Monday, June 2, 2008

Our Future Food?

It’s here now…if only we could stomach it….

“Mmmmm,” Jill uttered breathlessly, in the rapt voice of someone joyously surprised with herself. "Perfumy, tastes like salty apples."

“Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke,” added her friend, scooping out and swallowing the grayish, slightly greasy “meat”.
What ARE they eating that is so delectable, you might ask? asked... It is a 3-inch long South Asian water bug that looks uncannily like a cockroach. Ironically, as a biologist, I harbor an unreasonable aversion to that insect.

The giant water bug (Lethocerua indicus) is just one of many insects available for the tolerant palate. In fact, 1,400 species of insects are commonly eaten around the world with the practice dating back thousands of years.
 Cave paintings in Altamira, north Spain, dated to about 9,000 to 30,000 BCE, depict the collection of wild bee nests. At the time people must have eaten bee pupae and larvae with the honey. Cocoons of wild silkworm (Theophilia religiosae) were found in ruins in the Shanxi province of China, dating from 2,000 to 2,500 years B.C. The cocoons had large holes in them, suggesting the pupae were eaten (Capinera, 2004). Many ancient entomophagy practices have been passed down to the present, forming traditional entomophagy (Wikipedia). In Botswanna and Zimbabwe, insect gathering has become commercialized. Rural villages in southern Africa harvest caterpillars from the local mopane trees, which have been a traditionally important source of protein but more recently are being packaged and sold as a regional delicacy, according to Josie Glausiusz of Discover Magazine (May, 2008). "Kungu cakes" - made from midges - are a delicacy in parts of Africa. Mexico is an insect-eating - or entomophagous - hotspot, where more than 200 insect species are consumed. Demand is so high that 40 species are now under threat, including white agave worms. These caterpillars of the tequila giant-skipper butterfly fetch around $250 a kilogram (New Scientist, March, 2007). Lana Unger, of the University of Kentucky, and Gene R. De Foliart of the University of Wisconsin, provide extensive lists of insect snacks from around the world.

In Colombia Hormiga culona (literally "fatass ant") Atta laevigata is served at movie theaters in addition to popcorn.

There is good reason to believe that these somewhat unsavory creatures (at least to most North Americans) can provide a significant portion of our nutritional needs in the future. Given the latest figures from the United Nations of 854 million people around the world who went hungry in 2003, here are some good reasons to consider them:

1. A United Nations report released in 2006 placed the livestock industry in the top three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems we are facing, from local to global. The report noted that livestock production was responsible for 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, more than what is produced by transportation worldwide. Meat production is expected to double by 2050.
2. Insects are very nutritious. The female gypsy moth, for instance, is about 80 per cent protein. While they contain slightly less protein by weight than beef (e.g., a 100 grams of giant water bugs, for example, contains 20 grams of protein to 27 grams protein for the same weight of beef), grasshoppers contain one third of the fat of beef and water bugs almost four times the iron. Insects generally have a higher food conversion efficiency than more traditional meats. For example, studies concerning the house cricket (Acheta domesticus), when reared at 30°C or more and fed a diet of equal quality to the diet used to rear conventional livestock, show a food conversion twice as efficient as pigs and broiler chicks, four times that of sheep, and six times higher than steers when losses in carcass trim and dressing percentage are counted (Capinera, 2004). Most insects are cheap, tasty and a good natural protein source requiring less land and feed than raising cows or pigs. By weight, termites, grasshoppers, caterpillars, weevils, house flies and spiders are better sources of protein than beef, chicken, pork or lamb according to the Entomological Society of America. Also, insects are low in cholesterol and low in fat.
3. Raising insects has low impact on the environment and require little water. While it takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef (a large hamburger), a quarter pound of crickets only requires a moist paper towel, refreshed weekly. Many insects are far cleaner than other creatures. For example, grasshoppers and crickets eat fresh, clean, green plants whereas crabs, lobsters and catfish eat any kind of foul, decomposing material as a scavenger (bottom water feeder).

