[Why don’t we eat bugs?] For centuries, people have consumed bugs, everything from beetles to caterpillars, locusts, grasshoppers, termites, and dragonflies. The practice even has a name: entomophagy. Early hunter-gatherers probably learned from animals that foraged for protein-rich insects and followed suit. As we evolved and bugs became part of our dietary tradition, they fulfilled the role of both staple food and delicacy. In ancient Greece, cicadas were considered luxury snacks. And even the Romans found beetle larvae to be scrumptious.
Why have we lost our taste for bugs? The reason for our rejection is historical, and the story probably begins around 10,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent, a place in the Middle East that was a major birthplace of agriculture. Back then, our once-nomadic ancestors began to settle in the Crescent. And as they learned to farm crops and domesticate animals there, attitudes changed, rippling outwards towards Europe and the rest of the Western world. As farming took off, people might have spurned bugs as mere pests that destroyed their crops. Populations grew, and the West became urbanized, weakening connections with our foraging past. People simply forgot their bug-rich history. Today, for people not accustomed to entomophagy, bugs are just an irritant. They sting and bite and infest our food. We feel an “ick factor” associated with them and are disgusted by the prospect of cooking insects.
Almost 2,000 insect species are turned into food, forming a big part of everyday diets for two billion people around the world. Countries in the tropics are the keenest consumers, because culturally, it’s acceptable. Species in those regions are also large, diverse, and tend to congregate in groups or swarms that make them easy to harvest.
Take Cambodia in Southeast Asia where huge tarantulas are gathered, fried, and sold in the marketplace. In southern Africa, the juicy mopane worm is a dietary staple, simmered in a spicy sauce or eaten dried and salted. And in Mexico, chopped jumiles are toasted with garlic, lemon, and salt. Bugs can be eaten whole to make up a meal or ground into flour, powder, and paste to add to food. But it’s not all about taste. They’re also healthy. In fact, scientists say entomophagy could be a cost-effective solution for developing countries that are food insecure. Insects can contain up to 80% protein, the body’s vital building blocks, and are also high in energy-rich fat, fiber, and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Did you know that most edible insects contain the same amount or even more mineral iron than beef, making them a huge, untapped resource when you consider that iron deficiency is currently the most common nutritional problem in the world? The mealworm is another nutritious example. The yellow beetle larvae are native to America and easy to farm. They have a high vitamin content, loads of healthy minerals, and can contain up to 50% protein, almost as much as in an equivalent amount of beef. To cook, simply sauté in butter and salt or roast and drizzle with chocolate for a crunchy snack. What you have to overcome in “ick factor,” you gain in nutrition and taste.
Indeed, bugs can be delicious. Mealworms taste like roasted nuts. Locusts are similar to shrimp. Crickets, some people say, have an aroma of popcorn. Farming insects for food also has less environmental impact than livestock farms do because insects emit far less greenhouse gas and use up less space, water, and food. Socioeconomically, bug production could uplift people in developing countries since insect farms can be small scale, highly productive, and yet relatively inexpensive to keep. Insects can also be turned into more sustainable food for livestock and can be reared on organic waste, like vegetable peelings, that might otherwise just end up rotting in landfills. Feeling hungry yet?
Faced with a plate of fried crickets, most people today would still recoil, imagining all those legs and feelers getting stuck between their teeth. But think of a lobster. It’s pretty much just a giant insect with legs and feelers galore that was once regarded as an inferior, repulsive food. Now, lobster is a delicacy. Can the same paradigm shift happen for bugs? So, give it a try! Pop that insect into your mouth, and savor the crunch.