A culture is defined by many things, and often food is high on that list.
In Western culture, our diets are earmarked by many unhealthy ingredients, most notably high amounts of sugar, salts, and fats. But there’s another item notably missing from American diets that advocates say should be incorporated into the range of foods we eat: insects.
While eating insects has been a part of other cultures for quite a while, it’s only now beginning to catch on in the United States and United Kingdom. However, it’s still far from being a mainstream on menus.
Because most Americans overlook the nutritional value of bugs, we’ve been missing out on the benefits to both human and environmental health they offer as a food source.
In 2013, the United Nations published a report estimating that two billion people worldwide eat bugs as part of their diet and urged cultures around the globe to start eating insects to help add more security to the world’s food supply.
So, if bugs are so healthy, why are some culinary appetites — particularly Western cultures — not engaging in entomophagy, or eating insects for nutrition?
The biggest hurdle is the “eww” factor.
Bugs are better for us
Bugs, insects, and even arachnids pack more protein, pound for pound, than most traditional meat sources. They also contain enough fiber, vitamins, and minerals to rival the nutritional value of some grains, fruits, and vegetables.
A recent study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at what impact eating 25 grams a day of whole cricket powder — made into muffins and shakes — could have on a person’s gut microbiota, or the body’s own bugs that can influence a person’s overall health.
Noting crickets contained high levels of protein and fiber, the researchers found the dietary changes spurred the growth of probiotic bacteria and reduced a type of plasma associated with harmful inflammation. While the study only included 20 people, researchers concluded further studies could help affirm their initial findings that “eating crickets may improve gut health and reduce systemic inflammation.”
The lead author of the study, Valerie Stull, hopes eating insects will gain popularity in the United States.
“Food is very tied to culture, and 20 or 30 years ago, no one in the U.S. was eating sushi because we thought it was disgusting, but now you can get it at a gas station in Nebraska,” she said in a statement accompanying the study.
While bugs aren’t yet available in most gas stations, people are slowly getting over their initial gut reactions to eating insects for a variety of reasons.
Summer Rayne Oakes, a certified nutritionist who studied entomology and environmental science at Cornell University and later founded Homestead Brooklyn, says the reality is that most people want to be divorced from their food.
“We don’t go to stores and even seen chickens with their heads or legs left on,” she told Healthline. “Some people can’t stand a fish with a face, so it’s understandable that a fried caterpillar or cricket would be too much for someone to bear.”
That’s why cricket powders and flours, like those used in the Wisconsin experiments, may be first steps in helping remove themselves from the actual insects. Oakes said she’s already seen bugs incorporated into many ready-made products: tomato sauces, flour, baked goods, bars, cereals, and cookies.
In fact, many people have already eaten insects in different forms without knowing it.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has guidelines permitting how many bug and insect parts are acceptable in your food without listing them as an ingredient.
As food journalist Layla Eplett wrote in Scientific American, “an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots, and other bugs each year without even knowing it.”
An alternative protein that’s green
Dr. Rebecca Baldwin, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says small animals managed as food — known as “microlivestock” or “minilivestock” — will play a role in food security, environmental conservation, and economic diversity.
“This is especially useful for urban areas where arthropods can be grown in small areas inside and near homes,” she told Healthline. “As throughout history, insects can be harvested from the wild, especially during certain swarm seasons.”
Because insects take up less space and require fewer resources to grow, their overall impact on the environment is much less detrimental than typical mammal livestock, making them good candidates for a global food source, Baldwin says. For instance, the efficiency of conversion of ingested food (ECI) for caterpillars and cockroaches are on par with chickens, with 30 to 40 pounds of meat per 100 pounds of feed, she says.
Baldwin also points out that people are getting on board with entomophagy.
A Canadian startup is developing a countertop cricket farm where families can grow crickets for food. A group calling themselves The North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture is lobbying the FDA to consider insect cuisine as a market.
At the University of Florida, where Baldwin teaches, there are courses like Etymology 101 — “Bugs and People” — which has an insect-cooking demonstration each semester, showing how easy it is to incorporate bugs into your everyday diet.
“You can purchase mealworms (beetle grubs) and crickets from pet stores,” she said. “They can be cleaned and cooked.”
Ready to grub on bugs?
If incorporating edible insects into your diet sounds like something you’d like to begin, there are a number of options already available.
Bill Broadbent, president of EdibleInsects.com, says his customers range from diet-conscious consumers and bodybuilders to people seeking foods native to their cultures and vegetarians wanting nutrient-packed alternatives to fleshy animals.
Still, in the United States, the average eater isn’t necessarily looking to start chomping down on black ants, or mopane worms quite yet, he says.
“Edible insects are the greatest culinary challenge of our time,” he told Healthline.
Broadbent’s three favorites are black ants, Manchurian scorpions, and chapulines, or spiced grasshoppers from Mexico.
“Black ants are used to replace lemon and lime in many recipes because they have a strong citrus taste, a nice crunch, and their black color looks great,” he said. “Plus, they are small enough to not really look like insects.”
If you’re looking to serve an unforgettable dish at your next dinner party, Broadbent recommends the Manchurian scorpions. “First, they are scorpions so they look cool,” he said. “But, they also glow in the dark under a black light and everyone loves to see that.”
Baldwin says there are about 500 species of insects eaten worldwide, 200 of which are estimated to be eaten in Mexico. Closer to the border, in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, many Mexican-themed restaurants are beginning to serve insect dishes on their menu.
“When you look at the consumption of insects worldwide,” she said, “the most commonly eaten insects are those that can be found in large numbers including social insects like bees, wasps, and termites, as well as migratory locusts and periodical cicadas.”
For Oakes, the mealworm — or the larval form of a darkling beetle — is the easiest to cook and consume.
“You can fry them up or sauté them, and they really take on any flavor that you cook with,” she said. “At one point, I made mealworm Rice Krispies treats.”
James Ricci, an entomologist and co-founder and chief technology officer of Ovipost — a company that produces automation for insect farming— says the cricket is a “good gateway bug.”
“They’re pretty approachable, and there are already a good handful of well-thought recipes,” he said.
For a slightly spicy and sweet cricket, Ricci takes his whole, frozen crickets and rinses them in a colander to remove their stiff legs. He pats them dry and tosses them in a honey vinegar before pan frying them in serrano-infused olive oil. After about three to five minutes of frying, he spreads them onto a baking sheet and gives them a light honey drizzle before baking them at 225 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.
“These serrano honey crickets go well with a nice Carolina coleslaw or even by themselves as finger food,” he said.