Along with nutrition comes the added benefit of good taste, according to William F. Lyon of Ohio State University (check out his recipes!). Doug Whitman, Entomologist at Illinois State University, enjoys eating raw yellowjacket larvae which have a sweet, nutty flavor. Gene R. DeFoliart, retired Entomologist at the University of Wisconsin, prefers the greater wax moth larvae (deep-fried will melt in your mouth, tasting like bacon) and crickets deep-fried have a crunchy, tangy flavor. He feels the honey bee has a good chance of becoming an American bug food. A pound of honey bees is about 3,500 bees. They can be put in an oven at low heat for eight hours and then used in flour for cookies. Some feel insect popcorn, using crickets, would be a new theater treat.

Insect-eating even has its own term: entomophagy.
David Gracer is a self-described “geeky poet/nature boy” who teaches in Rhode Island and founded a company called Sunrise Land Shrimp. He recently attended a United Nations workshop on entomophagy in Thailand. “I would love to counteract the portrayal of entomophagy that we see on Fear Factor and Survivor,” he said to Josie Glausiusz of Discover Magazine.

Another advocate of entomophagy is Robert Kok, chairman of the department of bioresource engineering at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. “I’ve been working for a long time on trying to convince people that farming insects for the production of animal protein and other materials might be a good idea,” said Kok to Discover Magazine. “Even if they didn’t want to eat them ‘whole hog’ so to say, it would be possible to extract the protein and oil from them and then manufacture food products from those components.”

Well? I’m not rushing off for cricket popcorn just yet… but perhaps I should at least try it… I’ll let you know… Any takers?

Capinera, John L. (2004). Encyclopedia of Entomology.
Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 0-7923-8670-1.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


dcr said...

A lot of people have a natural aversion to insects, whether in general or just to the idea of consuming them.

And, maybe there's a good reason for that?

After all, if you can get "Mad Cow" even from well-cooked meat, who knows what may be lurking in insects, just waiting for a larger number of people to be consuming them before any potential harmful effects are noticed?

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Errr....I think I'll pass on insect eating, Nina, if you don't mind!

sfgirl said...

You're so right to be cautious, dcr! Here's the deal:

Pesticide use can make insects unsuitable for human consumption. Herbicides can also accumulate in insects through bioaccumulation. For example when locust outbreaks are treated by spraying, people can no longer eat them. This may pose a problem since edible plants have been consumed by the locusts themselves. Allergic reactions are also known to occur and some insects are toxic.

Okay, here is the reality, though: you're already eating insects in your daily food. Did you know that the average chocolate bar in the U.S. contains at least 8 pieces of an insect in it?
Despite advances in pest control technology, it's still not possible to exclude all insects from our food supply. Most agricultural products are already contaminated with insects (or insect products) when they're harvested, and still more gain access during storage.
In order to qualify as U.S. No. 1 Grade, the commodities listed below can't exceed the following limits of contamination:

Ketchup -- 30 fruit fly eggs per 100 grams
Canned corn -- 2 insect larvae per 100 grams
Blueberries -- 2 maggots per 100 berries
Peanut butter -- 50 insect fragments per 100 grams
Curry powder -- 100 insect fragments per 100 grams
Wheat -- 1% of grains infested
Sesame seed -- 5% of seeds infested
Coffee -- 10% of beans infested

So, have some more ketchup with your fries!

dcr said...

Well, you can always make your own ketchup. :-)

sfgirl said...

HAR! Good one, dcr! You got me! Great recipe, btw...

dan said...

Nina, this is great post and pics. Here in Taiwan, I've been eating insects for year, delicious. Fried crickets, fried bees, and fried ants (do ants quality?). really, very delicious. the fried crickets are cooked in oil like french fries and one thin sweet potato is placed inside the cricket as well, so the crunch and taste it delicious. Yes, i think this is a good idea for the planet, eat more insects, and less meat. yes yes yes

take it from me, 5 stars: fried crickets, JEAN LUC you will love them once you taste them....

danny in fried cricket land on a hot summer day, well, almost summer

sfgirl said...

Okay, Dan... Now I REALLY have to try the fried crickets!!!...

Daniella said...

Great post! Thank you so much for getting this information out to the public. Insects are the true eco-protein -- the most sustainable animal protein on Earth!
I host an edible insect cooking show: I would love to know what you think!
Daniella Martin, host of Girl Meets Bug

SF Girl said...

Very cool, Daniella! Thanks for the link to your site. It has a lot of good information. In your own words, your site "is dedicated to using media to educate, inspire, and popularize the idea of insects as food."