Thrilling Food

Eating Bugs to Revolutionize the Food System

by by Katie Parker

illustration by by Diane Zhou

Challenge: watch The Lion King and decide that bugs do not look tempting. The multi-colored, neon grubs, beetles, and caterpillars look damn good, even as cartoons. But the closest most Americans get to consciously ingesting insects is a cricket in a lollipop. Unconsciously, it’s is a different story. By the nature of the US industrial food system built on large-scale production, efficiency takes precedence over purity, and bugs are an inevitable part of a daily diet. 60 mites per 100 grams. That’s the acceptable insect-to-weight ratio set by the FDA for chocolate. For peanut butter, 30 fragments per serving. US food production has a problem, claims Dave Gracer, founder of SmallStock Food Strategies. But it is not that there are too many bugs. Rather too few, and the US is failing to capitalize on the efficiency, nutrition and taste that bugs have to offer.

SmallStock Food Strategies is part of a growing movement for entomophagy, the consumption of insects. It is a movement made up on environmentalists, human rights advocates, gastronomists, and even large-scale agriculture organizations. The main draw is that insects are a low-input form of protein. Protein sources that dominant US plates (e.g. beef, pork, and chicken) require a lot of resources in the form of food, water, land and ultimately petroleum. Large-scale animal production is a major contributor of greenhouse gases, leading many environmental organizations to call for a reduction of meat consumption to mitigate climate change. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization also characterizes meat production as unsustainable, and states that alternate food production methods must be utilized.

Insects provide this alternative. Marcel Dicke, an agricultural entomologist, outlined the ecological advantages of bug production claiming it would soon become inevitable. It is 20 times per pound more efficient to raise insect protein than beef, because of the few resources needed to sustain insects and the fact that almost the entire body is edible. This is especially dramatic in terms of water, as it takes up to 1000 times less water for cricket production than beef production.  Insect meat also provides more nutritional benefits. Insect meat has greater percentages of not only protein, but also amino acids, iron, and zinc than regular meat, and it is also lower in fat. A study from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a hub for entomophagy research, has found that just 100 grams of insect meat satisfies an adult’s daily requirements for protein, iron and vitamin A.

The idea of insects as a sustainable food source is not new, or even radical. Insects are a part of local diets in 80 percent of countries. A University of Wisconsin study “Insects as Food: Why the Western Attitude Is Important” identified countries where studies have shown that insects make up a substantial percentage of rural protein sources, providing everyday subsidence and cultural delicacies. In Thailand, fileted water bugs are said to taste like nothing else on earth. In Papua New Guinea, grubs wrapped in banana leaves are relegated for special occasions. Candied fly larvae are popular in Japan.  According to the FAO there are over 1,700 insect species that are eaten. Traditionally, these have been obtained through gathering, both in the wild and on agricultural land, offering a form of organic pest control. However, as pesticide use increases and access to undeveloped land becomes more difficult, insect husbandry is becoming an alluring option as a means to promote rural livelihood. In Malawi, programs are being developed in national parks to promote sustainable collection of insects in an effort to decrease illegal poaching. In Zambia, communal caterpillar husbandry is being promoted as a means to foster rural livelihood. The income from one week of harvesting caterpillars, which are sold in urban markets as snacks, is equivalent to a month’s salary for the average worker. Gracer would like to see such industry arise in the US, but in urban settings, such as abandoned warehouses and vacant lots. He spoke of his aspirations to Brown University’s Fossil Record class, outlining bug production as a means to feed the world. The question arises whether a food culture built on bugs can be transported to the US, a question which relies mostly on taste.

“Nutty” was the adjective of choice for Jackie Feiler, who recently tried crickets after Gracer’s talk. Fried in olive oil and served whole, the crickets provided a whole lot of crunch. Chloe Fandel and Gina Roberti both used the word “delicious,” and were surprised by its similarity to meat. “There were distinctive flavors I was surprised by, but can’t describe,” said Chloe when trying to remember her reactions to water bug filet and fried crickets. “Anything fried will taste good,” Gina went on to say, “but these tasted wholesome.”

Some food companies have picked up on this, such as Hotlix, which sells food to gift shops and novelty stores. Hotlix offers salt and vinegar cricket snacks and chocolate covered ants, and a variety of other bug candy. Some restaurants also offer bugs, but the Blue Elephant, Providence’s bug source, has closed. For interested bug connoisseurs of Providence, the main way to get bugs is from pet food supply stores. The best way to do this seems to be online, where you can get live crickets shipped to your door at the low price of $13.90 for 1,000. Stick them in the freezer and you’re good to go, says Daniella Martine, a blogger for the Huffington Post who writes about the culinary potential of insects. She recommends Fluker Farm’s 5-year old crickets, as their exoskeletons aren’t too firm or too tough. They taste like a cross between a shrimp and an almond, she writes, and contends the best way to eat them to is sauté frozen crickets with garlic, oil and salt. Simply fry them up till they’re golden looking and eat them plain, or add them to tacos, salads…anything that needs some crunch. Just be sure to floss after, as bug eaters will tell you cricket legs are notorious for getting caught in your teeth.

Aside from having a deal with a local pet store, however, getting bugs on a regular basis is not yet practical. While Gracer proclaims that warehouse bug lots could feed the future, students were dubious as to whether his claims were realistic. “The infrastructure for acquiring bugs to eat is undeveloped…until someone with a lot of money decides this should happen, it won’t,” said Chloe Fandel, expressing doubts about the rigor of Gracer’s methods. Furthermore, reducing meat consumption is not an easy task, even with options eliciting less squeamishness than bugs. Without a culinary culture and history surrounding bugs, the consumption of insects will remain a novel activity in the US. Until climate change and environmental reality force a shift in the food system to low input methods, it seems doubtful that insects will be consumed en masse. However, where there is already a culture surrounding entomophagy, insect consumption offers to promote local food culture, support rural livelihoods, mitigate environmental damage and provide some tasty grub.

KATIE PARKER B’14 is a gross arachnid.