Would you be met with excitement, appalment or hesitation if creepy crawlies and bugs were exhibited on the menu? What would you think if ‘Bug Burger’ or ‘Mealworm Macaroni’ became the latest eating trends, or even ordinary, dietary staples? The thought of these novel meals may seem distasteful now, but with over 2,100 different types of insects able to be consumed, and with this strange practice of eating insects already adopted by many insects themselves, are we just late to the party? In fact, have we already been consuming them without knowing? Even the official word for eating insects, entomophagy, sounds slightly futuristic and aloof, but should we be considering them as an alternative and more environmentally friendly source of protein for the future? Do we just need to overcome our innate scepticism and ‘yuck’ factor of eating bugs and give them a try? This post will explore these questions and will take a brief look into the origin, history and modern practice of eating insects around the world.
What Are the Pros of Eating Bugs?
We are all aware of how straining the meat production industry is on the environment, heightened by the demand to feed the expanding human population; animal handling consumes substantial quantities of energy and water, in addition to its demand for land for the animals to roam and graze on. Meat production increases the release of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) which worsen the effects of global warming; cattle rearing is especially bad for the release of greenhouse gases. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that the adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets and lifestyles are on the rise, presenting not only a more ethical choice for some, but also a more sustainable one. However, the complete removal of meat products from a diet is not an option for everyone, but is there still a way to act in a sustainable manner whilst still acquiring a form of protein similar to that of meat?
Insects release negligible amounts of greenhouse gases
The negative environmental impact of insect farming compared to that of the livestock industry is very little. Insects release negligible amounts of greenhouse gases and require a lot less space, water and food to be reared. Insects can be fed on food that humans cannot consume directly, such as mulberry leaves, whereas livestock are often fed grains; thus the ‘competition’ with people for food is less in comparison to livestock. In colder countries, livestock require heated shelter, but insects are cold-blooded so they would not need this, in turn reducing the amount of energy required to rear them. Additionally, whole insects can be consumed, in stark contrast to other meats, where only a small percentage of their mass is consumed, much is wasted.
The novel prospect of insect farming presents us with exciting opportunities in business and technology
The fewer and cheaper resources necessary to farm insects could also help the promotion and empowerment of farmers; providing them with a stable income and livelihood, in turn contributing to an increase in their quality of life. Exploiting insect protein commercially through the reduced use of pesticides on crops, and rather cultivating and harvesting said pests, could have both economic and ecological benefits. The novel prospect of insect farming presents us with exciting opportunities in business and technology, such as shaping how insects are sold, whether that could be utilised in powder form, smoothies, or as snack boxes. The Insect Club is a bar and restaurant in Washington D.C, home to décor and menus revolving around insects. Wataru Kobayashi is a Japanese designer who has created a picnic set purely for entomophagy. The list of ideas like these could go on, and it poses completely new business and economic ventures for us to explore, and perhaps it makes the idea of eating insects more digestible to the general public.
Insects offer just as much, if not more protein and nutrients than traditional meats
Insects still represent an abundant source of high-quality protein and amino acids, and they also possess a high antioxidant capacity. Insects offer just as much, if not more protein and nutrients than traditional meats, just with much less harm done to the environment in the process. They also have a superior protein source than most plant proteins, which can pose a current challenge for those adopting vegetarian and vegan diets. This should not be all about our consumption however, as the need for imports of things like soy, used as feed in large-scale meat and fish farming, could be reduced if insects were to be used as feed instead.
The Food Aid Foundation states that one in nine people on earth go hungry. This can have serious impacts on quality of life and development, such as restricting access to necessities like education and healthy activity, as well as causing stunting of growth and increasing susceptibility to illness or death. The world population is estimated to explode, equating to more people to feed but with diminishing supplies of land and water to supply it. Backing us is a system that is already failing to feed everyone. Unless there is a big change in the way we produce food for everyone, the problem of world hunger will worsen and we will face a large scale food crisis. Large-scale farming and eating of insects could offer us a glimmer of hope and a chance of circumventing food insecurity for current and upcoming generations.
What Are the Cons of Eating Bugs?
Bugs provide us with a protein-heavy and easy to prepare meal, but there are downsides. Despite being killed with gentle methods, the pain sensation of insects is not sufficiently investigated; it is unclear how much pain they feel. This presents us with our first barrier of uptake in terms of ethical standards.
Another barrier of uptake could be allergies; protein-rich food has the potential to cause allergies. Those who are allergic to organisms such as house dust mites or crustaceans may be advised against adopting this insect-eating diet.
The exoskeleton of an insect contains chitin, which is an anti-nutrient; a substance that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb and use protein. The ability for humans to digest chitin has not been adequately investigated, so despite seeming to offer us a good dose of nutritious protein, the amount lost due to inadequate digestion is not entirely clear. We know that insects provide an important source of nutrition to other classes of vertebrates, such as fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, but further investigation for humans specifically would need to be conducted to ensure this same level is achieved. Despite chitin reducing our ability to absorb protein, there are benefits of eating it, such as its potential to benefit the functioning of our immune system and reduce inflammation. Additionally, the exoskeleton makes up only a small part of the biomass of the insect, so the digestion of the rest of the insect is adequate and certain.
The hygiene standards of rearing must be maintained to the highest level in order to avoid infection
Many insects feed on decaying matter such as rotting food, which is full of bacteria. Naturally, we would be actively doing everything in our power to keep bugs out of the kitchen, so it would seem strange to then invite them onto our plates without taking the proper precautions. Similarly to meat production, the hygiene standards of rearing must be maintained to the highest level in order to avoid infection; this regulation, as well as pesticide regulation, would need trialling and optimising before we would see any insects on our supermarket shelves. Distinguishing and making clear which insects are safe, and which are dangerous to eat, and how exactly we need to cook them properly is critical to avoid any illness post consumption.
