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Bug Grub: Why a Cricket-Like Cuisine is on the Horizon

June 18, 2013
Find Rob Masterson, RD, CNSC on Twitter @RobMastersonRD

Imagine a scenario in which you are at a restaurant, enjoying a delicious meal, having a terrific time dining with a friend when you hear a conversation one table over like this:

Customer: “Excuse me, I have a bug on my plate.”
Waiter: “Yes, how does it taste?”

A response like this in a typical U.S. restaurant and a bad tip would likely be the least of the waiter’s concerns. But could this be an ordinary conversation held at a respectable dining establishment in the future? Believe me when I tell you, it already is.

Take the Los Angeles restaurant Typhoon, for example. A popular spot which has offered Pan Asian cuisine for over 18 years proudly dons a menu that includes Singapore-style scorpions and Taiwanese crickets, among other insect dishes.

The Northern Thai restaurant Sticky Rice in Chicago offers fried worms (bamboo caterpillars) on their menu. And that’s not all—they also serve a dish called khai jiaw khai mod, which is a Thai-style omelet with ant eggs. As one reviewer boasts, “It’s a delicious, fluffy omelet filled with salty, squishy half-inch-long sacs of tiny black ant eggs.”

In the mood for Mexican cuisine? New York City’s Toloache, a contemporary Mexican bistro, has a menu with several different varieties of tacos including Chapulines (grasshoppers) served with onion and jalapeños.

NOT YOUR THING? CHANCES ARE YOU’VE ALREADY EATEN INSECTS, ANYWAYS.

Don’t have the intestinal fortitude to stomach such exotic and adventurous food? You might be selling yourself short. Turns out, the average American eats around one pound of insects each year through unavoidable and allowed amounts in common foods like peanut butter and rice. These tolerable and non-hazardous amounts, regulated by the FDA, are known as The Food Defect Action Levels. But unlike the dishes mentioned above, these little “additions” to food are unintentional. So why are certain amounts of insects allowed in our food? Here’s what the FDA has stated:

“The FDA set these action levels because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”

In all honesty, this sort of thing does seem unavoidable. But accidental consumption aside, some insects actually have quite an impressive resume when it comes to reasons for eating them. Just check out a few of the benefits being touted by entomophagy (consuming insects for food) supporters below and maybe you’ll see why a bug you squash today could end up being served on a plate tomorrow.

THE ENVIRONMENT

With the considerable amount of resources such as feed and water needed to raise traditional sources of protein like chicken and beef, raising insects for food require much less. Most insects raised for human consumption don’t need grain for feed thus saving more crops for humans to eat. Add up the other resources needed to transport common livestock as well as the CO2 produced by the livestock themselves and it’s easy to see which choice is more environmentally friendly.

THE ECONOMY

Besides production expenses and the cost of feed a growing global population has put a higher demand on protein sources which has driven cost up in many parts of the world for beef, chicken, and other common protein sources. Insects on the other hand, reproduce at an extremely high rate and can be farmed on the cheap.

THE NUTRITION

To many, the nutritive value of insects may come as a shock. Many are good sources of calcium, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, and other nutrients like fiber. Catepillars for example, are high in protein and iron (28.2 g and 35.5 mg per 100 g, respectively). Various species are also high in protein, carbohydrates, and low in fat.  In many aspects, they are comparative or superior in nutrition to other animal food sources.

IS IT REALLY ALL THAT CRAZY?

For many, the concept of eating insects can seem, for a lack of a better word…icky. To think that the majority of the world would embrace crickets, beetles, ants, caterpillars, and other species of insects as a primary food source would be a mistake at this point. But to assume insects are an inferior food source utilized only by undeveloped countries would be a mistake as well. In many places all over the world, both undeveloped and developed, it’s not uncommon to see dishes that are considered delicacies and are centered on insects.

Given time, along with global pressures to produce cheaper, earth-friendlier foods that still provide adequate nutrition for an ever increasing world population and it doesn’t seem so unlikely to occur in the future. I’m not saying to expect your local McDonald’s to offer a Big Mac with a side of beetles anytime soon but don’t be surprised to see pockets of restaurants to pop up that offer exotic foods like those at Typhoon, Sticky Rice, or Toloache. And when they do, consider trying them. If you’re willing to put misconceptions aside, insects have the potential to be a food source that offers both taste and nutrition.

Rob Masterson on Twitter.

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