Feeding People: Crunching on Crickets

by Caroline Barlott

cricket-webThe idea of eating insects might make some people’s stomach churn. But if we can get past our cultural bias, these crunchy arthropods might be the future of sustainable, nutritious and high-end plates.

Avocados and bananas are positioned near a bank of windows in the downtown location of Earth’s General Store, while teas, rice, beans and all the non-perishables line the aisles. It’s like most grocery stores except, the focus is on organic sustainable food.

But one corner of the store showcases items that you probably haven’t seen in your typical big-box grocer—at least not in this corner of the globe. Hanging from a rack are several bags full of bugs, including seasoned whole crickets and mealworms along with cricket flour that can be used to bake muffins or cakes.

While owner Michael Kalmanovitch is a vegetarian and isn’t interested in sampling the edible insects, he believes the bugs he’s been carrying in his store since November are a great source of protein for those interested in a healthy and environmentally sustainable product. He’s not alone. In 2013, the United Nations released a report that stated eating insects and using them as feed for livestock could increase food security, while decreasing our impact on the Earth’s resources.

Eating insects is not a new concept invented for the adventurous. For centuries, many individuals from around the world have dined on everything from silkworm larvae to scorpions along with hundreds of other insect species. But in North America and Europe, eating bugs is viewed as foreign at best, and completely repulsive at worst.

In other words, in this part of the world, insects aren’t even generally viewed as food. Instead, they’re often looked at as something that’s a threat to our food supplies. The King’s University psychology professor Heather Looy, who studies people’s attitudes towards eating bugs, says individuals in North America and Europe look at insects as one homogenous, repugnant group. And our attitudes extend beyond the insects, believing anything they’ve touched has become contaminated, creating a big environmental problem, according to Looy.

“It leads us to waste a lot of food because people will not buy food that has been affected by insect presence,” she says. “So, it leads to the overuse of pesticides which means that you kill the beneficial insects along with the pests. It means pesticide run-off can get into the water table and affect the eco-system. That can have all kinds of ripple effects.”]

And the ripple effects extend beyond our environment to the lives of people living in other parts of the world. As some villages in Africa switch from subsistence farming to single crop agriculture, pesticides are used to eradicate colonies of insects that were once a source of protein, especially for children. As a result, levels of anemia rise, explains Looy. Those from the West who instigated this new plan didn’t think of the insects as food, and the people of the village didn’t want to talk about it, understanding that western people would pity them for eating something they find distasteful.

But looking at insects as a dirty, disease- ridden, last resort option for the poor is simply incorrect, says Looy. For one thing, Jarrod Goldin, co-founder of Next Millennium Farms—the producers that grow the bugs carried at Earth’s General Store—says insects have very different DNA from humans. And that’s a good thing, he says, because the further away our DNA is from our food source, the less chance there is for transference of illness.

There are plenty of direct benefits to eating insects as well—they’re packed full of nutrition. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ document, Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, meal worms are just slightly lower in protein than beef, comparable in mineral content, generally have a higher vitamin content and have a lower fat content than their meat counterparts.

Meanwhile, the environmental benefits are substantial. According to Goldin, it takes about 100 gallons of water to produce 10 grams of meat protein, while one gallon of water can produce 10 grams of insect protein. Also, insects grow quickly—they require just six weeks to mature—which means the amount of feed and electricity needed to raise them is far less than traditional meat livestock. Not only that but insect farmers are able to use leftover stalks or husks from other crops to further prevent extra waste.

The fact that a company exists in Canada that actually processes insects for human food is a testament that things are changing. Prior to Next Millennium Farms’ start in 2013, you could only order edible insects from other countries, and in many cases, the products catered to the novelty or gross- out factor, including beetles in lollypops, or chocolate covered ants.

While professor Looy would like to see people’s ideas shift about bugs, she says it is important that those curious about experimenting with insects do so safely. There are far too many risks with trying to hunt insects on your own. “Just like you wouldn’t go out into a field and take a random bite out of a cow, you shouldn’t just go out into a field and pop a cricket in your mouth,” she says. There are potential contaminants that could be involved from pesticides and other chemicals, plus most people would not know the edible insects from the inedible ones. It’s best to go with a grower who is transparent about how the bugs are fed and looked after.

Looy believes there is hope that insects will become the next big hit on restaurant plates, not unlike other once taboo foods like sushi, though she admits insects face a whole other hurdle—collectively we’ve never really thought of them as food in the first place.

The attitude is especially perplexing when considering the fact that crustaceans such as lobster and shrimp are considered delicacies. Prior to cooking, crickets and shrimp look strikingly similar, which shouldn’t be a surprise since they are both arthropods. And yet, shrimp are considered a high- end food, while their country cricket cousins are relegated to the bottom of the slop barrel.

“Shrimp feed on decaying matter on the bottom of the ocean; what they eat is really gross. And we don’t have a problem culturally that humans can eat them. Crickets, locusts and scorpions are vegetarians, they eat fruit and plants, fresh stuff,” says Looy. “So, if you’re going to be rational about what you’re going to eat, you would flip the categories. But we don’t because it’s
not about that.” Because, she says, our aversion to insects as food is simply not rational.

Despite having tasted meal worms, crickets, honey bee larvae, locusts, and flies, among others, Looy still struggles with her own gag reflex when eating them. But she is gradually seeing progress, and while she doesn’t believe everyone needs to run out and start frying up some crickets, she believes that by changing our attitudes towards bugs, there will be strong environmental and social benefits.

Caroline Barlott is a freelance writer whose goal is to bake cricket cupcakes for her next dinner party.