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Humans Eating Insects (Entomophagy)--Could You? Would You? Why?
"Entomophagy" is a combination of two Greek words; the first part means "insect;" the second means "eat." (An easier and funnier name for bugs harvested for human consumption is "micro-livestock.")
The worm photo accompanying this article probably doesn't make your taste buds salivate. But then, a slab of raw meat may not either. The worm might be more appetizing if coated with caviar or chopped up and buried in cheese-topped mashed potatoes. But no matter how disguised, food that is all or part bug (and is honest about it) will not attract the average American diner. However, in many other parts of the world, insects are popular appetizers, snacks or even entrées. So, if you travel internationally from time to time, this article may help you become a more shock-free tourist. And, if you're preparing dinner for friends and want to dress up the meal with a novel bug surprise, this article will suggest sources.
I started researching this piece by asking the scientists who serve on the Shelf Life Advisory Board to tell me about bugs they'd eaten. Our Board members are sophisticated, worldly academics who serve on the faculty of American institutions of higher learning and travel abroad extensively to teach and do research. In general, their bug experiences were positive. Please read on (but perhaps not just before lunch or dinner) to learn about their reactions and other facts about edible insects, such as where they are popular food, what the global advantages of eating bugs are, and where you can buy some if you want to serve them for supper.
Insects are arthropods, a biological category that includes arachnids, crustaceans, and myriapods. Forgive me if my discussion of insects occasionally drifts into other types of arthropods that are not, strictly speaking, insects. Furthermore, I must admit that I don't know if the worm photograph in the photo above actually represents the same type that is cooked for human food. Frankly, I don't even want to think about it.
I know you're wondering if this topic had been inspired by my enjoyment of wonderful insect meals or snacks. No. I think I've eaten an insect only once--when I was a college student and stupidly daring, I gingerly (but deliberately) bit into a piece of candy from a box of chocolate-covered ants. It was disappointedly ordinary-tasting.
Now, onward to words of wisdom from our Board scientists and other expert sources.
ARE INSECTS DELICIOUS?
Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser: "I am a bicyclist and, because of that activity, I have eaten many, many bugs over the years. All of the bugs I've eaten have been by accident. They were all raw, and none of them tasted particularly delicious! They might have been good if they'd been prepared properly." [Sounds like Dr. Bowser may never choose to find out.]
Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter: Dr. Cutter has had many experiences with edible insects. For example, she's participated (along with her children!) in insect fairs featuring such treats as mealworms on nacho chips and chocolate-chip cookies made with cricket flour. Cutter says that cricket flour (made from ground-up crickets) has a slightly nutty flavor, but the taste is similar to the ordinary wheat flour most Americans use. Her experiences thus far have convinced her that edible insects don't taste bad "once you get past the idea that you're eating insects."
Dr. Cutter assures us that entomophagy is an "up-and-coming field." Some of its benefits for individual fans and the planet as a whole are discussed later in this article.
Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks: "I have eaten fried meal worms and some fried, battered locusts. The latter were crispy, had a nice light oily flavor, and could be considered an okay snack item. I felt that they would be good to use with a dip."
Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein: "In Thailand, in the market, I routinely saw locusts, scorpions, bamboo worms, and silk worms on sale, but I didn't try them. While in China, I got to taste the pupae stage of a caterpillar, the stage between a caterpillar and a moth. There were a lot of them in the soup I was served. It was tasty enough to cause me to ask for a small second portion. I've also had a cricket product made by a student. That was not really great." [Did the fault lie with the cricket or the chef?]
ARE THEY NUTRITIOUS?
Dr. Bowser: "Insects are potentially a very nutritious and healthy food source that are high in fat, protein, vitamins, fiber, and micronutrients. For practical purposes and a higher concentration of omega-6 fatty acids, terrestrial insects are a better choice than aquatic insects."
Dr. Hicks: "Certainly they have a good protein profile."
ARE THEY TOO RISKY TO CONSUME?
