Entomophagy (from the Greek entomon—insect—and phagein—to eat) is the scientific term for the consumption of insects.
“Just as insects can come in a variety so of forms, so can entomophagy,” explains “TechKnow” contributor and resident bug expert Phil Torres. “You can eat insects as either your main source of nutrients or as just a condiment.”
On this week’s “TechKnow,” Torres visits a variety of scientists, chefs, and farmers who are cultivating insects for the purposes of eating and learns how bugs may become the world’s most important source of protein.
WHY SHOULD WE EAT BUGS?
As the world’s population grows to an estimated 9 billion by the year 2050, demand for alternate protein sources will only continue to increase. Beef production is expected to grow dramatically in that time to fill the demand, but as pastures and fodder already take up 70 percent of all agricultural land, alternate sources of protein will need to be increased. Insects are not only a good source of protein, but they are also nutritious in other ways.
“Most of the insects that have been assayed in labs have high amounts of iron, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus, and calcium,” says Audubon Insectarium entomophagist Zack Lemann. “So you’ve got a lot of other abundant elements in there that our bodies can use.”
In fact, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization released a statement in May urging increased insect consumption and farming to fight poverty and pollution.
“When you look at crickets, you don’t necessarily think food,” Torres says. “But in fact, 100 grams of crickets has about 13 grams of protein and only 120 calories. So think of it as a cricket protein bar.”
In their “Wall Street Journal” article, “The Six-Legged Meat of the Future,” entomology professors Marcel Dicke and Arnold Van Huis lay out a few reasons why insects could be a popular choice to fulfill the need for alternate animal proteins.
It breaks down like this:
Fewer diseases: Humans and animals like pigs and cows share enough of the same genetic makeup that co-infection can breed even more dangerous new strains of diseases like swine fever. Such risks are much lower with insects, which have greater genetic differences from humans.
Less expensive: Insects are cold-blooded, so they require less feed to maintain their body temperatures. For example, 10 pounds of feed only yields about one pound of beef, but the same amount of feed could produce six to nine pounds of insect meat. Insects also require far less water than conventional protein sources.
Less waste: After processing, about 45 percent of a cow is not edible (the percentage is even higher for meats like mutton). In contrast, only 20 percent of a cricket is inedible.
More environmentally friendly: Insects produce far less ammonia and other greenhouse gases per pound of body weight compared to traditional protein sources. This is important, as livestock is currently responsible for about 10% of all greenhouse gases.
More humane: High-density farm housing is incredibly stressful to cows, pigs, and chickens. However, insects naturally live in tight, densely-packed quarters. Their cages can be crowded and stacked, allowing for more versatile “farming” that wouldn’t be limited to rural locations.
WHY AREN’T MORE PEOPLE EATING BUGS?
Three million people around the world are already eating insects as part of their daily diet. However, in most developed countries, a stigma still exists around bugs as being dirty pests, not delicious grub.
“Insects have a reputation for being dirty and carrying diseases—yet less than 0.5 percent of all known insect species are harmful to people, farm animals or crop plants. When raised under hygienic conditions—eating bugs straight out of the backyard generally isn't recommended—many insects are perfectly safe to eat.”
- “The Six-Legged Meat of the Future”
Simply put, bugs are icky and people are scared to eat them. However, many already are. The average person consumes about one pound of insect parts per year in foods like chocolate, peanut butter, fruit juice, and many food colorings and dyes. The FDA limits the amount of insect parts that can be in these foods, however they are still a part of most people’s regular diet.
Many entomophagists believe that, as with sushi, a cuisine that was once considered culinary taboo will soon become the norm.
“At the moment a lot of entomophagists are focused on studying why eating bugs is so good, how to introduce that into mainstream society, what is the potential of the new type of food product,” World Entomophagy founder Harman Johar tells Torres. “It’s a very unique and exciting culinary experience.”
Unique and exciting, but universally accepted? Some think that stopping the stigma around eating bugs starts with younger generations.
“Kids are way more receptive,” says naturalist David George Gordon, an entomophagy advocate who has written several bug-based cookbooks, in an interview with Culinate. “Kids are clamoring to get up on stage and be the volunteer — ‘Pick me, pick me!’ I’ve had parents come up to say, ‘I can’t believe you got my kid to eat a scorpion. I can’t get him to eat anything at home.’ You probably aren’t serving scorpions.”
WHERE CAN YOU EAT A BUG RIGHT NOW?
Bug Appetit at the Audubon Natural Institute in New Orleans offers an interactive dining experience in which patrons can watch chefs prepare different types of insects and then sample for themselves at the “Bug Buffet.”
“Spring and summer is our busy time,” says Zack Lemann, an entomophagist at the Audubon Insectarium. “We’ll go through about 10,000 bugs a week.”
Hotlix, a California candy and snack manufacturer, sells chocolate, candy, and lollipops with insects inside, as well as “Crick-ettes” in assorted flavors. A Salt Lake City-based company called Chapul also makes energy bars with ground-up crickets.
Typhoon in Santa Monica, Calif., has a whole section of their menu devoted to insect dishes like “Singapore-style scorpions” and “Taiwanese crickets,” and Toloache in New York City features “Oaxacan-style dried grasshoppers” in tacos on their dinner menu.
To learn more about entomophagy—and watch contributor Phil Torres taste-test some bug dishes—tune into “TechKnow,” Sunday 7:30ET/4:30PT.