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Insects as a Food Source

Entomophagy—the fancy Latin term for eating insects—is beginning to catch on in the Western Hemisphere

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What foods can't you get on a stick these days? Image courtesy of Flickr user Aaron T. Goodman.

Earlier this month, an ice cream shop in Columbia, Missouri decided to take advantage of the summertime resurgence of cicadas. Employees caught the critters in their backyards, boiled them, coated them in brown sugar and milk chocolate and then added them to a batch of ice cream. The insects are perfectly safe to eat and enough ice cream connoisseurs were unfazed by the “ick” factor of eating bugs that the batch quickly sold out. (One patron compared the cicada’s flavor to peanuts.) However, because there are no regulations regarding the preparation of cicadas for mass consumption, the health department stepped in and asked that the store discontinue that particular flavor. Creepy crawly cuisine may be way off the average person’s radar, but entomophagy—the fancy Latin term for eating insects—is beginning to gain attention in the Western Hemisphere.

The practice of eating bugs dates back millennia. In scripture, the book of Leviticus lays out laws and codes for day-to-day living in the ancient world, including diet. While Chapter 11, verses 6 to 8 puts the kibosh on eating rabbit and pork, verse 22 gives the green light to eating certain insects: ”Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.” (Other translations also include katydids.) In present-day cultures, bugs have gone so far as to attain delicacy status—be it the fried caterpillars served in Africa, grasshoppers with soy sauce in Japan or water boatman eggs in Mexico city, which are supposed to have a caviar-like flavor and can cost more than beef. Even some of Washington, D.C.’s upscale dining spots offer exotic spins on familiar foods, such as tacos stuffed with grasshoppers.

But why even look to bugs as a food source? First off, certain bugs, such as caterpillars, have a protein content that is comparable to beef. Second, farm-raising bugs is a big energy saver. Raising livestock is problematic because of the amount of energy required to create those neatly packaged cutlets at your local grocery store. Large chunks of land are set aside to produce feed and for the animals to live and breed, not to mention the fossil fuels needed to transport animals from farm to slaughterhouse and then to market. And, at least with the beef industry, cattle produce more greenhouse gases than cars, contributing to global warming.

Then there’s the matter of the resources it takes to fatten up an animal until it’s ready for the table. When the Wall Street Journal broke down the numbers, the same 10 pounds of feed used to produce 1 pound of beef or five pounds of chicken could also yield up to six pounds of insect meat. Furthermore, while we may think insects are dirty and unhealthy, recall mad cow disease and salmonella and the risk that those meat-borne pathogens pose to us humans. And certain bugs are fortified with fats and vitamins that could help fend of malnutrition and starvation. With the United Nations predicting we will have one-third more mouths to feed by 2050, while still trying to deal with existing issues of hunger and starvation, finding alternate, sustainable protein sources will become even more urgent.

In the meantime, summer is here and I’m sure you’ve noticed that bugs are in abundance. But if you’re feeling adventurous, there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about indulging in a six-legged snack:

1. Not all insects are edible. However, of the approximately 6 million species of insects crawling around, about 1,400 of them have been documented to be safe for human consumption. Do your homework beforehand.

2. If you are allergic to shellfish or chocolate, avoid eating insects.

3. Insects in your backyard may have been exposed to pesticides. It is unclear if pesticide residues on garden-variety bugs are harmful to humans if consumed, but if you’re looking to get insect-savvy in the kitchen, your safest bet is to buy farm-raised bugs. You may also be able to find some canned bugs, such as silkworm pupa, at an Asian grocery store.

Still ready and willing to take the plunge? There are a few bug cookbooks on the market, as well as the website Insects are Food, which features a continuously growing list of recipes and a list of places where you can buy your creepy crawlies. And yes, there’s even a recipe category devoted entirely to cicadas. But sadly, none of them are for ice cream.

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