A spectre is haunting the food industry – the spectre of entomophagy.
Humans have always eaten insects.
You however, have probably not.
Edible insects (a.k.a. minilivestock, invertebrate meat, sky prawns, chocolate chirp cookies) have become a hot topic of conversation. Insects are an ever popular and preferable alternative to cows, pigs, chickens and other such mammals. And there are a number of reasons for this, approximately-
40 Reasons to Eat Insects.
Firstly, the United Nations recommends that we all should. Other United Nations recommendations have included universal human rights, the eradication of extreme poverty and combating climate change. As endorsements come, this is somewhat significant. The European Union is also on board, offering €3 million for a project that “exploits the potential of insects as alternative sources of protein”.
Secondly, farming insects requires less land. Rearing vertebrate meat (cows, pigs and chickens) uses about 30% of the Earth’s land surface and 70% of all agricultural land. Invertebrate meat on the other hand, can be reared on shelves.
Farming insects does not require land clearing to expand production. In fact, it is not necessarily even a land-based activity.
In addition to freeing up space, using less land for grazing is good for the environment. Less grazing means less deforestation and less soil erosion. Also, the compactness of farming insects brings food production back into urban areas, radically cutting food miles.
Not only could farming insects lead to less deforestation, according to the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) it could lead to more forestation. Historically most edible insects have been harvested from natural habitats, and so there are strong links between edible insects and sustainable forest management.
Insects require less water. Today’s agriculture consumes around 70% of all freshwater. A colossal 3,290 litres are required to produce just 150g of cow meat (that is more than 40 bathtubs for a tiny, 5oz steak). By comparison, 150g of cricket meat requires only a nominal amount. The precise amount of water has not yet been calculated, but is expected to be drastically less, perhaps even 1000 times less.
Because they don’t expend energy keeping warm, insects are also drastically more efficient at generating bodyweight. This means that insects require much less feed. Where cows convert only 10% of ingested food into body substance, silkworms convert 31% and crickets 44%. According to Dr Marcel Dicke 10kg of feed will generate just 1kg of cow meat or 3kg of pig meat, compared to 9kg of insect meat.
On top of this, insects have more edible weight. You can eat and digest about 80% of a cricket, compared to only 40% of a cow and roughly 55% of chickens and pigs. These two factors combined make crickets 12 times more efficient than cattle.
Such calculations assume that minilivestock require the same quality feed as traditional livestock (grass, grain, bonemeal, chickenfeed).
This is not the case, insects can be fed on waste and scraps. In other words, not only do insects require less food, but they are much less fussy about what that food is. They will happily eat by-products from food manufacturing and other organic waste streams. Transforming waste into food not only enhances the efficiency of insect livestock, it also reduces environmental contamination.
Linking back to their efficiency in generating bodyweight, insects also produce less waste, making them easier to farm and more economical. On top of this, the waste that insects do produce is dramatically less harmful. Many large-scale mammal farms generate the waste equivalent of a small city, polluting groundwater and rivers with animal slurry. Agriculture is the leading cause of human induced climate change. Livestock rearing is also responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, a higher percentage than all transport.
The current system for producing meat accounts for 37% of methane emissions, 64% of ammonia emissions (which case acid rain) and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions. By contrast, insect livestock emit 90% less methane and 99.7% less nitrous oxide.
For crop farmers, there is the added economic benefit of pest harvesting. In parts of Mexico, the corn grasshopper is harvested from fields and snacked on. A similar pest control strategy is used in Thailand with weaver ants, which make their home in the leaves of mango, cashew and cacao orchards. Weaver ants are also aggressive carnivores, eating rival insects such as the leafhopper.
The economic benefit is twofold: harvesting insects from crop fields creates an added source of income, as well as removing the cost of pesticides. The corresponding reduction in pesticides is not only good for our immediate health – it is good for the health of environments and ecosystems. It also means less time spent washing fruit and vegetables.
Yet another economic benefit is that insects reproduce faster, cutting out the problem of cash inflow and the ethical issues surrounding artificial insemination.
Leading on from this, factory farming is fine. In fact the word “farming” is misleading, as it implies breeding and rearing. Technically speaking, insects are “ranched”, if not hunted and captured from natural habitats.
