Okay, I admit insects are rather revolting. Could it be because they have three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and one pair of antennae? Or is it for some deeper, more philosophical reason?
After all, as the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, says, food is both sustenance and symbol. Indeed, Sartre writes that he found crabs and lobsters revolting because they reminded him of insects. Instead, he liked cakes and pastries because “the appearance, the putting together, and even the taste have been thought out by man and made on purpose.” He even preferred canned fruits and vegetables to fresh produce, reasoning that the processing made the food more of a man-made product, and therefore better. Fresh produce by contrast, he believed, was “too natural.”
However, these days posh, intellectual folk eat insects at restaurants – like the Wahaca in London which serves chilli-fried grasshoppers, while in Thailand many people have long enjoyed deep fried crickets as a snack taken with a glass of beer.
Different cultures, different snacks.
In Germany, these days people fry crickets and moths in countries, and in Belgium supermarkets sell a spread made from mealworms, carrots and tomatoes. Everywhere, Aketta cricket flour admired for its ‘earthy and nutty taste’ is used to make things like muffins and chocolate brownies.
Locusts have long been considered a delicacy and eaten in many African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries, cooked in many ways, especially fried, smoked, or dried. The Bible records that John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey while living in the wilderness. The Torah, which disallows the use of most insects as food, makes a special exception for red, yellow, spotted grey, and the white ones! In Islamic tradition, eating locusts is considered halal and historical accounts of the Prophet Muhammad eating them during military raids celebrated. Indeed, today, consumption of insects spikes around Ramadan.
[[ As the anthropologist William Leonard of Northwe stern University wrote in Scientific American in 2002.
“Too often modern health problems are portrayed as the result of eating ‘bad’ foods that are departures from the natural human diet…This is a fundamentally flawed approach to assessing human nutritional needs,” Leonard wrote. “Our species was not designed to subsist on a single, optimal diet. What is remarkable about human beings is the extraordinary variety of what we eat.” ]]
Yet there are still no insect burgers in the US, no insect and chips shops in Britain, nor even insect quiches in France, a country prepared to eat snails. Insects remain instead an ‘overlooked protein supply’, as the United Nations has complained.
Western countries don’t make much, if any, use of insects as food, though they are valued as a tasty, convenient source of protein in many other cultures.
That said, insect protein is in many more things than you might imagine. It is claimed that 80% of the world already eats bugs. Germans have a taste for bee larvae, while in France and Belgium people enjoy caterpillars. In South Africa, locusts, caterpillars and mopane worms are the thing. If still only a few of us fry up crickets and moths, many more consume the same in ground-up form. In fact, few of us will not have eaten (or drunk) some small portion of insects.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization sees insects as a sustainable source of good quality protein – which has smaller environmental footprint than conventional meats. To illustrate this point, they give as an example, the fact that crickets need only one eighth of the food input that cattle do to provide, ultimately, the same amount of protein suitable for humans.
In case you were wondering, locusts yield about five times more edible protein per unit of fodder than cattle, and produce lower levels of greenhouse gases in the process. A serving of 100 g of desert locust in fact provides 11.5 g of fat, 53.5% of which is unsaturated, and 286 mg of cholesterol.
Pioneering the new kinds of farming is a food production unit near Los Angeles in the US, which has recently started rearing what it describes as ‘micro-livestock’. These are crickets and mealworms. Mealworms sound promising – if you ignore the worm bit – but they are in reality black beetles at the, particularly yucky, larval sage. They’ve long been used for things like baiting fish hooks and indeed as food for aquariums.
However, if the eating preferences of fish influence you to try the meal worms, bear in mind that commercial suppliers use hormones to promote their development, a practice that not everyone considers safe for humans.
Nonetheless, environmental pressures being what they are, insects probably have to be the future of food. The moral of the story though, is to choose your insects very carefully!