In North America, the idea of eating insects has generally only been broached during Fear Factor or a light-hearted end-of-the-nightly-news story involving grossed-out American kids and half-naked natives munching maggots. But these days, with our environmental and food crises deepening, the idea of eating the highly nutritious and easy-to-raise crop of insects is, um, creeping into the mainstream in the Western world.
Back in February, dozens of scientists from around the world gathered in Thailand to talk about expanding the potential of bugs as food.
Organized by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Thailand's Chiang Mai University, the three-day workshop looked at harvesting methods, recipes, and ways to bring forest insects beyond vendors in Bangkok to stocking store shelves.
In the United States, where writer J.R. Browne once watched a California tribe mix plentiful fly pupae with acorns and berries in the mid-1800s to form a kind of bread, the discussion of devouring bugs is going beyond scientific debate to enter another arena. On foodie forums like Chow.com, posters ask for suggestions on where to find insects in New York City and locavores discuss the advantages of eating the tiny critters. And in the midst of this, more and more opportunities to taste are emerging.
Scorpions and a potato dish sprinkled with ants are served at Typhoon, a restaurant at Santa Monica Airport in California. Prepared by chef Jeff Stewart, dishes like roasted chipotle-mescal salsa with roasted locusts, bamboo worm dumplings and ant-egg soup are served at the annual Bug-a-licious Insect Food Festival in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Further south, David Gracer founded Sunrise Land Shrimp in 2005, after developing an interest in sustainable eating. His Providence, Rhode Island-based company offers insect tastings and catering services and has even provided flour made from crickets to a local restaurant open to exploring options not so strange to the rest of the world.
In fact, entomophagy, the act of eating bugs, is common. More than 1,400 different kinds of bugs are consumed in over 80 countries around the world, making the Western habit of yelling yuck to any offering of chocolate-coated ants or maguey worms (a high-priced delicacy in Mexico) seem a little bit, shall we say, odd.
Bugs could actually be the best thing for both us and the earth, according to Insects: the Original White Meat, an article in a recent issue of Science News. Feeling sluggish? Bypass the red meat and go for some grasshoppers.
Gram for gram, crickets or grasshoppers can be more nutritious than an equal quantity of beef or pork, says Victor B. Meyer-Rochow of Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. One reason: Water constitutes a high percentage of meat, he says, whereas insects tend to be drier. Many insects also are richer in minerals than many meats, such as hamburger, his data show. And most lipids in bugs tend to be long-chain, unsaturated fats-healthier types than those predominant in conventional livestock.
Several insect species are also full of protein. Twice the protein of chicken and beef can be obtained by munching on a dried grasshopper while a study done by the FAO in 2004 found that every hundred grams of dried caterpillars, commonly eaten in central Africa, contains 53 grams of protein, nearly a match for the U.S. Institute of Medicine's daily requirement for adult men of 56 grams, and more than beef.
While several wild bugs can be prone to pesticides, the act of raising insects as a crop is easier on the earth. Compared to conventional livestock, they create a whole lot less waste, require way less room and need considerably less food and a fraction of the amount of water. "It takes far less water to raise a third of a pound (150 g) of grasshoppers than the staggering 869 gal. (3,290 L) needed to produce the same amount of beef," reports Time Magazine.
And they even taste great, say advocates like Seattle-based biologist David George Gordon, whose Eat-A-Bug Cookbook offers up over 30 recipes that utilize spiders, centipedes, ants and other insects. During public appearances he serves his signature Orthopteran Orzo, a dish made with crickets. In Richmond, Virginia, one satisfied taste-tester even went back for seconds.
If there ever was a time for those of us in the West to push our squeamishness aside and explore other options, it's now. After all, where is the wisdom in aggressively killing off a readily available source of nourishment to protect crops that are less nutritious than their prey?