On November 3rd, Salon, the liberal news website, reported on SexyFood, a French startup. The vendor’s offerings come packaged in gold cans that are reminiscent of caviar and labeled in homage to Chanel perfume. What luxury product deserves such elaborate packaging? Surprising to many, the answer includes grasshoppers, scorpions and mealworms. SexyFood’s official website claims that its edible insects bring “an astounding and explosive experience of discovering something new” (Abrams).
Marketing bugs as luxury foods is quite unintuitive, perhaps only something that the French, known for their gastronomic delights, are willing to explore. On both coasts of the United States, however, entomophagous startups are booming. Multiple TedTalks speakers have been promoting entomophagy, and the book Edible: an adventure into the world of eating insects and the last great hope to save the planet was just published this year. Moreover, in 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a two-hundred-page report titled “Edible insects, Future Prospects for food and feed security.” It claims that insects are not only edible, but also healthy, sustainable, and crucial for human food security. Is eating bugs to save the planet, however, just another food fad?
Overall, it seems like the movement of eating bugs is advancing rapidly. Nevertheless, my response to just touching a bug is “Are you kidding me? Get it away from me!” Insect-phobia in Western culture is commonplace. When I see a cricket on the grass, my first reaction is not to eat it, but to run away from it. Is entomophagy practical in today’s American society?
Benefits of entomophagy: “the last great hope to save the planet”
Let’s imagine, as Claire Martin suggests in her book Edible, that you head to a unique “ultra-transparent” restaurant called McImpacts (15). You order a burger, and as expected, your server hands you a mouthwatering meal. You may be happy with the burger, but the server hasn’t stopped yet. The rest of your order contains “four heaping pounds of steaming cow manure, one thousand sloshing gallons of contaminated water, and a disgusting black sludge as the carbon released by a gallon of gasoline” (Martin 15). In addition, your air smells like rotten egg, because methane, “twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide” (Martin 16) is also part of the meal. I wouldn’t be surprised if you began to feel a burning sensation of acid reflux in your throat while fleeing to the nearest trashcan.
Let’s say that on another day, you somehow (a tad surprisingly) decide to pay McImpacts another visit. This time you order Cricket McNuggets. This side order is much more pleasant: about a half pound of cricket manure, which “is sold at a premium as plant fertilizer,” “ten gallons of slightly cloudy water, no methane” and “a tiny smear of carbon—the energy that kept the cold-blooded insects warm” (Martin 18). This is an example entomophagist Daniella Martin uses in Edible to illustrate how the seemingly harmless and tasty meats we eat often have large negative impacts on our environment.
Insects’ high feed conversion efficiency is the basis of their friendliness to the environment. As the UNFAO report notes, crickets require only 2 kilograms of feed for every kilogram of body weight. They can be reared on organic side-streams, such as natural human and animal waste, and can help reduce environmental contamination. In comparison, one kilogram of meat requires 13 kilograms of grain (PETA). Cornell University reports that one kilogram of grain-fed beef also requires 100,000 liters of water. Evidently, the consumption of insects is much more sustainable than that of meat. Moreover, cramped living conditions in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) make our hearts ache for the poor chickens and cows, but insects naturally prefer to swarm around each other. In addition, according to the FAO, insects “may pose less risk of transmitting zoonotic infections to humans, livestock, and wildlife.” In contrast, human contact with infected poultry may potentially have calamitous consequences, as demonstrated in the 449 cumulative confirmed deaths from the H5N1 avian influenza since 2003 (World Health Organization). A radical change of diet to only vegetables and insects is not necessary, but perhaps eating bugs instead of meat just a few times a week may drastically help the environment.
Furthermore, bugs can be considered superfoods, or foods with dense nutrient content. Let’s compare the nutritional values of 100 grams of cricket with 100 grams of chicken. Crickets have 20.5mg of protein, compared to 21mg in chicken; the 0.5mg less protein isn’t ideal, but it’s negligible. For calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, niacin, magnesium, and B12, crickets have 40.7, 1.9, 6.7, 347, 3.8, 33.7, and 5.4 of each, while chicken has 12, 0.25, and 0.9, 1.5, 229, 8.2, 25, and 0.4 (Martin 67). In short, crickets beat chickens in nutritional value by a long shot.
