According to a common piece of folklore, you swallowed eight spiders in your sleep last year. Urban legend or not, the very thought of spiders crawling into your mouth while you slumber likely triggers many unpleasant sensations, from mild discomfort to outright repulsion. After all, insects and spiders are gross critters that belong outside in the dirt, not inside our home. And certainly, not inside our mouths while we sleep.
…but who says they can’t also be food?
Called “entomophagy,” the practice of eating bugs is observed in cultures all around the world. It is most common across rural parts of Africa and Asia, especially during the rainy seasons when hunting for big game is difficult. Although relatively rare in Europe and North America, you can still find bug-based delectables if you know where to look. In Italy, you can savor a Sardinian delicacy called casu marzu: a soft block of sheep milk cheese wriggling with an infestation of live maggots. Some restaurants in and around Mexico City might serve escamole, which looks deceptively like a plate of butter-fried rice served with red sauce and an avocado. Just don’t tell your weak-stomached friends that they are actually eating a plate full of ant larvae.
For most Americans, a bowl of insects is a hard pass. There is a culturally-embedded taboo surrounding insects that prevents entomophagy from gaining acceptance. Ever since humankind traded the nomadic life for the stability of agriculture, bugs came to be associated with tremendous setbacks in crop yields or production. Just picture a swarm of locusts descending upon a field, dense with tens of thousands of buzzing bodies in large enough quantities to darken the sky. Also, some insects are unsanitary carriers of disease, and this trait has certainly made them less palatable to humans. Think of flies crawling around fresh fecal matter, or a parasitic mosquito with its distended abdomen full of blood. At this point, most people would have lost their appetite.
But, if we can overcome our squeamishness and do some research into entomophagy, we will find that not all insects are verminous threats to public health. In fact, under the right circumstances, there are actually health benefits to engaging in the practice of eating bugs. First off, insects are high in protein, with some caterpillars being up to 80% dry weight in protein (compared to a paltry 25% protein for chicken). Many species contain the full gamut of essential amino acids that our bodies need for everyday processes. They contain a high concentration of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, both desirable forms of edible fats that are most often found in fish. They are rich in many nutrients that are essential for a well-rounded diet, such as copper, iron, magnesium, zinc, and more. In short, a dinner of insect protein can serve as a great substitute for animal meats.
There are also environmental benefits to incorporating bugs into our diets. By trading our traditional sources of protein with insect protein, we can decrease the impact of one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases: industrial cattle farming. Insects are very efficient at converting their own food intake into edible body mass. Producing 1 kg of edible cow protein requires about 10 kg of grain protein, but to get the same 1 kg mass of protein from crickets, only 1.7 kg of feed is needed. Producing feed is energetically expensive. Before becoming meals for animals, grain must be planted, watered, and harvested — all processes that use energy and produce greenhouse gases. Because less feed is required to produce more edible protein, fewer resources are used in raising bugs than are used on a traditional animal farm. Also, insects themselves create very little greenhouse gases – cattle and other ruminants are estimated to create about one fifth of the world’s methane.
Not quite brave enough to try them for yourself? Here’s a few common insects that might make up the meal of the future, along with a brief description of their flavor profile.
- Ants are a little spicy and sour, likely due to the high concentration of formic acid that many ant species use as a defense. In fact, “formic” comes from the Latin word for ant.
- The larvae of leopard moths, or the witchetty grub as the Aboriginal Australians call them, tastes like almonds. Their wood-based diet likely imparts this flavor to the bodies. When cooked correctly, the skin is lightly roasted and crispy while the insides remain gooey.
- Scorpions are a common sight at open air markets in China. Often fried or grilled, these bite-sized snacks have been likened to crispy chicken skin. Also, don’t sweat the poison: the toxin proteins denature when exposed to high heat, making cooked scorpions safe for consumption.
Odds are good that bugs probably won’t make it to your dinner table any time soon. But before making a judgment about the future of entomophagy, consider for a moment the history of another food: Washing up in giant piles on shore, they were a poor man’s protein, since they were eaten only during tough financial times or by prisoners and slaves. Hundreds of years later, workers demanded in their contracts that they are not served these bottom-dwelling mud creatures more than two times a week, since their flavor was so repulsive. Care to guess which animal once disgusted Americans?
As of writing, a lobster tail dinner costs $44.
Austin Lim is a dancer, artist, lover of all things brain-related, and a professional lecturer in Neuroscience at DePaul University. He holds a Ph.D. in Neurobiology from The University of Chicago. You can find him on Twitter and on his own website.