If someone offers to let me try a trendy health food that’s environmentally sustainable and affordable, I almost always say yes. As a nutritionist, I like to think I’m open-minded when it comes to food. I’ve sampled everything from dragon fruit oatmeal to the Impossible Burger. But there’s one newly popular food that tests even my sense of culinary adventure: insect-based protein — aka cricket powder (it’s exactly what it sounds like).
Although more and more Americans are jumping on the bug bandwagon, I’ve remained hesitant. As a card-carrying insect-phobe, I’ve long considered bugs mortal enemies, not menu items.
In early childhood, I lived in a house with an intractable roach infestation. A few years later, a rare allergic reaction to a medication caused me to have terrifying hallucinations of spiders, crickets, and grasshoppers bouncing across my field of vision. By the age of 7, I was convinced that earwigs could kill me. Even in adulthood, I once called my husband home from work to kill a wasp. So the thought of putting anything in my mouth that creeps, flies, or crawls is utterly repugnant to me.
And yet, as someone who cares deeply about the environment and eating right, I can’t deny the benefits of insect-based protein. Other bug-phobes, hear me out.
Nutritionally speaking, insects are a powerhouse. Most all of them contain protein, fiber, unsaturated fats ( the “good” kind), and a number of micronutrients. “In cultures and cuisines of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, edible insects are nothing new,” says Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation. “They’ve long been part of the diet to provide nutrients like protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B-12.”
Crickets, specifically, boast a number of benefits. “Crickets are a complete source of protein, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids,” says dietitian Andrea Docherty, RD. “They also provide vitamin B-12, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium.” According to the food industry news group Food Navigator USA, per gram, cricket protein contains more calcium than milk and more iron than beef.
In addition to their dietary advantages, insects are a dramatically more sustainable food source than animals. With livestock feed taking up about one-third of the planet’s cropland and livestock accounting for about 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, we may need to find a better solution for our protein needs in the near future — and insects could be the answer. “They require much less space, food, and water compared to other protein sources,” notes Sollid. “They also emit fewer greenhouse gases.”
In light of these facts, it’s clear to me that eating bugs could be a positive for the Earth and the health of my body. I’ve made sacrifices in the past to live a more sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Could I go one step further, even when it means facing my greatest fear? I was up to the challenge and had enough support to take the leap. With my husband and son already fans of cricket-based snacks, I determined I too would bite the cricket — er, bullet — and actually try bug-based foods.
First, I set some parameters around what to consume. I decided to give myself a pass on eating whole bugs in their original, unprocessed form. (After all, I’d be grossed out to eat a chicken with its head still attached, too.) With my history of bug phobia, I opted to start with more familiar foods: brownies, chips, and bars with a cricket protein base.
Chirps cricket chips were first on my list. For an afternoon snack one day, I pulled out a Chirp and eyed its triangular shape. Fighting back my urge to throw it in the trash or succumb to an emotional meltdown, I decided to take a bite. It looked and smelled like a chip, but would it taste like one? Crunch. Indeed, the Chirp tasted more or less like a dry Dorito. Cheesy, crunchy, and a bit earthy. Not mealy or gag-inducing. “Ok,” I thought. “That wasn’t so bad.” I wouldn’t go out of my way to choose the Chirps for their taste, but they were absolutely edible. So I was able to toss back a few bug chips for a snack, but what about for dessert?
Cricket Flours brownies were my next challenge. Could I consider insects a sweet treat — especially when that treat boasts 14 crickets per serving? I was about to find out. This box mix whipped up just like Betty Crocker, with the addition of eggs, milk, and oil. The finished product looked just like a normal batch of brownies, but extra dark.
Soon came the moment of truth: the taste test. Surprisingly, I found the texture to be spot-on. The moistness and delicate crumb rivaled any box mix I’ve ever made. The flavor, however, was another matter. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected brownies with 14 crickets per serving to taste like a gourmet confection. Something was definitely off. The brownies had a strange, earthy taste and were notably less sweet. Let’s just say I wouldn’t serve these for company.
Exo cricket protein bars marked my third and final tête-a-tête with crickets. A neighbor of mine has sung the praises of these cricket protein bars for some time, so I was intrigued to try them. I was not disappointed, as these turned out to be by far my favorite of my three bug snacks. Sampling both the cookie dough and peanut butter chocolate flavors, I was amazed at how normal they tasted, like any other protein bar I might grab for a snack. Had I not known they contained cricket protein, I never would have guessed. And with 16 grams of protein and a whopping 15 grams of fiber, the bars supply an impressive dose of daily nutrients.
Reflecting on my culinary experiment, I’m genuinely glad I set aside my bug phobia to try insect-based foods. In addition to the obvious nutritional and environmental benefits, bug-based foods are a personal reminder that I can overcome my own fears — and a badge of honor to say, hey, now I’ve eaten crickets. I can see now that it’s really a mind-over-matter issue.
As Americans, we’ve been conditioned to believe that eating insects is disgusting, but really, a lot of things we eat could be considered gross (ever seen a lobster?). When I was able to take my emotions out of the equation, I could enjoy a protein bar or another insect-based food for its flavor and nutrients, regardless of its ingredients.
I won’t say I’ll be eating insect protein on a daily basis, but I now see that there’s no reason bug-based foods couldn’t be a viable part of my diet — and yours, too.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food/a>.