Despite the lack of insect consumption in the West, entomophagy is a common practice around the world. More than 80% of the world’s population currently consumes over 1,000 species of insects as part of their regular diet. For many people in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia, eating insects is the norm. Thailand leads the pack, with over 200 species consumed nationally, not to mention more than 20,000 cricket farms.
More recently, Europeans have started to see the logic in eating bugs. In 2013, Belgium became the first European country to permit insect sales for human consumption. Holland soon followed suit: now their major supermarket chain, Jumbo, carries a variety of insect-based products. That same year, the UN agricultural organization based in Rome published a report* saying, “The case needs to be made to consumers that eating insects is not only good for their health, it is good for the planet.”
Across the pond, entrepreneurs in North America have started to explore the benefits of insect ingredients in snack foods and other products. Cricket flour recently hit the stage as a nutritious and viable alternative to wheat flour. Now products from cookies to chips are making their way onto the shelves—bugs and all.
But is this just a fad, or are bugs here to stay?
The Case for Eating Insects
Growing up in on a farm in Vienna, industrial designer Katharina Unger had a good understanding about where her food came from. It wasn’t until she moved to Hong Kong as an adult that she realized not everyone was so lucky. “There was an extreme difference between the place where I grew up, our connection to food on the farm, and Hong Kong, where everything is super dense and there’s no transparency about where [food] comes from.”
As a farm girl, she knew that the quality of food is “very much connected to how it is grown, how far it has traveled, and how it is processed.” She began to wonder, “What happens if more and more cities look like this in the future? How will we feed the world?”
Enter the Livin’ Farms Hive, Unger’s countertop insect farm that promises 200-500g of protein-rich food per week. Designed to minimize the ick factor of eating insects, the Hive produces mealworms in a closed environment (so you don’t have to look at them). Its unique design also ensures the finished product will be separated from any waste before harvest time.
Says Unger, “Mealworms combine the best of meat and plant-based proteins. They have a similar protein content to red meats like beef and the beneficial amino-acid profile of tofu. They are also packed with vitamins and enzymes to keep you healthy.”
Ground up for use in skin lotion in China, mealworms contain high quantities of Vitamin B5. They also contain more fiber than broccoli, a healthy Omega 3:6 ratio, and Vitamin B12, which Unger points out, is attracting vegetarians who refuse meat for ethical reasons.
Up to ten times more efficient than beef at converting feed into edible meat, mealworms use a fraction of the space and the water of conventional farming. Their CO2 emissions are equally impressive: 2.7 kg of CO2 – EQ per kilogram of mealworm protein versus 67.8 kg for beef.
“The major reason I chose insects,” Unger says, “is that with plants you still need land, and you need this land to be reliably fertile. You also need water and nutrients. Insects are something that can be grown on waste materials in relatively harsh conditions…. from a sustainability standpoint, it totally makes sense to eat insects.”
But How Do They Taste?
Slightly nutty, according to Unger, whose design—available for shipping in November of 2016—doesn’t disguise the end product. The Hive is a farm, after all, and food producers generally see the real thing.
For those who would rather consume something less recognizable, several products using bug flour are now available in the U.S. The entrepreneurs behind “Chirps,” a snack food made from cricket flour, describe their product as “the tastiest snack in the world,” and one that comes in three flavors: cheddar, barbecue, and sea salt.
Manufactured by Six Foods, Chirps are on a mission to introduce bugs to North Americans in a most familiar form: the chip. But both Unger and Six Foods are on the same mission to get people to rethink their ideas about bugs. Says Unger: “So many people around the world eat [insects] already. It’s not something that comes out of a lab. It is already there. It also tastes good.”
The Future of Insects in Food
From chocolate chirp cookies to the Bee-L-T sandwich to the instructions for pseudo bacon bugbits circulating the internet, bug cuisine appears to be here to stay. Media outlets like the London Telegraph and Time Magazine have featured gourmet recipes containing everything from crickets to dragonfly larvae—and despite the results of one study** debunking the hype about crickets as the new beef, they appear to be just getting started.
When compared to delicacies like shrimp and prawns, those six-legged arthropods known as bugs aren’t really that different. Meaty, tender, and just a little bit wiggly, they offer the promise of a healthy and affordable food source for those willing to take the plunge.
As noted by Six Foods in their blog, Antics, “There are endless edible insect recipes out there and if enough people show interest and demand supply, hopefully soon, we can walk down the aisle and pick up some cricket flour, or powdered mealworms.”
The next wave of sustainably produced, homegrown foods might really be under your nose (or on your countertop).
*Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Rome, 2013.
**Lundy, Mark E. and Michael P. Parrella. Crickets Are Not a Free Lunch: Protein Capture from Scalable Organic Side-Streams via High-Density Populations of Acheta domesticus. PLOS One, April 15, 2015.