only insects that produce methane, while raising a kg of mealworm, cricket, or locust meat produces 100 times fewer greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions as raising an equal mass of pig or cattle.

Traditionally, insects have not been farmed; rather, they've been harvested, sometimes, as mentioned earlier, to keep them from devouring the crops. But some regions are experimenting with farming and semi-cultivation of insects. Entomology researchers from Khon Kaen University in Thailand have been working with Thai farmers to develop methods for insect cultivation. Durst, who is studying Southeast Asian insect farming and trade for the FAO, says that, as a handful of farmers started to see real income from their insect farms, their neighbors started to take up insect farming to meet the growing demand for edible insects in Thailand. It's meant added income for everyone in the supply chain: the farmers, the people who transport the insects to the cities, the people who prepare the insects, the vendors who sell them in the markets. As a forestry officer, Durst can't help but see the ecological upside to this improved economic security. When rural populations are able to see income from a such a non-land-intensive process, they're less likely to clear additional land to farm. Insect farming also gives non-land-owners a chance to participate in an agricultural economy, and helps ensure that highly sought after edible insects aren't over-harvested in the wild.

But what about the ecological impact of raising large quantities of insects? When she visited Thailand, Daniella Martin noted that the cricket farms she saw tended to be open, with no attempts to contain the crickets. Durst says that insect farming in Thailand, which focuses mainly on crickets and sago palm weevils, hasn't seen an ecological downside, and the insects tend to stay put when they're kept so well fed. He did note that some farmers expressed trepidation about farming sago palm weevils, which do, after all, infest sago palms. Infestation hasn't proved an issue, however, and Durst assured me that the entomologists working to develop insect agricultural methods are conscious of the fact that they would be increasing the insect population through farming.

Where's my grasshopper taco truck?

Daniella Martin points out that entomophagy goes through cycles of, if not popularity, then at least public intrigue. Ronald L. Taylor and Barbara J. Carter's Entertaining With Insects was first published in 1976, and David George Gordon's famous Eat-a-bug Cookbook came out in 1998. She suspects that this time, curiosity about eating insects may translate into more Westerners actually eating insects, especially with current interest in environmental issues (and the popularity of the paleo diet). Chefs, she thinks, will have to be at the forefront of entomophagy revolution, however. She likens entomophagy to sushi; it's one thing to eat sushi prepared by a talented cook, but quite another to make it at home.

Martin sings the praises of chefs like Monica Martinez of the San Francisco-based food cart Don Bugito. An artist by training, Martinez bases her cuisine on prehispanic Mexican culinary traditions, but what sets her apart in the world of entomophagy is her presentation. She creates crispy waxworm tacos loaded with pickled onions and queso fresco, and local vanilla ice cream dappled with red cactus syrup and topped with toffee mealworms. The dishes are meant to attract people who wouldn't ordinarily dream of chowing down on larvae. Martin hopes that, even if entomophagy starts off as a high-end culinary fad, that talented and creative chefs will eventually make insect-based cuisine more accessible to Western palettes.

Although many in entomophagy connect insect eating with sushi—noting that initially, many Westerners were hesitant to dine on raw fish—David Gracer suspects that the aversion to eating bugs runs deeper. While Westerners once perceived sushi as the exotic fare of a foreign country, he believes that Westerners are too inclined to view bug-eating as atavistic, a low-class cuisine. He does dream, however, of entomological cooking competitions, in which chefs from traditionally insect-eating regions compete for fame and glory—and in the process raise the global profile of entomophagy.

If Gracer were to pick one insect dish that could take off with Americans, he'd put his money on chapulín tacos. Chapulines are a type of grasshopper commonly found in certain regional Mexican cuisines, and they have a pleasant, toasty flavor. Mexican cuisine, Gracer notes, is already pervasive in the US, and Americans are very much interested in authentic, traditional Mexican cuisine. Chapulín tacos might be easy entry point to entomophagy for Americans, one that has the potential to catch on. (Incidentally, the first insect dish I ever ate in a restaurant happened to be a chapulín taco at Oyamel in DC. It's still on the menu.)

There is, however, a major problem with importing chapulines from Mexico. Gracer, who has some experience importing edible insects, says that lead contamination is an issue because the grasshoppers are frequently stored in traditional pottery, which tends to be coated with a lead-based glaze. In recent years, the California Department of Health has reported incidents of lead poisoning in people who have eaten chapulines imported from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Should you really start eating insects?S

Photo by César Rincón.

As mentioned above, the lack of health and safety standards is a barrier to restaurants serving insects. While the FDA may tell us how many bugs we can eat accidentally, what insects we can eat on purpose and under what circumstances is another matter entirely. Currently, some private companies in the US are lobbying the FDA for approval on the use of insects in feed. Last year, the European Union offered up to €3 million for a project that would "exploit the potential of insects as alternative sources of protein." And, as the insect shelf life research from Wageningen University indicates, standards will be needed not just for importing and eating insects, but also preparing and storing them.

Do try this at home

What if you want to hop on the entomophagy bandwagon now? If you're squeamish about the idea of seeing bug bits on your plate, both Martin and Gracer vouch for Chapul Bars, a snack food made from cricket flour. But if you're feeling a culinary itch, you can try cooking insects at home. (Be aware of the absence of FDA standards, though. Cook and eat at your own risk.)

Martin has a huge catalog of insect and other arthropod recipes at her site Girl Meets Bug. She recommends starting with the simple and (by her account) tasty waxworm tacos. Martin has a list of edible insect suppliers on her site as well, and gets her waxworms from San Diego Wax Worms, who feed their caterpillars a diet of honey and bran. The waxworms arrive alive, but all you need to do is stick them in the freezer overnight before cleaning and preparing them.

Gracer recommends ordering mealworms from World Entomophagy (a company in which he is an investor). The mealworms arrive already dead, cleaned, and partially processed, and he suggests roasting them until they're slightly crispy.

Should you really start eating insects?S

Photo by Matthias.

And you can always hunt around for an insect-serving restaurant. It's been a while since the Don Bugito cart came out, but there's still DC's Oyamel, and this spring, chef Bun Lai, owner of Miya's Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, promises that he'll be serving up cicadas.

Are bugs the future of food?

Even putting aside the environmental factors, insects have certain advantages over larger livestock. Gracer notes that, since insect farming uses so little space, it could an ideal form of urban agriculture, something to examine as humanity becomes increasingly urbanized.

And processed insect protein has already found its way into 3D printing. Designer Susana Soares' "Insects Au Gratin" project took an aesthetic approach to bugs as food. She worked with food scientists to create an insect cracker food gel, which she then used to create elaborate, edible 3D sculptures. The Dutch applied science nonprofit TNO also has an eye toward using 3D printing as a means of delivering insect-based foods to the masses. With NASA backing 3D food printers, will bugs in your burritos be far behind?

In fact, entomophagy and NASA might be a perfect match. In 2008, the Space Agriculture Task Force, a research group affiliated with the Japan Space Agency, published the paper "Entomophagy: A key to space agriculture" in Advances in Space Research. The paper argued that, for long-term space voyages involving agriculture, insects might be the perfect solution for providing astronauts with protein. After all, plants are easy to rear in enclosed spaces, and serve ecological functions in addition to serving as a potential food source. The critters so many of us in the West have avoided eating may be just the things to keep us fed in space.