Edible Insects

an illustration of a burger made out of crickets with lettuce and tomato on a sesame bun

With the meat industry being linked to growing global warming issues some people are looking to insects as a new source of protein. We have the Impossible burger and the Beyond burger: where is the beetle burger?

It may come as a shock to find your local grocery store infested with bugs. Imagining fly larvae wiggling around in bulk granola bins, spiders spinning webs over the peaches, or caterpillars munching through bunches of spinach makes the stomach quite queasy. However, the bugs you might find at your grocery store may not be as obvious, nor require fumigation. They could be sitting quietly on shelves, vacuum-sealed and freeze dried. They might be coated in chocolate, or chili-lime flavored. Welcome to the world of edible insects.

Entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs, is nothing new. The idea of eating insects causes many Americans to be squeamish, but this concept is not uncommon outside of the United States. More than 3,000 ethnic groups in 130 countries regularly source their protein intake from insects. “In some places, insects are the only protein that you have. In places like Guinea, for example,” explained UC Davis entomology professor Lynn Kimsey. “There are essentially no mammals; you either eat birds or fish or you eat insects, because you have no other source of protein. So there are places where insects are actually kind of critical.”

For many Westerners, their only impression of eating bugs may be the visual of Simba eating a big, fat worm in The Lion King. But the currently recognized 1,700 edible insect species means a potentially diverse menu, and like all other cuisine, each culture has its own spin on it. You can get Indonesian spiced bee larvae steamed in banana leaves, try deep fried grasshoppers in Thailand, or cut a slice of East African kunga cake, made of compressed flies. Before the West colonized the Americas, locusts and grasshoppers were popular foods among native peoples, and crunchy grasshoppers, or chapulines, are still popular in Mexico today.

In America, the seemingly ingrained “ick factor” can also be a selling point for insects. Many insect based foods are of the novelty variety. A scorpion encased in a strawberry lollipop, a tequila flavored worm sucker, and black ant chocolate wafers are all sold by the California confectionary brand Hotlix. Some believe that these candies do not live up to the potential that edible insects have. These buggy bonbons are often Americans’ first exposure to edible insects, which frames bugs as something to eat on a dare, but not as a real meal. Kimsey, who is also the director at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, said, “People find them entertaining, but they are not really buying them for anything else except entertainment.”

That niche entertainment factor has kept insects in a relatively small (lunch)box. Kevin Bachhuber, the founder of Big Cricket Farms and a consultant for insect-based farms and companies, first tried insects on a trip to Thailand in 2006. In his 2015 TEDx Talk, he reminisced on eating deep-fried crickets at a bar while watching soap operas. “I came back to the U.S. and I was like, ‘Hey friends I ate bugs and it was great!’and they were like ‘Haha, we’re not going to do that.’” Bachhuber put his hopes for American insect snacks away until 2013 when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published a 200 page dossier titled Edible Insects: Future prospects for Food and Feed Security. The document is essentially the edible insect bible, covering everything from insects’ environmental benefits to their perceived economical benefits. The report inspired a lot more interest in insects as a new protein source for humans.

Bachhuber recalls his interest in bugs resurging after the document was published: “The UN was like, ‘hey, we should all eat bugs’, and suddenly everybody was on board, and that is when I moved into the business side of it.” Bachhuber, who founded his own cricket farm in 2014, consults on insect agriculture for both corporate and small enterprise cricket farms, helping them build their businesses.

Insects now had the backing of the United Nations, but still lacked the good PR needed to shift Americans’ reactions from skin crawling pests to a mouthwatering meal. Serena Harrington, a research fellow at Aspire Food Group, an Austin-based insect factory, talked about trying to combat this “ick factor” people have towards eating insects. “Humans have a rational side to their brain,” she said, “but food hits us in a different part of our brain as well. There is definitely an emotional component to it.” Harrington said she believes that the emotional part of our brains is what keeps us from eating insects, but it is that same emotional side that may convert them.

She discussed the experience she had when eating insects for the first time in tandem with her two-year-old daughter. “As a two-year-old, you are tasting and trying everything new for the first time, and so you’re looking to people, adults that you trust with trying things,” she explained. “And so when I offered her some with me to try, she was like, ‘okay’, with no hesitation.” Because Harrington’s daughter was so young, she had no preconceived “ick factor” when it came to eating insects. Harrington hopes to use food’s emotional component to connect people to insects, to make it something special instead of something sickening. “I think the way to really overcome that part of our brain is to make it a moment between people,” said Harrington. “Somebody that you trust, to tell you: it is going to be okay, it is going to be delicious in fact, and let’s try it together.”

