BUG FOOD: Eating Insects Is Good For You and Your Planet

ENTOMOPHAGY DEFINED by Robert Reagan

Ever eaten a bug? Perhaps the answer is different than you think, but we’ll get to that soon enough. Bug eating – which includes many species of insects as well as other arthropods such spiders, millipedes and centipedes – is technically referred to as entomophagy (from the Greek –phage meaning “to eat” and entomos “insects”).

Many animals eat insects, including humans. Entomophagy is rarely practiced in the developed Western world, but has been performed by many cultures for thousands of years. Historians believe that during the lavish feast of ancient Rome, stag beetles, cicadas and locust were routinely on the menu. The Biblical Book of Leviticus lists several types of insects that are acceptable for eating – locusts, beetles and grasshoppers. The Aborigines of Australia have been dining on moth meat, honey pot ants and witchety grubs for as long as they have made the Outback their home.

In North America, historical documents detail how members of the Mono tribe were observed herding huge swarms of Mormon crickets – a species of large, flightless katydid – into pre-dug trenches filled with straw. The straw was set aflame and the trapped insect swarm was cooked and then gathered by the basketful.

While the Aborigines continue their entomophagist ways unto the current day, people in Asian, African and South American cultures also have taste for the six- or eight-legged critter. In Asia, stalls at open-air markets overflow with a wide variety of edible bugs, including moth larvae and pupae, crickets, giant water beetles, dragonflies and more. Across the continent of Africa, the main bugs serving as food are crickets, grasshoppers, termites and caterpillars. However, in South America the tastes veer toward scorpions and tarantulas.

BARRIERS & DRAWBACKS

While other cultures are making a meal of bugs, most people in the U.S. consider them pests to be avoided or exterminated. In fact, the very idea of eating insects is enough to make a lot of people sick to their stomach. One reason that so many people consider entomophagy a powerful taboo may be that as a civilization based on agricultural production, insects have long been considered a threat and cast as the villain.

In addition to this cultural aversion to consuming insects, there are also some potential problems to consider. Chief among these are the possibility for a food source that is tainted through the use of pesticides. Due to this possibility, it is very important to limit insect consumption only to safely farmed varieties and to avoid foraged varieties.

Another drawback exists in natural allergies to insect materials among consumers and production workers. As bug eating is very rare in our culture, specific studies on food insects have not been conducted. However, allergists and occupational safety experts have determined that contact or ingestion of many commonly encountered insects can result in various forms of dermatitis, rhinitis and even asthma. Several studies and reports have suggested that repeated exposure to insect allergens can elicit responses ranging from mild sensitivity to full-blown allergic reaction, including anaphylactic shock.

Lastly, not every bug is one worth eating and some have natural toxicities that make dining on them unwise. Scorpions and wasps both carry venom that must be considered, but are still routinely consumed. Those interested in entomophagy are advised to avoid brightly colored insects of all sorts as this sort of coloration – called aposematic coloration – is meant to serve as a warning and the insect will most likely taste quite unpleasant. One saying applicable here is:

Red, orange, yellow, forget this fellow,
Black, green, brown, wolf them down!

BENEFITS & STRENGTHS

Before dismissing adding insects to your diet, consider this: you are already eating them. Modern food production seeks to limit the presence of contaminants of all sorts, including insect material, in both the manufacturing process and the final product. However, despite best efforts, insects make it into the foods we are eating everyday. Just a few examples from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Defect Action Level booklet:

· 2-3 fruit fly maggots per 200 grams tomato juice
· Up to 60 aphids per 3.5 ounces of frozen broccoli
· Average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams peanut butter

Another point to consider is that we willingly pay a great deal of money and contribute to stripping our oceans in pursuit of certain arthropods – crabs and lobsters. These creatures are scavengers, eating anything that makes its way to the ocean floor, including all manner of things our society considers waste and refuse. Knowing this, a farm-raised arthropod such as a scorpion, cricket, ant or mealworm that has been raised on a diet of clean, sweet grass may seem so much more mouth-watering.

With over 1462 species of edible insects, the burgeoning entomophagist has a literal cornucopia of creepers and crawlers to consume. As mentioned earlier, insects types that regularly find their way onto plates worldwide include giant water beetles, cicadas, termites, wasps, ants, beetles, spiders, scorpions, crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms, caterpillars, grubs and all types of other larvae.

Besides being plentiful, insects can be seen as an extremely green food source. Insects are a uniquely sustainable food source -- they are very low on the food chain, require relatively little space per pound and have a superior feed to meat ratio than other livestock. Consider this, 100 pounds of feed nets just 10 pounds of beef. However, that same 100 pounds of feed can produce more than 40 pounds of cricket meat. Factor in the expanses of acreage – both currently in use and lost daily to deforestation – that go toward cattle farming and the environmental efficiency of cricket farming (which can be done vertically, even!) becomes apparent. Lastly, in terms of sustainability and environmental impact, insects require much less water than other livestock, further conserving this essential resource.

NUTRITION & RECIPES

For those who have decided that their fears of entomophagy can be swatted aside or that eating insects is in the greater good, questions regarding the nutritional value may remain. Again, let’s consider crickets and beef:

· 100 grams of cricket meat provides 121 kcalories, 12.9g protein, 5.5g fat and 5.1g carbohydrates as well as 75.8mg calcium, 185.3mg phosphorous, 9.5mg iron, 3.10mg niacin, 1.09mg riboflavin and 0.36mg thiamin.
· Ground beef contains more protein at 23.5g, but has no carbohydrates and 21.1g fat! And at 288.2kcalories per 100 grams, its more than twice as energy dense as the crickets.

Clearly, insects are providing the better nutritional –and environmental – investment, pound for pound. Below are a couple of common recipes to get you started down the road to better nutrition and a sustainable diet…

Mealworm Fried Rice
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 tsp. oil
• 3/4 c. water
• 1/4 c. chopped onions
• 4 tsp. soy sauce
• 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
• 1 c. minute rice
• 1 c. cooked mealworms

Directions:
Scramble egg in a saucepan, stirring to break egg into pieces.
Add water, soy sauce, garlic and onions. Bring to a boil.
Stir in rice. Cover; remove from heat and let stand five minutes.

Cricket Tacos
• 2 tablespoons butter or peanut oil
• 1/2 pound cricket 

• 3 Serrano chilies, raw, finely chopped
• 1 tomato, finely chopped 

• Pepper and Cumin, to taste 

• Oregano, to taste 

• 1 handful cilantro, chopped 

• Taco shells, to serve


Directions:
Heat the butter or oil in a frying pan and fry the crickets. Add the chopped onions, chilies, and tomato, and season with salt. Sprinkle with ground pepper, cumin, and oregano, to taste. Serve in tacos and garnish with cilantro.

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