In the 1973 children's book "How to Eat Fried Worms," Billy, the young protagonist, downs 15 worms in 15 days for 50 bucks. On the American game show "Fear Factor," contestants wolfed down larvae, cockroaches and other insects by the handful for a shot at $50,000. It seems that in Western culture, the only time anyone eats an insect is on a bet or a dare. This isn't true in much of the rest of the world. Aside from in the United States, Canada and Europe, most cultures eat insects for their taste, nutritional value and availability.
The practice is called entomophagy. Chimpanzees, aardvarks, bears, moles, shrews and bats are just a few mammals aside from humans that eat insects. Many insects eat other insects -- they're known as assassin or ambush bugs. Some even go Hannibal Lecter on their own kind. Insects are high in nutritional value, low in fat and inexpensive. So why do Americans and Europeans go out of their way to avoid eating them -- even going so far as to spray their fruits and vegetables with dangerous pesticides? It's called a cultural taboo.
What many of these folks don't realize is that they consume loads of insects every year without knowing it. The Food and Drug Administration has a list of the amount of insects they allow in packaged food in a report called "The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans." If you're brave, you can look this list over to find that five fly eggs or one maggot is allowed in a can of fruit juice. How does 800 insect fragments in your ground cinnamon sound? Do 30 fly eggs or two maggots in your spaghetti sauce make your mouth water? Give this some thought next time you shop for your prepackaged food.
In this article, we'll see what the hullabaloo is over entomophagy. We'll look at the history of the practice, what cultures are doing it and how the bugs are typically prepared. We'll also give you an idea of what some of these crawly critters taste like and offer some tasty recipes if you're interested in giving entomophagy a shot.
History of Eating Insects
The history of entomophagy is rich and full of, well, bugs. As man evolved from ape, the hunters and gatherers collected more than edible plants. They set their sights on insects. They were everywhere, and other animals ate them, so why not? In fact, these early humans probably took their cues on which ones were tasty by observing the animals in the area. Years later, the Romans and Greeks would dine on beetle larvae and locusts. Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle even wrote about harvesting tasty cicadas.
If that's not enough, we'll get Biblical on you. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, the writers did a nice job of outlining the foods that are forbidden and permissible to consume. Off-limits were rabbits, pigs, pelicans, mice, turtles and weasels. Apparently our Biblical ancestors were a bit less choosy than we are today. Then in Leviticus 11:22, it says "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." With the green light clearly given, beetles and grasshoppers in Israel got a little nervous. John the Baptist lived in the desert for months at a time, living on locusts and honeycomb.
Locusts were a nutritious, cheap and plentiful food source for ancient Algerians. They'd collect them by the thousands and prepare them by boiling them in salt water and drying them in the sun. Australian Aborigines made meals of moths but proved picky in the preparation. After cooking them in sand, they burned off the wings and legs and sifted the moth through a net to remove the head, leaving nothing but delectable moth meat. The Aborigines were, and continue to be, entomophagists. They eat honey pot ants and witchety grubs -- the larvae of the moths. These grubs can be eaten raw, and when cooked taste like roasted almonds. Or so they say.
In the next section, we'll look at entomophagy in today's world.
Today, most cultures around the globe feast on insects. There are 1,417 species of edible insects and nearly 3,000 ethnic groups that currently practice entomophagy around the world [source: Ramos-Elorduy]. Most of these insects are eaten in the larval and pupal stages, though some are good all the way into adulthood. Topping the list of edibles is the beetle, with 344 varieties to choose from for dinner. Ants, bees and wasps are close behind with 314. Butterflies, moths, grasshoppers and crickets are the other heavy hitters.
So who's doing all of this bug eating? Asians lead the way. All over Asia, moth larvae, crickets, moth pupae, beetles and dragonflies are eaten. Crickets are dry-roasted for snacking or cooked into rice. The larvae are added to soups, stews and stir-fried meals. The Japanese consider the silk moth pupae a delicacy. But none of these hold a candle to the giant water bug. This critter is a favorite in Asia. It can be roasted and eaten whole or ground into a paste for sauces.
