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Bugs as Food: Humans Bite Back

By Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
April 16, 2004
 
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.

Entomophagy—the consumption of insects—has 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 diet—including 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 one—just 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.

Micro-livestock

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.

"If more people did their part to eat bugs and broaden their diets—and not just go out and eat chicken, beef, and pork—the planet would be better off," he said.

It takes an incredible amount of food, water, and land to raise cattle, he says, compared to raising the equivalent amount of protein in grasshoppers.

Monachelli agrees that Americans will eventually join the rest of the world and start consuming insects.

"It will be a resource that people are going to eat that will allow us to keep up with the increasing population," said Monachelli, who teaches an edible-insect class to schoolchildren. "Once people try it, they're going to realize it's not quiet as scary as they think."

Today, U.S. children are not as squeamish about bugs as their parents, thanks to nature centers, museums, and zoos throughout the country that frequently teach school programs about insects as food sources.

Older students are learning about entomophagy too. About 12 insect festivals are held each year, like the Bug Bowl at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The popular festival started in 1990 and attracts more than 10,000 people. Besides munching on chocolate-covered crickets, visitors can go to an insect petting zoo, cockroach race, or cricket-spitting contest.

There's even a publication packed with information and recipes on crawling invertebrates. The Food Insect Newsletter has about a thousand subscribers—ranging from students and professors to 4-H leaders and Peace Corps volunteers. Editor Florence Dunkel, an entomology professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, says the first Web issue will appear within the next few weeks.

Over the last decade, an increasing number of Americans are starting to try insects, says Gordon.

At his cooking demonstrations around the country, Gordon asks the audience if they've ever eaten insects. He said about one-third to one-half of the audience raise their hands.

When making meals, Gordon doesn't try to cover up the ingredients or hide them in any way.

"I want people to know that they're eating bugs," he says.

Gordon's favorite dish is grasshopper kabob, in which the 2-inch-long (5-centimeter-long) insects are put on skewers with assorted vegetables and basted with oil, lemon, honey, and mustard. The kabobs are then barbecued.

Pound for pound, dried grasshoppers, which taste like green peppers, are just as nutritional as lean ground beef, he says.

Cicadas are also a tasty treat. Experts say that the best way to eat cicadas is to collect them in the middle of the night as they emerge from their burrows and before their skins harden. The bugs should be boiled for about one minute before being eaten. It is said they taste like asparagus or clam-flavored potato. Cicadas can be sautéed in butter with garlic and soy sauce for hors d'oeurves, or, incorporated into a stir-fry dish with vegetables as a main meal.

The best tasting insect, though, is said to be the wax worm. In the wild the long white caterpillars are often considered pests by beekeepers, because they feed on the hives' wax and honey.

"Even uncooked they're pretty tasty," Gordon says.

You Ordered What?

Typhoon, in Santa Monica, California, is one of the few restaurants in the country that serves insect delicacies. The first appetizer to appear on the menu, in 1990, was Taiwanese stir-fried crickets.

"You just pop them in your mouth like peanuts," says owner Brian Vidor, adding that they go well with an ice-cold beer.

Four other appetizers have since been added to the menu, including fried scorpions served on shrimp toast and Changbai Mountain ants sprinkled on shoestring potatoes.

For dessert, Hotlix candy store in Grover Beach, California, is the place to go. The company's most popular item is a tequila-flavored lollipop with a worm inside. Owner Larry Peterman says more than a million of the suckers are sold each year.

For kids, the grape-flavored cricket lollipop is popular. Peterman uses about 50,000 of the chirping insects each week to make the unusual treats.

Peterman began selling candy-coated insects 14 years ago, and sales have increased steadily each year, he says. Orders come in from around the country and world—England, Japan, Australia.

More Americans are trying insects, Peterman says, because of reality TV shows like Survivor. Plus, he said, "Kids in school are learning more about the environment and bugs. They don't have the same attitude about them as older generations."
 

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