If you can get past the ick factor, you may begin to see the appeal of eating insects (a practice known as entomophagy). After all, the protein of many species rivals that of meat in both content and quality, according to a 200-page report the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released last May. Insects also provide iron, zinc, copper, potassium, B vitamins and other micronutrients, as well as healthy fats and fiber (chitin). The FAO believes that insects are a huge untapped resource for meeting the nutritional needs of the world’s soaring population—but cultural aversions, particularly in the West, often stand in the way.
Already, an estimated two billion people worldwide, mostly in tropical regions, include insects in their diets. Of the 1,900 or so edible species, the most popular ones include beetles, caterpillars, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. In places like Asia, Africa and Latin America, insects have long been part of traditional diets, eaten by choice and often considered delicacies, commanding prices as high as beef. In Thailand, crispy fried beetles, locusts, water bugs and silk worms are common street foods, while in parts of Mexico, toasted chapulines (grasshoppers) are a favorite crunchy snack and taco filler. But insects, as well as spiders and other critters, have also been eaten out of necessity—for instance, during the regime of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, Cambodians forced into the countryside ate tarantulas to avoid starving.
The ecological buzz. Insects are a more ecologically sustainable food source than meat and poultry, according to the FAO. They require substantially less energy and water than conventional livestock and produce far less waste and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. By some estimates, it takes just two pounds of feed to produce one pound of crickets, for instance, compared to eight pounds of feed needed to produce one pound of beef. Most insects today are gathered, but the FAO is promoting larger-scale insect farming as the wave of the future, as this would feed more people and lower the cost.
On the downside, some insects easily accumulate environmental toxins, and there is little regulation in the U.S. (or elsewhere) when it comes to gathering, farming, selling and serving insects. According to the FAO report, “insects as food do not seem to fall into any category,” and, ironically, the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official policy about insects concerns the maximum permissible levels of insect fragments as contaminants in food products. Still, some companies submit documentation that their insects and insect products are free of bacteria, yeasts and molds, as well as heavy metals and other contaminants.
Tastes like . . . chicken? The taste of insects has been described in many ways: like nuts, buttery popcorn, freshly steamed broccoli, crabmeat, eggs, honey, undercooked bacon, concentrated gorgonzola cheese and, of course, like chicken. Often, they simply take on the flavor of the seasonings. In one blind taste test, Western tasters clearly preferred meatballs made with mealworm filler over regular meatballs. But you may or may not be a fan of the crunch of insect exoskeletons. To make them more appealing to less adventurous eaters, insects can be ground up into powders or made into pastes and incorporated into other foods (like the new Chapul bars made with cricket flour).
Bug appétit. If you’re up it, you can find edible insects online—live, frozen or ready-to-eat—at sites like ediblebugshop.com.au, thailandunique.com and chapul.com. Some ethnic markets sell them, too. An increasing number of chefs are featuring insect cuisine and you can sometimes try samples at food festivals and other events.
If you can't imagine ever dining on insects, consider the fact that other cultures find some foods we eat equally strange and off-putting, such as caviar and snails, and even shrimp and lobster (ironically called “cockroaches of the sea”). It often takes time and exposure to get accustomed to a new food. Just as Americans once shunned sushi, it may not be too long before worms, ants and crickets become more mainstream on menus and at markets. Chocolate chirp cookies anyone?