Unlike pigs and chickens, insects tend to thrive in crowded, cramped conditions. They would actually enjoy teeming, if they had the capacity for joy. Which brings us to one of the more significant reasons for eating insects…
Eating insects is ethically sound.
In 1965 Francis Brambell lay down standards for the animal production industry to aspire to: freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, distress, and the expression of normal behaviour. Ranching insects meets these standards, even if the standards assume that insects have the capacity for complex behaviour such as distress and fear.
Scientists have documented that some insect species possess nociceptors. You can see nociceptors in action when, in a split second, you whip your hand away from a hot pan. This reflex behaviour (nociception = the detection of noxious stimuli) is distinctly different from pain. Pain is the subjective emotional experience that follows, along with distress and fear.
This is not to say we should start doing whatever we want to insects. Although we can be confident that insects have a much lower capacity for suffering than us and the other mammals we eat, we are not yet 100% sure. For this reason insects are slaughtered in a uniquely peaceful way – by putting them in the freezer.
If you did this to a mammal or a bird it would shiver to death, but because insects are ectothermic they immediately enter into a diapause (a hibernation coma) and then switch off. The process is similar to falling asleep, and also removes the need for costly abattoirs.
Therefore, edible insects can sit comfortably with vegetarianisms and veganisms. Obstinate green-eaters should contemplate the phenomenal amount of insects and other organisms that are killed in the production and harvesting of crops – if not directly then indirectly via the destruction of habitat and biodiversity.
Eating insects is also religious orthodoxy.
“These yet may eat: the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind,” says Moses in Leviticus.
Accordingly John the Baptist ate nothing but locusts and wild honey during his time in the desert. A number of grasshoppers and locusts are also considered kosher, while in Islam “locusts are Allah’s troops, you may eat them” (Sunan Ibn Majah, 4.3219).
Eating insects is not “primitive” or “uncivilised”. Nor are insects a famine food. People eat insets because they want to eat insects.
The Ancient Greeks served cicadas at feasts, while the Romans dined on stag beetle larvae. Indigenous peoples of Australia and the Americas have been eating a variety of nutritious grubs for thousands of years. Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe have long histories of eating insects.
Famous insectivores have included Li Shizhen, Angelina Jolie, Erasmus Darwin, Salma Hayek, Aristotle and King Ashurbanipal. Even the renowned culinary school Le Cordon Bleu is on board.
It is estimated that over 3,000 ethnic groups and 80% of the world’s nations are eating insects.
Over 1,900 different species have been documented as food, forming the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people – two out of ever seven people.
Reading all of this, you might think:
“Good for them, but eating tasty grubs is not for me.”
But you should think again, because you already eat insects.
The cochineal beetle has been harvested for its crimson dye for thousands of years. It is used in surumi (crabsticks), frapuccinos, strawberry yoghurts, marinades and sauces, ice creams, jams and jam donuts, pie fillings, juices, alcoholic drinks such as Campari, non-alcoholic drinks such as Ocean Spray, and red lipstick. You have almost definitely eaten some cochineal beetle. You may have rubbed some all over your lips.
And besides, you eat honey which is bee vomit.
If you can eat the contents of its stomach, why not eat its rump? As the famed Victorian bug-eater Vincent M Holt remarked in 1885:
“Let us, then, welcome among our new insect dishes Wasp grubs baked in the comb. The number of wasps’ nests taken and destroyed, in a prolific season, is something extraordinary. I have known as many as sixteen or twenty nests to be taken by a gardener within a very short radius of his house. What a waste of good wholesome food takes place then, when cake after cake, loaded with fat grubs, is stamped under foot!”
Sensibly, food regulation authorities around the world permit a level of insects to enter our supermarkets. In the USA for example, chocolate is allowed up to sixty fragments per 100g, while frozen or canned spinach is considered uncontaminated until it has more than fifty aphids per 100g.
Furthermore, you basically already eat insects. Despite being genetic cousins to lice, crickets and scorpions – prawns, crabs and lobsters are considered delicacies. They are all arthopods.
These last three reasons illustrate this – squeamishness around eating insect meat is a psychological aberration. Children are more inclined to eating insects, having been less exposed to your irrational prejudice. Environmental, economical and ethical reasons aside, overcoming this prejudice is an empowering experience.
