Two months of field work have lowered my standards of what to cook for dinner. Long hot days of working outside, and I come home happy to have a cereal dinner, no cooking required. Some days I look at what I’m eating, some days I don’t.
Yesterday, I was on my third day of eating granola when I realized that parts of it were moving. What I thought was kamut, turned out to be chunks of exoskeleton, the small seeds were flour beetles. My ability to pretend live insects were some type of unfamiliar grain became less probable when they crawled off my spoon. A quick instinct shot the last spoonful of beetle-granola out of my mouth with a ‘yuch.’ It was a lucky day for the spared flour beetles about to meet demise via digestion. But for me, it was a moment of cognitive dissonance: an entomologist in training trying to deal with a moment of insect repulsion. As much as I love studying insects, do I love them enough to eat them?
With insects half way down my alimentary canal, my first reaction was: Insects are gross! My second reaction: But are they? My training in entomology should have bolstered my tolerance for the creepy-crawly, yet I didn’t see this tolerance extending onto the dinner table. The “eww” factor feels deeply ingrained but I wonder if we can change our psychological fear of insects into culinary appreciation.
Flour beetle larvae are nutritional powerhouses. I should have been excited to have freely supplemented cereal, but instead I found a cultural aversion overwhelming my inner-biologist. If I had wanted to buy flour beetle larvae online, the price is close to $4/lb. Yes, people pay for them. And not just flour beetles. Globally, humans eat a lot of six-legged things.
Entomophagy, or the term used for insect-eating, is a part of culture and diets worldwide. All of us ingest insects: some of us intentionally, often as delicacies, and others unintentionally, when we eat insects in processed foods where insect entry is unavoidable. In the United States, however, entomophagy is not yet embraced, despite the great potential insects have at providing variety to our diets (there are over a thousand known edible insects), and offering a sustainable, affordable, low-fat, low-impact protein source.
My intentional experiences with insects have been positive. I’ve eaten mealworms from vending machines, cricket bars from health food stores and tried the Houston-based restaurant, Hugo’s, version of gourmet grasshoppers. The grasshoppers were served sauteed with chipotle salsa. I give all of them rave reviews. But somehow instinct still tells me to avoid bugs in most of my meals. If insects can be tasty, why do we exhibit strong avoidance behavior?
Perhaps our insect aversion is an evolutionary adaptation. If the insects we have in North America are more likely to be harmful (i.e. contain toxins or spread disease) than insects endemic to other parts of the world, our cultural avoidance of insects could be an adaptation we acquired to avoid disease or toxins. Knowing that 2 billion people already eat insects as part of their daily diet, the thought that doing so is maladaptive is probably false. Insect aversion is likely psychological, a remnant aversion from associating insects with other factors that we should adapt to avoid: such as dirty living conditions (which we learned to associate with cockroaches), decaying organisms (which we learned to associated with maggots/flies), or painful bites and stings (mosquitoes, wasps, hornets).
The other third of the world seems to have overcome the psychological avoidance of insects to embrace a healthy and sustainable food source. Can Americans do the same? Chapul, a Salt Lake City based energy bar company, has proven one good way to retrain the brain and learn to love insects: use chocolate.
Chapul makes energy bars with cricket flour that are tasty and eco-friendly, providing a good precedent in the effort to successfully market entomophagy and develop a protein product that minimizes freshwater waste.
Other online vendors market a variety of edible insects. Edible Unique, a UK based company offers edible dung beetles, scorpions, ants and crickets. Most of the U.S. insect companies, however, market their insects as pet food products. One company touts their mealworms as ideal for the “reptile’s diet, offering herp pets and birds enjoyable meals and nutrition.” What about human meals and nutrition? Can our perception of insect-eating change in the U.S.?
Not only will our diets likely change in the future, they probably will have to. Currently, our American protein-rich diets are fueled by birds or large fauna: cows, chickens, pigs. What is becoming increasingly apparent is the damage that broad-scale livestock raising has on our environment, from the loss of biodiversity and land degradation to water waste and pollution. The amount of fresh water needed to get one quarter pound hamburger has been estimated as 52.8 gallons of water and in addition to the large amount of water, land and resource use required to raise livestock, many large animals we consume have high proportions of waste. Chickens, cows, sheep and pigs produce only 45 to 75 percent of edible meat per animal. That means as high as 65 percent of an individual animal is wasted in our food processing. In contrast, entomologists interested in the sustainability of entomophagy have estimated that only 20 percent of a cricket would be inedible. Less waste from an animal that requires less resources to raise and less effort to process.
If our attitudes our unwilling to change toward insects as food, it may help to learn that most of the products we already eat contain insects. The U.S. FDA puts out a Food Defect Action level document that lists allowable amounts of insects in processed foods. I sifted through some of the more interesting sources of insects in our diet to find the allowable amounts of insect matter in food products:
-Beer: hops can contain ~2,500 aphids per 10 grams hops
-Dried pasta: ~1 insect per gram in macaroni and noodle products
-Raisins: ~25 Drosophila eggs per 8 oz.
-Maraschino cherries: ~5 percent of cherries allowed to have maggots
-Asparagus: ~40 or more thirps per 100 grams
-Ground Paprika: ~75 insect fragments per 25 grams
We already eat insects. Maybe now we should embrace the idea of eating them intentionally.
Interesting articles on the insect protein revolution can be found here:
The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703293204576106072340020728