For Most People, Eating Bugs Is Only Natural

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In Ghana during the spring rains, winged termites are collected and fried, roasted, or made into bread. In South Africa the insects are eaten with cornmeal porridge.

In China beekeepers are considered virile, because they regularly eat larvae from their beehives.

Gourmands in Japan savor aquatic fly larvae sautéed in sugar and soy sauce. De-winged dragonflies boiled in coconut milk with ginger and garlic are a delicacy in Bali.

Grubs are savored in New Guinea and aboriginal Australia. In Latin America cicadas, fire-roasted tarantulas, and ants are prevalent in traditional dishes. One of the most famous culinary insects, the agave worm, is eaten on tortillas and placed in bottles of mezcal liquor in Mexico.

Cultural Choices

But despite its long tradition—and current favor among at least half of the world's peoples—eating insects is still rare, not to mention taboo, in the United States and Europe.

One reason, DeFoliart said, is that after Europe became agrarian, insects were seen as destroyers of crops rather than a source of food.

"We became invested in livestock, and bugs became the enemy," said David George Gordon, a biologist and the author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook.

Manfred Kroger, a professor emeritus of food science at Penn State University in University Park, says what people choose to eat is conditioned by culture.

Many Westerners readily consume shrimp and lobster (which, like insects, are arthropods) along with pork and oysters—foods other cultures reject as dirty.

"We have 200 to 300 staple foods that we pass down from generation to generation—and trying new foods is always a touchy subject," Kroger said.

"Eco Protein"

Kroger is anything but a lone voice in the wilderness when he argues that there are many nutritional benefits to eating insects.

Hamburger, for example, is roughly 18 percent protein and 18 percent fat. Cooked grasshopper, meanwhile, contains up to 60 percent protein with just 6 percent fat. Moreover, like fish, insect fatty acids are unsaturated and thus healthier.

DeFoliart, the Wisconsin entomologist, says that not only are insects nutritious and delicious, they could be an environmentally friendly source of human protein requirements.

"In our preoccupation with cattle, we have denuded the planet of vegetation," DeFoliart said. "Insects are much more efficient in converting biomass to protein."

Insect farming is arguably much more efficient than cattle production. One hundred pounds (45 kilograms) of feed produces 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) of beef, while the same amount of feed yields 45 pounds (20 kilograms) of cricket.

Noting the widespread use of pesticides in industrial agriculture, DeFoliart said, "People are poisoning the planet by ridding it of insects, rather than eating insects and keeping artificial chemicals off plants that we eat."

For related coverage, watch Extreme Cuisine on Taboo Thursday, July 15, at 12 a.m. ET/PT, and Sunday, July 18, at 4 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel (U.S. only).

For more insect news, scroll down.

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