However failing this, you don’t have to eat “actual” insects. We rarely associate sirloin steaks with cows, and sausages with pigs, because we tend to to remove the heads and feet. Shelling insects or coating them in chocolate can make them much more appetising.
There are also emerging possibilities of fats and butters, powders, flour and pastes. Examples include bee larvae mayonnaise, ento cubes, and muffins and pizzas made from cricket flour.
Bodybuilders might be interested in the potential for cricket protein isolate, which could be both cheaper and more than 80% protein by weight.
Perhaps the most obvious reason to eat insects is they taste great. Deep fried locusts taste like popcorn, and when battered taste similar to prawn. Fried crickets have been compared to Doritos, while mealworms taste similar to tamarind and once caramelized can be used as an ice cream topping. The raw witjuti grub tastes like almonds, but after cooking develops a crispy skin like roasted chicken and an inside similar to a fried egg. Some larvae taste like bacon.
According to entomophagy extraordinaire Daniella Martin, wax worms taste like enoki-pine nut, and when sautéed with oyster mushrooms taste similar to macaroni cheese. However, as she goes on to explain:
“These examples are fairly tame and recognizable; most people can swallow the idea of nutty mushrooms and earthy shellfish. But there are also flavors in the bug world that can hardly be equated with anything familiar to most Westerners. The taste of the giant water bug practically defies description…when fresh, these aggressive beetles have a scent like crisp green apple. Large enough to yield tiny fillets, they taste like anchovies soaked in banana-rose brine, with the consistency of a light, flaky fish.”
As well as new flavours, insects have underexplored qualities like crunchy exoskeletons and water-holding capacities. Unique structures, sizes, colours and pH levels open up creativity in the kitchen, which should excite you if you are chef.
This tasty, versatile new food also offers a range of health benefits, the first of which is chitin. Chitin is a polysaccharide found in insects and crustaceans, but not mammals. Scientists have understood the anti-viral and anti-tumour qualities of chitin for a while, but have only recently discovered its potential for boosting immune systems. According to the UN, “increasing the consumption of insects in early childhood could support against allergies in later life.”
Insect meat contains the same amount of protein and nutrients as traditional farmyard animals, if not more. The mopane caterpillar for example has an iron content of 31-77 mg per 100g, whereas beef has only 6 mg. The UN Food & Agricultural Organisation has concluded that insects provide satisfactory amounts of energy, fibre, amino acids, fatty acids and micronutrients such as copper, magnesium, maganase, phosphorous, selenium and zinc, as well as riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and in some cases folic acid. Crickets, ants and grasshoppers are notes as particularly rich in calcium.
However the point is not about who has the most thiamine or B12. With thousands of different species, the nutritional content of insects is extremely varied. The point is that insects provide a healthy, comprehensive source of nutrition.
That said, because they tend to contain more fibre and healthier fats than conventional meat, entomophagy could help fight the obesity pandemic.
On the flipside to this, edible insects also offer up a solution in the struggle against world hunger. It is estimated that today over 1,000,000,000 people are chronically hungry. This is alarming in itself, but the world’s population is set to increase by at least 2,000,000,000 people in the next 35 years. This will be at least a 30% increase in the number of hungry stomachs, and if we are to cope, our eating habits and food industries must change.
Unlike traditional farmyard livestock, insects are not fed on vegetation that humans need. Renowned entomophagist Arnold van Huis highlights that grain currently used as livestock feed (often making up half of the cost of meat production) could then be used for human consumption. Requiring less land, insect ranching could also free up space for crops. The point is this: raising insects does not compete with food for human production.
This potential for edible insects in the struggle against hunger is not just theory – the Danish government had been funding “WinFood” projects in both Kenya and Cambodia, which utilise termites and spiders to alleviate malnutrition in children. There is also the Fly Food Project operating in Kenya and Uganda.
Household level insect ranching creates both an added source of nutrition and an added source of income. Edible insects create cash inflow in a short period, and do not require in-depth training or land. This allows for equal economic participation, empowering the landless and other marginalised groups. Both the United Nations and The Economist highlight this as potentially socially transformative for poor families, with women in particular benefit.
