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Should we be eating creepy-crawlies?

Should we be eating creepy-crawlies?

Eating insects could become part of our daily life on a planet where food production must double to feed the growing population

Wouldn’t we find that too revolting?

Our horror in the West of eating insects – what’s known as the “disgust factor” in the scientific literature – is something that food historians and nutritionists are keen to understand, because we haven’t always felt that way. A dish of well-cooked beetles or worms was something of a luxury in ancient Greece and Rome. Aristotle had a taste for cicada nymphs, preferring females, while Pliny the Elder enjoyed “cossus”, the larva of a longhorn beetle that lives on oak trees. The holy books of Islam, Judaism and Christianity all come down on the side of eating insects. “Even these of them ye may eat,” says Leviticus, “the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.” John the Baptist, of course, liked his locusts with a dollop of wild honey.

But not many people eat insects now, right?

They do, actually. According to a 200-page UN report in 2013 on edible insects, some two billion people in 162 countries regularly eat insects as part of their diet. In Taiwan, stir-fried crickets, sautéed caterpillars, ant-fried rice and deep-fried scorpion in chilli pepper all feature on menus at fashionable restaurants. A fast-food chain in Thailand, called Insects Inter, sells dishes such as crispy fried crickets under the slogan: “Never mind the look, it tastes great.” In Mexico, ground-up grasshoppers, a popular ingredient, form a tasty filling for tortillas. In Ghana and Nigeria, people enjoy winged termites, fried or roasted, as a salted snack. People in Southern Africa put locusts in their cornmeal porridge to add crunch. Some 1,900 insect species are known to be eaten by humans. Beetles are the most commonly consumed, accounting for 31% of the total eaten, with caterpillars second, at 18%.

Do we have to get involved?

According to the UN, 13 of the 14 domesticated mammals best suited for farming have historically been found in Europe and northern Asia. So until now, Europe has felt no need to engage in entomophagy (the official name for eating insects). But the days of affordable, plentiful meat are coming to an end. By 2050, the world population – a billion of whom are already going hungry – is forecast to hit more than nine billion: to meet this increased demand, the UN predicts food production must double – with cheap, massive supplies of protein a priority. Traditional sources such as beef aren’t going to cut it. Growing food for livestock already consumes around half of America’s water supplies, and the environmental impact of farming billions of chickens, cows and pigs is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

But why turn to eating bugs?

There are lots of them, for a start. More than half the Earth’s organisms are insects: around a million species are known to science, and it’s thought another four to five million are yet to be discovered. There’s not much danger of them running out any time soon, either: while a cow might give birth to around ten calves during her lifetime, a female cricket lays between 1,200 and 1,500 eggs in the space of a few weeks. And being cold-blooded, insects are far more efficient at converting their own diets into body mass: it takes up to 3,000 litres of water to make 150g of beef, yet barely any to sustain 150g-worth of grass-hoppers or weaver ants. Insects are also rich in minerals such as iron and zinc. Ubiquitous in nature, and good for you too – no wonder you’re eating insects already, without realising it.

What insects do we unwittingly eat?

Bugs turn up in vegetable harvests all the time, and since most insects are harmless to eat, food regulators allow a certain amount in our food. For example, the US Food and Drug Administration permits up to 50 aphids, mites or thunderbugs per 100g of spinach before deeming it contaminated. Peanut butter can have 30 insect fragments per 100g, chocolate up to 60. The red food colourant cochineal is made from crushed carcasses of a Latin American beetle. “An individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it,” says Scientific American magazine. Entomophagy fans hope it’s but a short step from this involuntary consumption to us tucking into crispy fried crickets.

What about the disgust factor?

The UN feels that Western societies will “require tailored media communication strategies and educational programmes” to help us get over our heebie-jeebies. A recent article in the journal Psychology and Marketing found (unsurprisingly) that consumers were turned off by insect-based products that explicitly named the ingredients – Giant Waterbug Asian Spice Mix, for instance – and suggested manufacturers “may want to indicate product ingredients in a more ambiguous way”. Hopeful nutritionists note that our tastes can change fast: shrimps and lobster, once seen as foods for the poor, are now delicacies; sushi, which few in the UK would have touched a generation ago, is now widely eaten here.

So are insects making their way into British and US diets?

Yes: their first major incursions are in the form of energy bars, with the high protein and low carb content of ground-up crickets and grasshoppers making them attractive to fitness enthusiasts. Cricket flour has been named as one of the food trends for 2016 by Verve magazine, and forms the basis of Crobar, an energy snack made by Gathrfoods in the UK. Elsewhere, insects are popular among people on paleo diets – loosely based on the hunting-gathering behaviours of early man – and adventurous diners at the Black Ant restaurant in New York and the Grub Kitchen in Pembrokeshire, which serve dishes such as toasted cumin mealworm hummus and grass-hopper burgers. In the shorter term, insect farming is likely to see its first major customers in livestock feeding, as we all come round to the icky inevitability of entomophagy (see box).

The father of modern-day insect eating

In 1885, British entomologist Vincent M. Holt published his only known work, Why Not Eat Insects?, a pamphlet now seen as the founding document of the entomophagy movement. Holt proposed that insects should supplement the diets of the working poor. “One of the constant questions of the day is: ‘How can the farmer most successfully battle with the insect devourers of his crops?’” he wrote. “I suggest they should be collected by the poor as food. Why not?”
Holt knew his proposal was radical. “I’m fully conscious of the difficulty of battling against a long-existing and deep-rooted public prejudice,” he wrote. But he cited ancient appetites for insects and the habits of healthy and diligent grasshopper and grub-eaters around the world. “Though uncivilised,” he wrote, “most of these peoples are more particular as to the fitness of their food than we are.” Even so, Holt made plain that there were limits. “There are insects and insects,” he wrote. “My insects are all vegetable feeders, clean, palatable, wholesome and decidedly more particular in their feeding than ourselves… I’m confident that, on finding out how good they are, we shall some day right gladly cook and eat them.” Holt’s day may soon be upon us.

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