The adoption of insect-eating remains a personal choice that has ethical, environmental and cultural factors at play, but what is clear is that the sustainability of meat production is declining rapidly, so is this the compromise and forward-thinking we desperately need to feed an ever-increasing human population?
Have We Been Eating Bugs Unknowingly?
It may or may not come as a surprise that we have been passively consuming bugs for a long time. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) release a list of the maximum permissible levels of insect infestation (adults, eggs, droppings or fragments) with which food can be sold. They state that there are “non-hazardous, naturally-occurring and unavoidable defects” in foods which pose no threat to humans if consumed, providing they do not exceed the permissible levels. They state, “it is not now possible and never has been possible to grow in the field, harvest, and process some crops that are totally free of defects, even with modern technology all defects in foods cannot be eliminated”. For example, in every 100 grams of Brussels sprouts, there can be no more than 40 aphids and/or thrips.
The list of foods on this FDA list is extensive; it can even seem that every food imaginable is present! Check it out here! Since entomophagy is practised worldwide (which we will explore next), the reasons for the maximum permissible infestation levels set by the FDA are not so much set for health reasons, but rather for aesthetic reasons. The insects in food are very unlikely to pose more of a threat if they are in higher quantities. It is likely the quantity makes no difference health wise, but less insects in food does certainly make it less conspicuous and thus more appealing to us. Food labels should indicate insect presence; allowing the consumer the freedom to decide whether or not they buy the product, but we must ask ourselves, would there be anything totally insect-free? Now we know that some level of insects is present in most of the foods we eat, we must question our repulsion towards entomophagy. Is it the actual insects we are repulsed by, or just our own psychological awareness of entomophagy after it has been pointed out to us?
A Brief History of Entomophagy
Charles Darwin, a famous evolutionary biologist and explorer, famously wrote in one of his books, Phytologia, that he sampled some caterpillars and they were delicious. In 1983, R. Kok advocated that insects on board spaceships could provide important protein for space travellers. It seems that insects have been part of our diet for many years before these advocates, however. Some people think that we adopted this practice whilst copying primates; many regularly consume insects as part of their diet, or even feed exclusively on them. There is growing evidence that primates produce chitinase, which is an enzyme that would allow them to digest the insect exoskeleton. The explorations of this section were inspired by the book “Bugs In The System: Insects and their impact on human affairs” by May R. Berenbaum.
The Old Testament references entomophagy
The earliest known human record documenting entomophagy as an established practice is a bas-relief (sculpture) from around 77 B.C depicting servants of King Sennacherib of Assyria carrying locusts skewered on sticks for a feast. This seems to point to entomophagous cultures consuming insects for their flavour rather than for their nutritious value, which seems to be replicated in the practices that followed.
The Old Testament references entomophagy; from Leviticus 11 (21-23): “you may eat of all winged creeping things that go upon all fours which have legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth. These you may eat; the arbeh after his kind, the sal’am after his kind, the chargol after his kind, and the chagav after his kind”. Those in italics are various developmental stages of locusts, but scholars will dispute this point and its meaning. The Mishnah Torah interprets the passage to mean “among locusts, these are clean; all that have four legs, four wings, and jointed legs, and whose wings cover the greater part of the body”. In the Koran, the prophet Mohammad is said to have eaten locusts, stating that “Lawful for us are two dead (animals) and two blood – liver and spleen, fish and locusts”.
The ancient Greeks were insect-eaters; one of their earliest entomophagy references comes from Aristotle of Athens. Aristotle reports “the larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken. As for adults, at first the males are better to eat after copulation than the females, which are then full of white eggs”. In the marketplace, grasshoppers were sold to be ground into flour for cakes or to be eaten directly.
The Romans had a few unusual insect delicacies too. This included the Cossus, a grub or caterpillar that had been fed with flour, eaten on special occasions.
Whilst entomophagy was previously adopted more for its unique flavour, after the Romans, entomophagy among Westerners took more of a role to stave off starvation, or to reflect personal nonconformity. It had quickly lost its mass appeal, the reason for this is unclear, but perhaps the livestock industry poses one explanation.
Maeng dana, a giant water bug, will be seen in many markets around Thailand today
On other continents, entomophagy was, and still is, popular. Maeng dana, a giant water bug, will be seen in many markets around Thailand today. This bug is imported to stores in California for the preparation of a sauce called namphala. Silkworms and Ricehoppers are commonly eaten in Japan, and in South Africa, roasted mopane worms are sold as snacks. In Africa, termites are enjoyed and prepared in a variety of ways, such as being roasted, dried or fried in fat. In Cameroon, the Pange eat lots of different kinds of caterpillars, as do people in the Shaba region of Zaire. Agave caterpillars are served as part of the filling for tostadas and tacos in Mexico. These same caterpillars can be found floating in the alcoholic drink mescal; their presence guaranteeing authenticity due to the caterpillars being found exclusively in agave plants. Lice, ants, grasshoppers and cicadas are consumed by the Cheyenne, Snakes and Utes tribes. This is just a snapshot, there are so many other cultures that enjoy eating insects.
Should we be taking a leaf out of other countries’ books and following their culinary adventure into the world of bugs?
Is our repulsion and apprehension misplaced when entomophagy has been a staple for centuries and is still widely practised? What currently presents us as only a novelty may soon become an established and more sustainable protein alternative that a large proportion of people may adopt regularly into their diets. It seems we have been unknowingly eating insects for a long time in most of our food, but can we make the transition to actively accept this practice? The role of bugs in medicine and art has also been important throughout history, and an exploration into these will follow in upcoming blog posts.
Berenbaum, M., 2021. Bugs in the system: insects and their impact on human affairs. pp.177-190.