Bugs offer cheap source of high protein for the dinner menu

When most people find a bug in their food, they send it back to the kitchen and demand a refund. Others, however, are willing to pay big bucks for bugs and are raising awareness about the use of insects as a practical food source for the United States.

Humans have been consuming insects for thousands of years. According to National Geographic, Aristotle was known to harvest and eat cicadas. The Bible encourages believers to eat certain types of cicadas and grasshoppers. Many Native American tribes used dried cicadas to make flour.

The practice of eating insects is surprisingly far from forgotten. Chapul, which advertises itself as the original seller of cricket protein bars, offers four flavors of protein bars made from dried and crushed crickets. Exo, another cricket protein bar company, calls crickets the “gateway bug.” Thailand Unique offers a wide arrange of insect products: cricket flours, silk moth pupae pasta, chocolate-covered grasshoppers and even scorpion-infused vodka sold with the armor tail scorpion still in the bottle.

But is anyone in the U.S. really eating insects regularly, or are these products only purchased for gag gifts and one-time experiences?

As it turns out, more and more Americans are giving the entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs, lifestyle a chance. Blogs and websites such as “Girl Meets Bug” and “Insects Are Food” offer recipes and tips for purchasing insects. Modern Farmer, an online and print publication that describes itself as “the authoritative resource for today’s cutting-edge food producers …,” offers instructions for farming bugs at home and claims that a small batch of “breeder” insects could easily grow to feed a family.

In some countries, entomophagy is the most practical way for some people to nourish themselves. Robert W. Sites, a professor at the University of Missouri and staff member at the Enns Entomology Museum on campus, has witnessed this firsthand during his travels to Thailand.

“You see insects all the time in the markets there, but the people that buy the insects for food tend to be those that are at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder,” Sites said. “They eat insects mostly as a snack food.”

Also, some areas are better suited for insects than larger livestock. In places where vegetation is not dense enough for grazing cattle, insects often thrive.

“If you live somewhere like sub-Saharan Africa where the locust come through and wipe out the crops, well, the energy’s still there,” Sites said. “It’s just bound up in the insects, so eat them instead.”

Farming insects seems to be much more efficient all around than farming larger animals. According to Chapul’s website, farming crickets requires only eight percent of the resources and produces one percent of the greenhouse gases it takes to farm cows for the same amount of nutrients. Also, insects require much less water than other, larger animals.

“They take their water from their food, so you don’t actually have to water them,” said Daniel Reynoso-Velasco, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Missouri’s entomology department.

With statistics like those, surely insects will start making their way onto dinner plates all across the country, right?

Wrong. Although entomophagy is perfectly safe and sustainable, there is still an undeniable stigma and fear surrounding insects as food in the U.S. Jessica Warwick, a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri, believes that this stigma is the result of lack of resources and generations of conditioning.

“There’s no place for people to get insects to eat,” Warwick said. “That’s a problem, but that’s only secondary to the problem of people have been trained, really, and brought up to think that insects are gross and they carry diseases, which in 99.9 percent of the cases is completely false.”

Warwick also mentioned that most people eat insects without even knowing it.

“To the people who say, ‘I wouldn’t eat an insect,’ then they also should be avoiding all processed foods because the FDA has a standard,” she explained.

The FDA allows some processed foods to be sold even if they contain insect parts. For peanut butter to be considered safe, it must contain fewer than 30 insect fragments per every 100 grams. So in two spoonfuls of peanut butter, you could be eating as many as 29 individual insect bits. Tomato puree must contain fewer than 20 fly eggs per 100 grams, and wheat flour must contain fewer than 75 insect fragments per 50 grams. Chances are we have all eaten insects at one point or another.

Still, there is proof of evolutionary reasons for our general distaste for insects. Humans evolved to be aware of movement in their surroundings, a skill that has helped us evade predators for millions of years. This translates into the instinct to shy away from anything that scurries or slithers.

The students at the entomology museum and other insects experts have overcome this instinct through education and dedication to their field.

“I think they’re really beautiful,” Warwick said. “There’s always something new to look at and something new to learn about. Always.”