Low-Fat, High-Protein Cicadas: New Health Snack?
for National Geographic News
|Updated May 18, 2004|
High-protein, low-carbohydrate diet fanatics take note: The billions of
cicadas emerging from the ground en masse this month are a healthy
alternative to that bacon double-cheeseburger without the bun.
"They're high in protein, low in fat, no carbs," said Gene Kritsky, a biologist and cicada expert at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. "They're quite nutritious, a good set of vitamins."
The largest group of periodical cicadas, known as Brood X, have been crawling out of the ground and carpeting trees along the eastern United States for the past week or so. By July, Brood X will be gonenot to be heard from again for 17 years.
Cicadas spend most of their lives underground sucking sap from tree roots. The plant-based diet gives them a green, asparagus-like flavor, especially when eaten raw or boiled, according to Kritsky. The researcher has been looking forward to trying a cicada-vegetable medley.
Gross? Not really, says Jenna Jadin, an entomology graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park who created a brochure in preparation for the Brood X emergence entitled, "Cicada-Licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicada."
In her brochure, Jadin notes that crawfish, lobster, crab, and shrimp are part of the same biological phylumarthropodsas insects. "So popping a big juicy beetle, cricket, or cicada into your mouth is only a step away," Jadin writes.
Jadin said the recipe she most wants to try is chocolate-covered cicada. "I like chocolate, and chocolate covered insects are common worldwide," she said. "We'll see how comparable they are to chocolate-covered crickets."
Eating insects for food is common throughout the world and dates back thousands of years, Kritsky said. For example, in parts of Africa, scarab beetles are considered a delicacy. In the U.S., however, there is a cultural aversion to bugs.
Jadin's brochure begins with a disclaimer from the University of Maryland asking would-be cicada eaters to first consult a doctor because, like all foods, certain individuals may have an allergic reaction.
Despite the warning, Jadin said there is no evidence to suggest that cicadas are unsafe to eat. Her only concern is the cicadas that emerge in areas heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides, as the insects could have absorbed the chemicals in their bodies.
"Given that it's likely people won't be feasting on cicadas, just eating a few of them, even if they have [absorbed] chemicals it's no worse than eating fish from the Great Lakes," Jadin said. "If [people] survived that, they'll probably survive eating a plateful of cicada."
David George Gordon, a science writer in Port Townsend, Washington, whose Eat-A-Bug Cookbook includes a recipe for cicada-topped pizza, said he is unaware of any adverse health impacts of eating cicada. Or as he put it, "Bug appetit."
The only consequence of cicada feasting that Kritsky is aware of is overindulgence, especially on the part of the family dog or favorite backyard squirrel. The animals may be enticed to gobble cicadas so quickly that the bugs could block the animals' throat.
"Just imagine how you would react if inundated with thousands of flying Hershey Kisses," Kritsky said. "You might go nuts. I'd go nuts. That's what happens to dogs or squirrels."
Eaten in moderation, most experts agree that cicadas are a good source of protein (about the same amount pound per pound as red meat) and are full of vitamins and minerals.
So, are you ready to try a cicada? Aspiring gourmands must first begin by collecting the raw ingredients. The insects are best eaten just after the nymphs break open their skin and before their exoskeleton turns black and hard, cicada aficionados say.
These newly hatched cicadas are called tenerals. Jadin said they are best collected in the early morning hours just after the insects emerge from the ground but before they crawl up a tree, where they are harder to reach.
If tenerals are unavailable, the next best menu item is adult females. Their bellies are fat and full of nutritious eggs.
Adult males, however, offer little to eat. More crunch than munch, their abdomens are hollow. (This enables the flirtatious tunes they strum on body structures known as tymbals to resonate.) With raw cicadas in hand, preparation is a matter of chef's choice. Kritsky said, "Most people like them deep fried and dipped in a sauce like a hot mustard or cocktail sauce." Other people boil or blanch them.
Jadin says cicadas take on a "nutty" flavor when roasted. She notes that many cicada recipes call for a lot of spices and sauce, which usually winds up being the dominant flavor.
Now on to the wine: red or white? The bartenders at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C., say neither. This month, patrons can order a "cicada cocktail." It's made from chilled Grey Goose orange vodka, fresh pineapple juice with a touch of Blue Curacao, shaken not stirred, and served straight up in a martini glass.
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