Africans also enjoy the crickets and grasshoppers, but mix things up a little by eating termites and caterpillars, too. Things get a little wacky in South America. Here, arthropods are often found on the menu. Scorpions and even tarantulas are cooked and eaten with regularity. Tarantulas are said to be a little on the greasy side, and the taste often leaves brave westerners with a loss for words. Peter Menzel, author of "Man Eating Bugs" describes it this way: "If day-old chickens had no bones, had hair instead of feathers, and were the size of newborn sparrow, they might taste like tarantulas" [source: Menzel]. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The fact that most Americans and Europeans might find eating arthropods gross is due to cultural bias and history. Once farming and raising animals for consumption became the norm, insects became the enemy. After all these years of trying to get rid of insects, it's hard to turn around and consider them food. There's also a bit of hypocrisy going on here. Lobsters and crabs are both crustaceans, but they're prized as expensive seafood instead of an odd delicacy like their spider relatives. Most insects are much cleaner than lobsters and crabs, too. Their diet of clean grass sets them apart from these oceanic vacuum cleaners that eat whatever refuse they can scavenge from the ocean's floor.
In the next section, we'll look at the benefits of entomophagy.
Benefits of Eating Bugs
The benefits of consuming insects are multifold, starting with the fact that they're good for you. Consider the following: 100 grams of crickets contains 121 calories. Only 49.5 calories come from fat. Where you really see the nutritional value is in the 12.9 grams of protein and 75.8 milligrams of iron. They also have about 5 grams of carbohydrates. If you're watching your figure and want to cut down on the carbs, go with a silk worm pupae or a nice steaming bowl of termites. Neither of these has any carbohydrates, and they're both great sources of protein and calories. But if it's protein you seek, look no further than the caterpillar. These little fellows pack a walloping 28 grams of protein per 100 grams [source: Lyon]. They're also loaded with iron, thiamine and niacin. You may know those last two by their more common names -- vitamins B1 and B3.
Compare the nutritional value of insects to beef and even fish and it's pretty clear which one is the smart food. While having protein levels on par with caterpillars, lean ground beef and cod come up short in iron and vitamin levels. Crickets also contain a lot of calcium, which we know is good for bone development. Besides nutritional value, insects are also abundant and environmentally sustainable. Farming and harvesting insects takes very little water and transport fuel compared to livestock, grains and even vegetables. It's also more efficient than raising cattle. One hundred pounds of feed produces 10 pounds of beef. The same amount of feed would produce more than four times that amount in crickets [source: National Geographic]. If America and Europe got on board, insects could help to provide a sustainable food source for the future.
So where do you get these things? Well, it's best to not venture into your backyard seeking beetles or termites. Chances are, anything in an urban area will be flush with pesticides. Your best bet is to buy them or raise them yourself. Pet stores and bait shops will have mealworms and crickets. You can also special order most anything from insect suppliers on the Internet.
There are a couple of things you should do before eating insects. To freshen them up, feed them fresh grains for a couple of days. This will clean out anything unsavory they may have eaten. Even though many insects can be eaten raw, you'll want to cook them to make sure it's safe and to improve the taste. Wash them with water and put them in the freezer for about 15 minutes to kill them. You may want to cut the heads from the worms, though you don't need to. Crickets can have their legs and wings removed -- there's not much meat there anyway.
If you're in a survival situation, insects may save your life. But be careful what you eat, as some can be toxic. It's doubtful that you'll die from eating a forbidden bug, but you can get sick. One common rule of thumb you can follow is:
Red, orange yellow, forget this fellow.
Black, green or brown, wolf it down.
Avoid eating brightly colored bugs or ones that have a strong odor. This odor is their way of saying "buzz off," and you should do just that. If you're an outdoor enthusiast, the safest thing to do is keep a book of edible plants and insects in your emergency kit.
For more information on strange foods and other oddities, please crawl ahead to the following page.
How Entomophagy Works: Author's Note
One thing I was surprised to learn through my research was how ubiquitous the practice of eating insects is. I knew it was fairly commonplace in some parts of the world, but the fact that it happens pretty much everywhere outside of Europe, Canada and the United States really caught me off guard. Insects are low in fat, high in nutritional value and, let's face it, they're everywhere. The omnipresence of insects is one of the main reasons they're dinner in most parts of the world -- poorer cultures have more than 1,400 species of edible insect to choose from. If you're part of one of the 3,000 ethnic groups that regularly dines on insects, my hope is that I did the topic justice in the face of its taboo status in the United States.
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Entomophagy: Cheat Sheet
Stuff you need to know:
- If you're into insects for dinner, check out the beetle. There are almost 350 edible beetle varieties alone.
- In South America, arthropods are commonly eaten, with tarantulas and scorpions even making the menu.
- The reason that insects are a taboo in Europe and other Western countries is because of their reliance on farming. For a farmer, insects are the enemy.