Low-Fat, High-Protein Cicadas: New Health Snack?

John Roach
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 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. 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 phylum—arthropods—as 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.

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 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."

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