Dr. Bowser: "If toxic chemicals are picked up by insects (by contact or consumption), these can be passed along to persons that consume them. In 2003, the California Department of Health Services (USA) reported that some consumers developed lead poisoning from consuming grasshoppers and crickets.
"Also, some insects can be allergenic to humans. The list of allergy-causing insects includes some varieties of grasshoppers and silk worms."
Dr. Cutter: "Insects can be a source of salmonella, just as other sources of protein are."
Dr. Hicks: "I don't think I would recommend eating them in an uncooked form. It's so easy to get intestinal distress in a third-world country that having them fully cooked is a must. If they are fried until they are totally sterile, there should be no microbiological problems to be concerned about. Still, I don't think many Americans would eat them if they didn't have a pretty open mind."
Dr. Regenstein: "I certainly would not eat any insects uncooked. They need to be heated to a safe temperature (160°F at least).
I suspect some insects have not been studied enough to know how toxic they might be, so I recommend being cautious, but they may be no more dangerous than most dietary supplements.
"For observant Jews, officially, only locusts and grasshoppers are kosher. Muslims take a slightly wider approach, so the cricket would probably be okay."
WHAT ARE SOME FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT INSECTS AS HUMAN FOOD?
The following have been collected from some of the sources below.
At least two billion people worldwide eat insects. Wikipedia says, "Human insect-eating is common to cultures in most parts of the world including North, Central, and South America; and Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand." About 3,000 ethnic groups are known to practice entomophagy.
Of more than 1,000 Laotians surveyed, 63% said they would eat more insects if they were available. The attractions? Taste and habit.
More than 1,900 insect species have been documented as edible. Some of the more popular ones eaten by humans include crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, various types of worms, butterflies, moths, ants, dragonflies, termites, grubs, scorpions, and tarantulas.
FOR HUMANS, WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF CONSUMING INSECTS?
There are many benefits for individual humans and for the planet.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has put out a book that's available online. (See "Sources" below for the link.) The title is Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security. The book points this out: "It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double." But Earth's oceans are already overfished, and the planet lacks the resources to vastly increase stocks of cattle, sheep, and goats. It's not necessary to clear large amounts of land in order to feed insects. Also, some types of livestock emit harmful greenhouse gases, but it is believed that very few insects do.
According to Edible Insects, "...the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat." The same source goes on to conclude, "Insects are a healthy, nutritious alternative to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish."
Insect farming can be a low-tech occupation that requires very little capital investment. In some countries, it's a good career choice available to women and to those who own no land. In the tropics, farming insects for human consumption goes on in Laos, Thailand, and Viet Nam. In other places, farming insects is targeted at feeding traditional food animals.
Furthermore, according to Edible Insects, bugs are not merely "famine food," eaten when there's extreme scarcity of other foods. Rather, says the FAO book, "many people around the world eat insects out of choice, largely because of the palatability of the insects and their established place in local food cultures."
WHERE CAN I BUY EDIBLE INSECTS AND FIND INFORMATION ABOUT PREPARING THEM?
I just googled "where to order insects for human consumption" and found links to these topics. But first, from YAHOO!, came this advice: "Oh please don't eat them from your backyard! The ones you buy are bred solely for human consumption."
Scorpion lollipops are available online. And check out the Barnes and Noble website for these books on edible bugs for humans: 1) Eating Insects. Eating Insects As Food, 2) The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, and 3) The Survival Guide to Edible Insects.
HOW CAN I PERSUADE MY CHILDREN TO EAT INSECTS?
Middle-school children might be inspired by the famous, prize-winning book "How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. It tells the story of 10 year-old Billy, who's lured by the opportunity to win $50 if he will just eat 1 worm a day for 15 days. Guess what?! He develops a taste for them--mostly cooked ones camouflaged with catsup and/or other condiments. But to counteract two bad examples in this hilarious book, remind your kids not to eat wild insects captured in their garden and not to eat bugs until they've been properly cooked (to 165°F).
Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science
Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences
Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science