Nutritious, Cheap, and Plentiful –Why not eat insects?

by Mary Hall on April 11, 2013

Have you ever eaten an insect?  I have.  In the larval stage –steamed and buttered.  It was the size of a plump raisin, but green, and tasted like fresh steamed broccoli.  Actually, I believe I ate quite a few.  Does that make me an “entomophagist” ?   I would be inclined to say “no.”  An entomophagist is a person who eats insects as a general practice. I ate my larvae by accident, before I noticed them among the organic broccoli florets on my dinner plate.  Once I realized what I had done, I was fairly grossed out.

Nonetheless, just like you, I continue to  eat quite a few insects.   In  U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) parlance, insect parts are “natural defects” in food.  Nothing’s perfect.   What are a few harmless insect heads, wings, eggs, larvae, and worms?    To give you an idea, here’s a sample of what you’ve been eating:

Information Source: U.S. FDA Defect Levels Handbook

Clearly, you’ve been enjoying foods containing insects (who doesn’t love chocolate? ).    Why not join 80% of the world’s population and make them an important part of your diet?  After all, insects are incredibly nutritious and tasty.

“They taste like a huge sunflower seed”

One student’s response upon eating a grasshopper 

Insects are more Nutritious than Meat

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), insects are an excellent source of protein. Like meat, they contain all of our essential amino acids.  Moreover, their protein content is often higher than that of beef, pork, chicken, or fish.  Add to that– insects are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and polyunsaturated fats.  They’re particularly high in  B vitamins, iron, and zinc.

What’s Holding Us Back?

It’s definitely not the nutritional profile.  Could it be our climate?  According to the FAO, given our climate and the fact that insects are cold-blooded, many developed nations have been at a disadvantage in terms of insect variety, size, and abundance.  This may be why we don’t have a long history of eating them.  In the tropics, insects are larger, more varied, and available year round.  In our climate, the insects are smaller and not always available due to hibernation.

While this explanation sounds feasible, it doesn’t make sense for the southernmost portion of the United States. You have to wonder why Southerners have failed to embrace insect cuisine.  They seem to be fumigating excellent food down there.

“China’s Maggot Factories Hoping to Feed the World”

Story headline on FAO website for the Edible Insects Programme 

As the world’s population continues to grow, so do concerns about our ability to produce enough food.  The objective of the FAO Edible Insects Programme is  to cultivate insects as a sustainable food source worldwide.  Sooner or later, you may find yourself craving one or more of the  1,909 edible species of insect.

In Case You Want to “Try this at Home”

Why not start with something familiar–like a grasshopper.  It’s similar to shrimp (apparently).  You de-vein them and peel off their clear shells.  Or just bread them and deep fry them exoskeleton and all.  Maybe you should pull off the little legs  . . . oh, and the wings. 

“With a little soy sauce and a dash of paprika, a fried grasshopper tastes something like a little soy sauce and a dash of paprika”

From The Food Insects Newsletter

Recipe Source: The Food Insects Newsletter

 

SOURCES

Dunkel, F. 1991. McGrasshoppers in Montana from The Food Insects Newsletter. Volume IV, Number 1, March 1991. Montana State University        http://www.food-insects.com/Vol4%20no1.htm

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 1998. The Food Detect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans. From Defect Levels Handbook. Accessed April 11, 2013.  Last Updated: April 9, 2013. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/SanitationTransportation/ucm056174.htm

Websites

Edible Forest Insects. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  http://www.fao.org/forestry/edibleinsects/65426/en/

This site provides an overview of topics involving edible insects, including nutritional benefits, environmental benefits, and availability in different parts of the world.

Food Insects Newsletter.  http://www.foodinsectsnewsletter.org/index.html

A collaborative effort involving specialists from various universities, including Montana State University at Bozeman, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

 

david ropeik April 12, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Mary
Interesting. You missed two big elements of why we don’t like eating bugs. 1. Disgust, and 2. Fear/risk perception. Disgust is one of the most powerfully innate components of subconscious ‘cognition’. It protects us. In some cultures, eating bugs is associated with disgust in many ways. Ergo, ugh to bugs. There is no disgust, however, in other cultures, so, Munch n Crunch. (It’d be interesting to tease out why there is a disgust association in some places but not others. Probably more in the developed world where sanitation has made the occurrence of bugs a sign of UNcleanliness, whereas in developing countries, bugs are just an everyday part of everywhere.
Fear/risk perception is pretty powerful too, and there appears to be an innate, even possibly genetic, fear of insects. Arachnophobia, etc. That probably triggers some UGH about bugs too.

Mary Hall April 14, 2013 at 12:44 pm

David,
I’m delighted that you read my small post! I agree with you—I missed two big issues. Disgust and fear/risk perception are major factors behind western culture not indulging in entomophagy.

As you say, the question of why we feel disgust and fear is an interesting area to explore.

Your comment that “disgust” may be due to a subconscious protective mechanism reminded me of world map displayed on the FAO’s website (under the “which insects” tab). It shows the distribution of edible insects worldwide. The U.S. is displayed as having a range of from 1 to 5 edible insects; whereas, Mexico, China, and India are shown to have greater than 300 edible species. If this map is accurate, we would have a solid reason to feel disgust and fear at the prospect of eating insects since the likelihood that any particular U.S. insect was truly edible would be quite low. (I question the accuracy of this map, however, since it is based solely on a review of available literature. It seems logical that areas of the world that historically eat insects would have generated more data.)

The notion that colder climates would discourage insect eating makes sense to me on a purely practical basis – our insects are relatively small and it would take a fair amount of tedious work to make a meal out them.

