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Cicadas as Food: Summer's Low-Fat Snack?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
Updated May 22, 2007
 
High-protein, low-carb dieters take note: The billions of cicadas emerging from the ground this month in the midwestern U.S. 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, speaking to National Geographic News during the last major cicada outbreak, in 2004.

"They're quite nutritious, a good set of vitamins."

Billions of periodical cicadas, known as Brood XIII, are beginning to crawl out of the ground and to carpet trees in the midwestern United States. By July, Brood XIII will be gone—not 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.

Gross? Not really, says Jenna Jadin, who was an entomology graduate student at the University of Maryland when she spoke with National Geographic News in 2004.

Jadin created a brochure in preparation for the Brood X emergence: "Cicada-Licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicada."

Crayfish, lobsters, crabs, and shrimp are part of the same biological phylum—arthropods—as insects, Jadin notes in the brochure.

"So popping a big juicy beetle, cricket, or cicada into your mouth is only a step away," Jadin writes.

She said the recipe she most wanted 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, of the College of St. Joseph, said.

For example, in parts of Africa scarab beetles are considered a delicacy. (See "Bugs as Food: Humans Bite Back " [April 16, 2004].)

Healthy Eating?

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 was with cicadas that emerge in areas heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides, as the insects could have absorbed the chemicals into 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 cicadas."

David George Gordon is a science writer in Port Townsend, Washington. His Eat-a-Bug Cookbook includes a recipe for cicada-topped pizza.

Gordon 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 backyard squirrel.

The animals may be enticed to gobble cicadas so quickly that the bugs could block the animals' throats.

"Just imagine how you would react if inundated with thousands of flying Hershey's Kisses," Kritsky said. "You might go nuts—I'd go nuts. That's what happens to dogs or squirrels."

Eaten in moderation, cicadas are a good source of protein (about the same amount pound per pound as red meat) and are full of vitamins and minerals, experts say.

Cicada Preparation

Aspiring cicada gourmands should begin by collecting the raw ingredients.

The insects are best eaten just after the nymphs break open their skins but before their exoskeletons turn 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 trees, 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, the males' abdomens are hollow.

This enables their flirtatious tunes, which are created when the cicadas strum body structures known as tymbals.

With raw cicadas in hand, preparation is a matter of chef's choice.

"Most people like them deep fried and dipped in a sauce like a hot mustard or cocktail sauce," Kritsky said. Other people boil or blanch them.

Cicadas take on a "nutty" flavor when roasted, the University of Maryland's Jadin said. She notes that many cicada recipes call for a lot of spices and sauce, which usually wind up being the dominant flavors.

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