With Americans seeming to fall for a new “superfood” every other month, it is almost surprising that insects have not received the same treatment as kale or acai bowls. Most bugs’ tiny, multi-legged bodies are packed with proteins and nutrients that are vital to humans. If a food is able to provide the nine essential amino acids necessary for human health, all on its own, it is considered a “complete protein.” Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and tofu are all complete proteins– and so are the stars of most edible insect brands: crickets. Not only are crickets complete proteins, but they are also packed with vitamin A, riboflavin, and other B vitamins, including B12 which is critical for the function of the nervous system and hard to find in plant-based protein.

It is these nutritional benefits that have groups like Exoprotein and Entomo Farms selling cricket energy bars and cricket protein powder. Jarrod Goldin, founder and VP at Entomo Farms, hopes that insects’ health benefits will be a natural selling point. “[We are] trying to flip the script on what is yucky food and what is not yucky food,” he said. “High fructose, sugary, and highly synthetically processed foods that contribute to diabetes, heart disease, and cancers, are not treats and are not good. Those should be contextualized as the yucky foods.”

Goldin’s main strategy for getting people to eat crickets is to add them subtly, in the form of cricket flour or protein powder, into already existing recipes. “To take stuff that is very traditional that people already know and love, and just add a ton of nutritive and sustainability value to it without really changing the taste or flavor very much at all,” he said.

As the effects of global warming worsen, insects might prove critical meat replacements almost everywhere. Globally, livestock production consumes 30% of crops, 8% of freshwater resources, and produces 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions– and the FAO estimated that by 2050, protein production will need to have doubled to match growing demand.

Aspire Food Group was created in 2013 with the issue of food security in mind. “Across the world, just as time passes, we are going to have too many people for the amount of calories and protein on our planet,” explained Serena Harrington.

Crickets are the main bug that insect farms, like Aspire, are hoping to successfully market as a suitable protein substitute. “When you think about all the resources that are required to farm an animal, [crickets] require far less of those resources than cattle, and still less than other traditional sources of meat that we have available to us,” said Harrington. “So from a water and feed standpoint, they just do not need as much to reach full maturity, they’re smaller, and their growth cycle is much faster.” Insect farms are also not spatially constrained the way that traditional meat farms are, they can be multiple stories high and stack cricket enclosures on top of one another.

However, there is still a lot of research to be done on whether or not crickets, or any other insects, will be the answer to our global protein problem. A 2015 study done at UC Davis, found that the environmental sustainability of crickets depends a lot on what they are fed. When fed high quality feed, similar to what chickens are fed, the crickets reached a harvestable size. But when fed lower-quality feed made of mostly straw and municipal-scale food waste, they died of malnutrition. This seems like a no-brainer, but if crickets are to compete with livestock as a protein, they need to be more economical, and be able to be sustained on cheaper feed not already used by livestock.

While scientists sort out the intricacies of insect feed, others are looking at insects as the feed. Shakara Maggitt, an entomologist and animal scientist, is studying the effects of introducing bugs as livestock fodder, specifically black soldier flies. Maggitt is a member of the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA) an organization that focuses on utilizing insects for agricultural purposes. There have been several studies on pigs and chickens that show that they digested insects easier than corn and soy products, but Maggitt is looking into trying bugs as cattle feed with the hope that consuming insects would reduce methane production. She also sees this as potentially another step towards humans getting comfortable with edible insects. “I think a more indirect route would be really good to get people used to it and kind of grasp the idea of consuming bugs. Because I do not think pushing it in their face right now would be helpful,” said Maggitt. “I do not want it to come off as like a gimmick or like novelty food. I really want people to take and incorporate bugs seriously.”

If their potential health and environmental benefits cannot sway you to try eating bugs, that is okay, because you have definitely already eaten insects. In a 2017 report by Terro, a Pennsylvania pest control company, it was estimated that the average person ingests 140,000 insect pieces (or about two pounds of bugs) every year. You may not be able to taste them, but insect bits can be found in nearly anything: flour, chocolate, coffee, and beer, to name a few. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows and carefully regulates a small amount of insect fragments in food not because they are trying to make us all insectivores, but because it is nearly impossible, and very expensive, to ensure complete decontamination in the processed food supply.