While the question of why we feel disgust and fear might seem like a simple curiosity – it’s actually an important question to answer since western culture has been influencing developing cultures. The FAO points out that many developing countries are adopting a western diet and entomophagy is becoming less popular. It’s a poignant situation because our western diet is neither as nutritious nor as sustainable as an insect-based diet.

Thank you for commenting!
Mary Hall

Captain Obvious April 17, 2013 at 10:53 am

Mary
“You missed two big elements of why we don’t like eating bugs. 1. Disgust, . . . ”
– david ropeik

this bears repeating

Tricia rodriguez April 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Mary,

Having been an insect lover all of my life I enjoyed reading your brief article. Encouraged by my cousin who when in high school was required to produce an insect collection I began collecting insects at the age of eight. I am totally at ease around insects and appreciate the vast array of different insects. People typically do not view insects with fond regard. It is due to ignorance.

Clearly there are great benefits to cultivating insects for the nutritional aspect. Having the opportunity to eat insects would be welcomed by me. I am sending the grasshopper recipe to my daughter. (The preparation is a bit tedious) Inspired by your article I will do some research so that I may soon enjoy eating some delicious insects!
Tricia

Mary Hall April 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Tricia,
Hats off to you! You are a far braver woman than I. Although I cannot find a good reason NOT to cook and eat insects, I think I will wait for this to become mainstream in my region before I dive in.

I’d be interested to know whether you enjoy your grasshoppers after all . . .
Mary

David Reedy April 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm

During the 50′s and 60′s when I was a kid my father had one friend with a wierd sense of humor. Each Christmas we would recieve a selection of things from him such as canned rattlesnake meat, chocolate covered grasshoppers, and other similar exotic offerings. I usually ended up taking them on Boy Scout camping trips and my buddies and I found out that almost without exception the stuff was good.

I think the reluctance of Americans to consume unusual foods is because of the name. Beef is OK, but if we called it ‘cow’ there’d be resistance. Witness the ‘revulsion’ to the idea of horsemeat (which I have eaten and found just fine). If it had a good alternate name it would probably not meet the resistance to eating it that we have now.

Canola oil, for instance, used to be called ‘rapeseed oil’ since it came from the rapeseed. The marketing wizards came up with the new name and now it has a higher ‘cache’ than corn oil.

Mary Hall April 15, 2013 at 3:53 pm

David,
Great story about those Boy Scout camping trips–what a laugh!

Your thoughts on the “names” of unusual foods makes sense to me. I think the name “maggots” has to go –if the Chinese really want to “feed the world.”

Thanks for reading and commenting
Mary

Angela April 16, 2013 at 9:49 am

Thanks for the post, Mary! I find the different attitudes towards what is considered food very interesting. It even starts with non-insects such as horses or even with plants (some ‘weeds’ make perfectly good meals). I especially like the ‘recent conversion’ stories where a new food item gets adopted, e.g. after famines (spiders in Cambodia, snails/frogs in France, lobsters/crabs/whitebait in Britain) and then morph from necessity to delicacy. With insects, I feel that the processing method might also matter. If some company made a burger or ‘chicken nuggets’ from insect protein, at least some people might react differently than being served a plate of plain fried grasshoppers (likewise, people might not eat a real chicken burger if they knew what’s in there, but that’s perhaps a different story…). On the other hand, while people may be more likely to give such different ‘formats’ a try, the knowledge what these ‘formats’ contain do play a role. As a former chef, I had many incidences, where people mistook my veggie burgers or mushroom steaks for meat (tells you a lot about the current quality of processed meat products rather than my cooking…). Likewise, people tend to confuse snails with prawns, frog legs with chicken wings etc. Still, many people probably would not want to consume the ‘meaty realities’ of what they thought they were eating. I wonder how much the ‘fashionable’ aspect could play a role in introducing hypothetical insect burgers to a wider audience (now, which celebrities would go for that?).

Mary Hall April 17, 2013 at 9:20 am

Angela,
I like your points about “processing” and “presentation.” I must admit, I think I’d need several glasses of wine before I attempted to eat a single fried grasshopper. I agree with you, our attitudes about food do not make a lot of sense.

Awhile back, I read an article that used the term “consumer inertia” to explain people’s apparent indifference to the unhealthy processed foods being served up by our national food system. I wish everyone was much more curious about where their food comes from . . .

Thank you so much for reading my post and providing truly thoughtful and stimulating commentary.

Since this was my last MTSG post, I’ll miss hearing your thoughts!
Mary Hall

Angela April 30, 2013 at 6:29 am

PS Interestingly, I have just been asked to review this installation called ‘Insects au gratin’: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/events/insects-au-gratin-workshops.aspx
Interesting connection with 3D food printing!

Mary Hall April 30, 2013 at 11:27 am

Angela,
How fascinating ! With your background as a former chef, I imagine your review will be wonderful. I would love to read it.

Mary
P.S. Hope the 3D printing is not too vivid.

Andreas Moser May 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I’ve been eating insects since childhood. They are actually quite tasty: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/eating-insects/

Evie June 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I believe that it’s healthy and good for the environment. I hope someday everyone in my part of the world eats insects. However, that won’t happen until after I die.

Michael June 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I can’t even stand to eat shell fish if the legs are still attached! Plenty of room for use as a mystery meat/protein supplement, though.

kasi July 9, 2013 at 8:55 pm

i am getting wamnthing

kasi July 9, 2013 at 8:56 pm

im the mickhel jackson to eat insects

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