for National Geographic News
Imagine sitting down to the dinner table and being served a bowl of thick, slimy larvae. It's enough to make most Americans' stomachs turn. But in other countries that same meal makes people's mouths water.
Entomophagythe consumption of insectshas been around for thousands of years in some cultures. Today, it is estimated that more than half the people of the world eat a variety of flying, crawling, and biting bugs. Not only do these insects apparently taste good, but they're an inexpensive and nutritious food source.
Only about 800,000 of the world's millions of insect species have been described. And of these multitudes of bug types, only about 1,500 are known to be a regular part of the human dietincluding cicadas. Hoards of these black bugs with transparent wings are expected to emerge from underground, along the U.S. east coast, in May.
In Thailand, open-air markets sell silkworms, grasshoppers, and water bugs by the pound. Movie theaters in South America sell roasted ants as snacks instead of popcorn, and Japanese supermarkets stock their shelves with aquatic insect larvae.
In the United States, insects are eaten more for the shock value than nutritional onejust watch an episode of reality television shows like Survivor or Fear Factor. Contestants gobble down stink beetles, leeches, and cave spiders while viewers watch, squirming in disgust. But what many viewers don't realize is that they have more in common with contestants than they think.
"It's estimated that the average human eats one pound (half a kilogram) of insects each year unintentionally," says Lisa Monachelli, director of youth and family programs at New Canaan Nature Center in Connecticut.
Cochineal insects give a red or pink coloring to foods, lipsticks, and beverages. The small, scaled bugs are listed as cochineal extract on the ingredient list.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also allows certain levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods, as long as they doesn't pose a health risk.
For example, chocolate can have up to 60 insect fragments per 100 grams, tomato sauce can contain 30 fly eggs per 100 grams, and peanut butter can have 30 insect fragments per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), according to the FDA.
Most Americans don't intentionally make insects a part of their diet. But in the future they might. As more strain is put on natural resources, some experts say, insects will be raised as an alternative form of protein.
David George Gordon, a biologist and the author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, says entomophagy is a more environmentally friendly practice.
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