Bugs, An Alternative Protein

I’ve watched videos of people eating bugs. The video locations are usually in a remote far off land in a country I’ve never been to or maybe even heard of. I have cringed at the sight of people opening their mouths and inviting in a creepy crawly. Interestingly enough, while I am cringing, the consumer of the insect is usually smiling because, well, it’s no big deal to them. To them, the experience might as well be as similar as eating a potato chip. In the videos there is often a comfortableness about eating insects, followed by a satiety that can only be satisfied by food, or what you define as food.

As 2050 approaches, we may want to revisit our definition of food. According to the United Nations, by 2050 the world population will top 9 billion and food production will need to almost double. “Think U.S. farmers will need to go all out to keep the world from going hungry? Think again. Most U.S. exports go to countries that can afford to eat more meat and diversify their diets – where most people don’t go hungry. Undernourished countries mostly feed themselves.” (Environmental working group www.ewg.org). As aquifers dry up, the world will be forced to stop the water hemorrhage. Those willing to embrace the environmental changes in our future, may just be the people we need to start cricket farming.

In its 2013 United Nations report, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) wrote a paper whose purpose was to raise the profile of insects as sources of food and feed to improve food security. With insects already being the traditional diet of 2 billion people on earth, we don’t have to wonder about the efficacy of this protein source. But if we did challenge its nutritional and environmentally sustainable profile, what do we know? According to the United Nations report, consuming insects has a number of nutritional and environmental opportunities:

  • Insects have a high feed conversion efficiency, which is the amount of plant protein needed for an equivalent amount of animal protein. For example, it is estimated that every 6 kg of plant protein fed to livestock (averaging different amounts needed for chickens, pigs and cattle) equates to 1 kg of animal protein. In the case of crickets the ratio is much less, 1.7 kg of plant protein yields 1 kg of cricket protein.
  • Insects can be fed organic side streams (manure, pig slurry, compost)
  • Insect production emits few green house gases and little ammonia.
  • Insects require less water than cattle rearing. (It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, or 1 gallon of water to produce one pound of crickets (FastCompany.org)
  • Few animal welfare issues – although the extent to which insects experience pain is largely unknown.
  • Low risk for zoonotic infection (diseases that can be spread from animals to people), although more research is needed in this area.

Nutritionally, although there seems to be some variables in the data, insects appear to be nutritionally sound providing satisfactory amounts of energy and protein, amino aids, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, folic acid and zinc, among others. (FAO, Rome 2013)

Insects sound like the perfect solution to a future food crisis, barring one big problem: the “icky” factor. While eating insects might be culturally accepted in many parts of the world, insects are not generally found in grocery stores or on restaurant menus in the United States, but that is slowly changing. In April 2107 the Seattle Mariners tried selling toasted chili lime grasshoppers in their stadium much to the dismay of many of their fans who tweeted “gross!” upon hearing the new and strange food to be offered. The price? Four bucks for a 4 ounce cup. Shockingly, the stadium sold 18,000 grasshoppers in the first three nights, selling out each night. Proving that baseball is not all about hot dogs and beer and just maybe Americans are a little more adventurous than we think. The present “I love Sushi” epidemic is a prime example of a culture shift in American perception of acceptable cuisine. Once deemed strange and different, sushi is now quite trendy. In the late 1990s, when sushi really began to take hold in urban areas, it was by no means new to the world, it was just new to many Americans

Entomophagy, or the eating of insects, is ancient. “Food practices are influenced by culture(s), which have been influenced historically by religious beliefs. The practice of eating insects is cited throughout religious literature in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths.” (FAO, 2013). Native Americans also ate insects.

It’s easy for me to write about eating insects, but I wouldn’t be much of an authority if I didn’t try eating insects myself, so… I ordered a variety of bug products. The products were: EXO cricket flour protein bars, CHIRPS CHIPS cricket flour chips, coconut toffee brittle BUGITOS (mealworms), and chocolate CHIRPS cricket cookie mix.

This is what happened…. Apparently, if you have a shellfish allergy, you may also be allergic to crickets. I didn’t know this until after I had eaten a few Cheddar Chirp Chips and started to feel a bit strange. That’s when my son picked up the package and read the fine print. As my allergy took hold, I reached for the Benadryl trying to stave off a trip the emergency room.

With this unfortunate turn of events, I was unable to finish sampling the cricket products I had purchased. So, instead, I enlisted my daughter’s friends to give me feedback – these 20 somethings were game and very adventurous! They concurred that the chips were the easiest to try and tasted similar to a flavored tortilla chip. The protein bars they likened to be similar to a “LARA Bar,” somewhat dense, moist and slightly grainy in texture. The best flavors were apple cinnamon and banana bread. The mealworms, which I thought would be a hard sell, were actually eaten fairly quickly. They were a toasted coconut toffee flavor, which I’m sure helped. Only one person reported a meaty aftertaste. They did actually look like worms, but that didn’t seem to stop my millennial guinea pigs. The final hurdle was the chocolate chip cookie mix, which was snapped up by a friend with the intention of baking them for co-workers she didn’t care for. So, if one of your co-workers asks if you would like a home made chocolate chip cookie, you might want to inquire what kind of flour they were made with, especially if your relationship is somewhat strained!

A final thought: what may seem perfectly acceptable to us to eat may seem strange to others. I think about what a fried soft crab sandwich might look to someone who has never seen or tried one. It might look like a spider sandwich.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with multiple food allergies including tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Resources and Additional Readings

“Think U.S. Agriculture will end world hunger? Think again.” by Anne Weir Schechinger, www.ewg.org. October 5, 2016.

Edible Insects. Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome 2013.

“Why the Future Farmers of North America are Turning to Crickets.” by Jessica Hullinger. Fast Company, March 21, 2016.

“How to Breed a Tasty Cricket.” by Phil McCausland, The Atlantic, September 24, 2015.

“Start-Ups Pitch Cricket Flour as the Best Protein You Can Eat.” by Alexander McCall. NPR, The Salt – What’s On Your Plate. August 15, 2014.

“For Most People, Eating Bugs is Only Natural.” By Sharon Guynup and Nicolas Ruggia. National Geographic, July 15, 2004.

“Bugs On the Menu.” Official Trailer, YouTube April 28, 2016.

“Ants, Seaweed, Chocolate, Beer and (Maybe) less Meat; The Future of Food. By Barbara King. npr.org, August 31, 2017.

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