I’d love to see a US marketing ad for eating ants as part of a balanced breakfast. “Just sprinkle them on your yogurt for a quick and easy boost of protein.”
Edible insects are being promoted as a low-fat, high-protein, and fiber and mineral dense food source. Granted, for some, the mere suggestion may be off-putting, but the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report issued Monday, states that eating insects as a regular dietary staple can combat global hunger, lessen the occurrence of obesity, and benefit the environment.
Entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food, is common in a vast number of cultures in parts Central and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Over 1,900 species of insects are known to be eaten in 80 percent of the world’s nations.
Nearly a third of the global population, some two billion people ingest bugs regularly. Some of the more popular insects devoured are crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, ants, locusts, various beetle grubs like mealworms, beetle larvae, various caterpillar species, and even arachnids like scorpions and tarantulas.
However, it is uncommon in places like the US where some of us dry-heave at the idea of swallowing a grasshopper in the same disgusted ilk as eating raw oysters. Pardon me while I ponder the pleasure of hot sauce on a freshly cracked mollusk. Yum.
Still, there are enthusiasts in the US who enjoy the practice of entomophagy. Likely anticipating the upcoming 17-year cicada emergence, a group from the University of Maryland have, over the years, published an online cookbook called Cicada-Licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas, highlighting the delectable, edible potential of cicadas.
Give me a moment to recall the tell-tell resonance cicadas make, as the sound is indicative of steamy southern summers. At no point have I ever considered, and I quote, “Deep-frying cicadas, skewering them with bamboo picks, and arranging them on a plate with turnip greens, celery, and garlic paste to make the bugs look like they are climbing out of a mud pie into green foliage.” I can see why this would combat obesity, [staving off unpleasant gurgle, slapping hand to mouth]. But to each his/her own.
I digress, the modern principle of gobbling down grubs isn’t all that farfetched or disgusting if you consider the health benefits. An FAO subsidiary, the Forestry Department, says many insects contain the same amount of protein and minerals – such as iron, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, and zinc – as meat, but with healthier fats.
Besides we frequently eat bug parts, we just don’t think about it.
Unbeknownst to the “ignorance is bliss” crowd who don’t read product labels or dietary regulation reports – who by the way may want to skip down a few paragraphs if they want to remain in the dark – bugs are already (intentionally) present in some food items. They are typically used as natural dye.
The cochineal, a scale insect parasitically native to parts of South America and Mexico, produces carminic acid which is used to color pills and enhance the red hue in some popular market yogurts.
There is also the unavoidable presence of what is considered by federal regulators as an “acceptable level” of insect parts in our everyday food. “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of Natural or Unavoidable Defects in Foods That Present No Health Hazards for Humans,” is regularly published by the FDA’s USDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, outlining permissible volumes of insect fragments, eggs, mold, and even feces.
For example, thrips, a winged parasite, are permitted in apple butter and some canned or frozen vegetables. Maggots are typically found in canned vegetables like mushrooms and tomatoes – 20 allowed for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of drained mushrooms, and one to five for every 500 grams (17.6 ounces) of tomato products. Up to 35 fruit fly eggs on average are eaten in a cupful of raisins. An 18-ounce-jar of peanut butter can contain upwards of 145 bug parts and several rodent hairs.
Just try see it as added protein because this type of contamination is prevalent.
As for the environmental impact – according to USA Today, sourcing the UN report – insects on average can convert 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of feed into 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of edible meat. In comparison, cattle require 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of feed to produce a kilogram of meat. In addition, insects raised for food produce fewer environmentally harmful greenhouse gases than livestock.
The two disadvantages to entomophagy are spoilage and toxicity, as spore forming bacteria can pose a safety risk in both cooked and raw insect protein, and harvested insects can be contaminated with pesticides, making them unsuitable for human consumption.