During any exotic holiday, some will admit to eating insects from a roadside stall. But in everyday life, us Westerners usually reach for the bug spray when we see a spider, not a knife and fork. So could edible insects ever become part of an average Western diet? For entomophagists – people who study human insect consumption – insects may be the only way to sustain a growing human population.
Inevitably, there is a serious, if positive, side to edible insects. FAO’s 2013 report – ‘Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security’ – predicts a population boom to nine billion by 2050, a boom current food production cannot sustain. We urgently need to change the types of food we eat to cope with such a huge increase in demand, or suffer major food shortages; traditional food supplies, like cattle, will physically run out at the current rate of production and are too space-consuming, expensive and environmentally detrimental to increase. With 2000 species of edible insects, this source can provide an abundant and established food supply that can cope with food demands. Insects also have a significantly smaller environmental footprint than traditional sources, and everyone likes a happy planet.
On a lighter note, insects are seriously super ‘superfoods’, being full of protein, essential micronutrients, vitamins and fatty acids. Online store The Edible Bug Shop, in Australia since 2007, advertises cricket powder that is 68% protein and contains twice as much calcium as full cream milk, double the iron of spinach and almost four times as much potassium as a banana.
While Westerners automatically react with disgust when asked to eat an insect, a multitude of non-Western cultures have consumed insects for thousands of years and developed recipes to cook them to perfection despite their squirmy appearance. Grasshoppers are the top protein providers, especially Mexican chapulines, which are made of 77.13% protein – higher than the corn, beans and alfalfa they feed on – and are often eaten with guacamole and tortillas.
Fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient in food and palm grubs, being made of 69.78% fat, provide more energy than honey, and more unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (good fat) than fish and poultry. They are eaten in the Americas, Southeast Asia and tropical Africa, either raw or cooked in their own fat, and are described as tasting creamy when raw, and sweet when fried.
In a sick reversal of the hungry caterpillar, mopane worms (caterpillars) are heavily consumed in southern Africa for their iron content. Mopane worms, with 31-77g iron per 100g, contain more iron content than beef (which has 6mg per 100g). With iron deficiency being the most widespread nutritional disorder in the world, eating mopane worms would drastically reduce the disorder, and even eradicate it for good.
There are, of course, obvious downsides to edible insects, not least of which, the unintentional shiver down your spine at the idea of eating one. To start, there is a danger of people eating insects from their backyard, which is unsafe partially because they may be covered in chemicals and parasites, and because some insects are detrimental to human health – i.e. do not eat that redback. Scorpions exemplify this problem: when processed by a reliable source, the venom is harmless and they are safe to eat, but problems have occurred with the sending of live scorpions that have not been processed, which is incredibly dangerous.
Even with their superfood status, it would be an immense challenge getting Western cultures to willingly eat insects. Edible Bug Shop, however, has developed a potential solution: cricket powder. Grinding the insect into a powder that partially replaces flour creates no taste difference in the food and avoids having to stare down a plate of worms at dinner.
The best option for Western consumers currently looks to be mealworms, which are nutritionally comparable to beef, already mass reared as pets, and easily processed into foods that are palatable for Western tastebuds. They also have a lower ecological footprint than beef, milk, chicken and pork production, lower greenhouse gas emissions and use less land and water. Surprisingly, consumers are trending away from mealworms recently and towards crickets, especially with the innovation of powder – could this be the beginning of accepting insects as tasty morsels of super-health?
It’s doubtful that by 2050, insects will be a staple food for the masses, but it likely will be integrated enough to help offset food shortages. Although the limitations of edible insects are minor, the challenge of getting over the Ick Factor to make them a widely consumed food in Western cultures will be immense, no matter their superfood capabilities and ability to halt food shortages. Who knows what we’ll be eating in twenty years? Twenty years ago, the idea of eating sushi was unheard of even by the most cosmopolitan of Westerners, yet it is now accepted as a delicacy and potential primary food source. The hope is definitely still burning for edible insects, so to follow the lead of a certain unrelenting advertising campaign and thoroughly desecrate their catchy slogan: “Get some worm on your fork!”