We might all be ranching insects soon, if the Lepsis grasshopper pod is anything to go by. The Lepsis (pictured below) is the equivalent of a herb garden, only more nutritious. With this revolutionary kitchen farming, we could turn our kitchen scraps into meat. It might even be possible to experiment by feeding minilivestock exclusively acorns, olives, or other flavours, as with jamón ibérico.
Yet another health benefit is that insects lower the risk of zoonotic infection. A zoonosis is an infection or infestation shared by humans and animals. Examples in include bird flu, swine flu, SARs, foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease, Q fever and Ebola. Being so different from insects, we share less disease.
On top of this, edible insects have been found to be free of salmonella and other microbial flora, meaning food poisoning is much less of an issue. Many insects can be freeze dried or sun dried to give them a year long shelf life.
If you want to be the next Chris Hafield, you need to embrace entomophagy because insects are the food of astronauts.
An obstacle for many people is the concern that eating insects is a gimmick (like google glass or the segway). While understandable, such concerns can be safely dismissed. Edible insects are often compared to sushi, a food that was barely eaten outside of Japan before the 1960s.
The rise of sushi illustrates the changeability of diets and palettes. But the rise of edible insects is underscored by something else – the ballooning costs of meat. As the famous TED-talking entomophagist Marcel Dicke puts it:
“The most important thing is getting people prepared, getting them used to the idea, because from 2020 onwards, there won’t be much of a choice for us.”
The more you read about edible insects, the further behind the curve you feel. So many people are already ranching, cooking, eating and writing recipes about insects it almost isn’t interesting anymore. Insects are already on the menu (see below), and soon enough they will be a fraction of the cost of beef.
Eating insect meat does not mean abandoning beef, pork and chicken. The EU and others have been examining the potential for insects as feed for our livestock.
Those with shellfish allergies should proceed with a degree of caution, but otherwise there is no obvious reason not to eat insects.
Insects are available and ready to be eaten (see below).
Your only excuse is laziness.
So, in the words of Vincent M Holt – why not eat insects?
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Grub Kitchen (Pembrokeshire, Wales)
Archipelago, Selfridges, Wahaca (London)
Soda Restaurant, Never Never Land, Manitou (Berlin)
Aphrodite (Nice), Le Festin Nu (Paris)
Don Bugito, Typhoon, Mezcal, 99 Chicken and others (California)
Sticky Rice (Chicago)
Tu Y To (Massachusetts)
Bug Appétit (New Orleans)
Toloache, La Oaxaquena, Black Ant (New York)
Sushi Mazi (Oregon)
Oyamel (Washington D.C.)
La Carta de Oaxaca (Washington)
Calgary Stampede (Calgary)
Vij’s Restaurant (Vancouver)
Billy Kwongs, Seaworld (Australia)
Delicious Inn (Hong Kong)
Romdeng (Phnom Penh)
Imperial Herbal Restaurant (Singapore)
Abe (Taguig, Philippines)
Bugs Cafe (Siem Reap, Cambodia)
+ street food in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, and more
The Edible Bug Shop (Australia)
HaoCheng Mealworm Inc (China)
Books & Blogs
Edible by Daniella Martin
Eat A Bug Cookbook by George Gordon
Man Eating Bugs by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio
Insects and Human Life by Brian Morris
The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet by Arnold van Huis, Henk van Gurp and Marcel Dicke
Het Inseten Kookboek by Arnold van Huis and Marcel Dicke
Creepy Crawly Cuisine by Julieta Ramos-Eldorduy
Journal of Insects as Food and Feed from Waginengen University
United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation
London’s Natural History Museum (tasting event 30 July 2015)
The Konchu Ryori Kenkyukai (Japan)
Wageningen University (Arnold van Huis and Marcel Dicke)
Laos National University
Montana State University (Florence Dunkel)
University of Copenhagen (The GREENiNSECT Project)
Khon Kaen University
The Research Institute for Resource Insects of the Chinese Academy of Forestry Kunming (Ying Feng)
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (Monica Ayieka)
The Edible Insects Laboratory at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Julieta Ramous Alorduy)
The LINCAOCNET Database at the Centre de Recerche pour la Gestion de la Biodeversitet (Severin Ichibozo)