Edible insects: overcoming the ‘ick’ factor

By Joan Conrow

July 23, 2018

As the world struggles to feed a growing population, without further harming the environment, attention has turned to introducing lab-grown meat as a way to obtain protein. But what about shifting to insects?

Though most Western foodies would respond with a resounding “ick,” Julie Lesnik, an assistant professor of anthropology at Wayne State University, doesn’t think it’s so far-fetched. As she argues in her new book, Edible Insects and Human Evolution, humans have been farming and eating insects throughout their history, as evidenced by bone tools dating back 1.7 million years discovered in South Africa.

What’s more, farming insects is a form of sustainable agriculture, requiring far less land and inputs than other high-protein food sources — without the associated problems of manure and greenhouse gas emissions. One study shows they’re 10 times as efficient as traditional livestock production. They’re also ideally suited to small-holder operations.

And given some of the current dietary fads that are sweeping the United States, what could be more “natural” or “paleo” than consuming adult bugs, or their eggs and larvae? Think grasshopper tacos, boiled fresh termites or dehydrated mealworms — three delicacies that are currently consumed in other regions.

After all, insects are a nutritional powerhouse: high in protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins, and low in carbohydrates and fat.

Lesnik, in a recent conversation with NPR’s Paul Chisholm, explained that our current revulsion “starts from an innocent environmental reason. The number of desirable insects for food drops as you get further away from the equator. Northern areas like Europe have seasons that are cold for part of the year. So edible insects were never a major part of European history because they weren’t readily available.”

It all got a bit darker when Europeans started exploring and encountered North Americans, who ate unfamiliar things like insects. Given that Europeans widely regarded North America’s indigenous inhabitants as inferior, insect consumption was quickly stigmatized.  As Lesnik noted: “It was immediately turned into an ‘us versus them’ thing. ‘Civilized’ Europeans would never think of eating bugs.”

Though some Westerners consider insects to be “dirty,” Lesnik insists “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating insects if they’re cleaned, cooked, and produced for human consumption.” The practice is known as entomophagy. But insect-based foods aren’t likely to end up on supermarket shelves anytime soon, in part because there are no federal guidelines for ensuring safety and reassuring the big grocery chains. Instead, regulations vary state by state.

There’s also a supply problem, she said. Although some companies are keen to manufacture cricket-based protein bars and other snack foods, the existing cricket farms can’t meet the demand.

Meanwhile, US rejection of this time-honored, high-protein food source has implications for people in developing nations.

“Our culture tends to permeate the globalized economy,” Lesnik told NPR. “Often, kids in developing countries don’t want to eat insects because it’s not what we’re eating in America or Europe. Their grandparents may have eaten insects every day, but they have no interest in doing that. They want to eat the packaged food from the grocery store that the rest of the world eats. And so if we eliminate insects without a reasonable replacement, we just eliminate nutrients from their diet.”

Lesnik believes that attitude can change. As US consumers become more concerned about the environmental impacts of agriculture, especially livestock production, and embrace diversity and novelty in their diets, they may be willing to accept insects on their dinner plates. It could also become a matter of necessity if climate change disrupts agriculture as we know it.

But like most profound shifts, it won’t happen overnight. American and European kids will need to be taught that insects are a valuable food source, which means their parents first must accept the idea that bugs are a compelling culinary consideration.