Since entomophagy is still a relatively niche food subculture in the U.S., and the FDA is a lot more concerned about people eating insects not on purpose, the guidelines for munching down on mealworms are relatively short. Insects are considered food if they are eaten intentionally. Like other foods they have to be clean and “wholesome.” meaning not contaminated with toxins or filth. The insects also have to be reared specifically to be eaten by humans, and cannot be wild caught or reared for pet food. This is to ensure that proper food laws are followed and there is less risk of potential contamination, since pet food is less regulated than human food and wild-caught means wild card when it comes to sanitation. So while you certainly could share a grub with your bearded dragon, or scoop up ladybugs by the handful in a field, it is not recommended by the FDA.

Insects appear in houses seemingly by magic, their exoskeletons fit for squeezing through the smallest gaps in our floorboards– so how do these cricket farms control containment? A cow escaping a farm could be easily sighted and apprehended, but a swarm of crickets escaping a factory gives the imagination imagery of biblical plagues of locusts. Harrington claimed that Aspire’s offices were well quarantined, and that any crickets when escaped were promptly cleaned up. “Occasionally a cricket chooses to remember that they have wings and fly out,” she said.

However, even if a large batch of crickets were to escape, this ultimately would not affect the local ecosystem that drastically, according to Kimsey. “If you have a massive release of crickets, yeah, they’d be there for a while,” she said. “But they would mostly hang a few days, and then the birds would be very happy and the rats, but the larger impact is what you’re seeing with the pet trade.” The factory-farmed crickets locked up in their bins for human consumption are not the main threat, but rather the untracked bugs in the mail service.

For many pet owners that take care of insectivores like lizards or birds, specialty bugs are often flown in and raised for consumption. Unfortunately, this leads to non-native species escaping into the environment. “So here in California, for example, now we have six exotic cockroaches well established in the state, thanks to the pet trade,” explained Kimsey. “So the commonest cricket in the state now is a European species that’s raised in the pet trade, and there’s essentially no regulation.” It is impossible to extract these non-native species from the environment without harming native species, so they continue to wreak havoc unchallenged.

Insects do have a leg up (or maybe six) on the meat industry when it comes to disease regulation. Because insects are so far removed from humans on the evolutionary chain, there is no possibility of new diseases jumping from insects to humans. Unlike pigs with the swine flu and birds with the bird flu, bugs can only carry human diseases, and cannot mutate new ones. Even so, the risk of factory farmed insects carrying human diseases is low, explained Maggitt. “You have to think about it for food consumption,” she said. “[Insects] are going through a process. They are usually roasted at high temperatures, and they are already kept in a facility where they are not being exposed to any other type of viruses or bacteria that they possibly could pick up and pass along.”

Even insects that we see as dangerous, such as hornets or scorpions, can be eaten. “Things that we view as being toxic, for one reason, might be perfectly edible, some other way,” explained Kimsey. “For example, if you inject orange juice in your skin it will kill you, but drinking it? No problem.” There are some studies that imply that people with shellfish allergies may have adverse reactions when eating insects, as the two are somewhat related evolution-wise. However, more research needs to be done, and some edible insects already come with this allergy warning.

While the thought of eating a bug still may freak most people out, the experience is often described as being incredibly underwhelming. “Be prepared to be really disappointed because it is just going to taste like ordinary food, even the whole roasted crickets or the seasoned crickets,” said Jarrod Goldin. “There is no euphoric panacea of an experience that is going to blow you away.” Crickets usually taste exactly how they are flavored, with Shakara Maggitt comparing them to a roasted sunflower seed and this author comparing them to the texture of puffed rice. Both the flours and the protein powders are also inconspicuous, as Serena Harrington says she mixes her peanut butter with cricket powder and barely notices a difference.

Society’s acceptance of a praying mantis in every picnic basket may come quicker than expected. Every October, popular Portland-based ice creamery Salt & Straw, scoops up large servings of Creepy Crawly Critters matcha ice cream with chocolate-covered crickets and coconut-brittle mealworms. Swiss grocery store Coop has been selling mealworm burgers and meatballs since 2017. Seattle Mariners baseball fans have long been chowing down on grasshopper chapulines sold at the stadium.

With all that is being offered in the edible insect world, it is not too long until restaurants start offering “bug du jour” or soup-and-a-half-spider. In fact, maybe the next time you find a bug on your plate you wont ask for a refund, but for more.

Artwork by Elizabeth Oswalt