But why eat bugs? Why not just stop eating meat? After watching films such as Food Inc. and considering how unsustainable the entire meat industry is, I’ve seriously contemplated becoming vegetarian. These days, even in university cafeterias such as the ones at MIT, vegetarian “meat” options made out of soy products are widespread.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, however, “all protein isn’t alike. Protein is built from building blocks called amino acids. Our bodies make amino acids in two different ways: either from scratch, or by modifying others. A few amino acids (known as the essential amino acids) must come from food.” The article asserts that “animal sources of protein tend to deliver all the amino acids we need,” while “other protein sources lack one or more essential amino acids.” It also cautions that “people who don’t eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy products need to eat a variety of protein-containing foods each day in order to get all the amino acids needed to make new protein.”
There’s no doubt that a vegetarian diet can provide proper nutrition, especially with many fortified dairy products and cereals, but in general, vegetarians have to put in more effort to ensure their adequate protein intake. And if I’m being completely honest, in the end, do I really want to miss out on juicy barbecue pork falling off the bone? Lacking the willpower, I decided against becoming vegetarian. Each time I bite into a piece of chicken, however, I feel pangs of guilt as I think about how I am contributing to the suffering of our poor Mother Earth, as illustrated in the McImpacts restaurant’s burger. It seems like eating bugs is the next best option.
According to the FAO, by 2050, the world will host 9 billion people. In 2013, there were nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide. As a result, the FAO reports, “what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.” Eating insects opens a new avenue that is mostly unexplored in Western culture, and may be the answer to food security in the next few decades.
Perspectives: Overcoming the yuck-factor
Even after learning all the benefits of entomophagy, I still get goose bumps when I see ants swarming on an apple core left on the ground, or hundreds of mealworms crawling all over each other. In short, just the sight of bugs is often unpleasant and fear inducing to say the least; why would I even think about putting an insect into my mouth?
It might surprise you, as it surprised me, that according to the FAO, insect-eating is practiced regularly by at least 2 billion people worldwide. According to Dana Goodyear, journalist for the New Yorker, in Venezuela, even children roast tarantulas to eat. In Thailand, crispy-fried locusts and beetles are popular dishes (FAO). When I lived in Shanghai, China, I regularly passed by a street food vendor selling roasted scorpions on a skewer. In Santa Maria Atzompa, Mexico, “grasshoppers toasted with garlic, chile, and lime are a favorite treat,” but “locals have traditionally found shrimp repulsive” (Goodyear). Our food preferences, it seems, are often irrational and wholly arbitrary. The Western prejudice against insects is a cultural preference, and it isn’t unreasonable to believe that the sense of disgust is open to change.
Advocacy of entomophagy began more than a century ago. In 1885, Vincent M. Holt wrote a manifesto “Why Not Eat Insects?” In it, he expounded upon “the vile habits of the insects of the sea” and tried to show that eating insects of the land would not be that disgusting after all. He argued that “the lobster is such a foul feeder that, for its sure capture, the experienced fisherman will bait his lobster-pot with putrid flesh or fish which is too far gone even to attract a crab” (Loo and Sellbach 13). Indeed, arthropods like lobsters and shrimps were once considered “poor-man’s food” in the West. Now, a lobster roll is considered a fancy meal, and I cannot afford it even for a treat. Similarly, sushi was once an exotic, crazy food, popular only among the small population of Japanese businessmen in Los Angeles. Although eating raw fish was seen as gross before the 1960s, there are sushi restaurants all over America now (Hodson). If Americans changed their attitude towards raw fish, why can’t they adjust their view towards insects as well?
You may think this is unlikely, but you already eat bugs. The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) publishes the “Defect Levels Handbook,” which specifies “levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans” (FDA). Five or more whole equivalent insects (not counting mites, aphids, thrips, or scale insects) per 100 grams of apple butter, 10% of your asparagus, canned or frozen, with 6 or more beetle sacs, and 75 insect fragments per 25 grams of ground paprika are all considered edible foods by the FDA. You’re eating insects without knowing it, and don’t forget that honey, or delicious ‘liquid gold,’ is none other than bee vomit.
Furthermore, our disgust towards insects is not innate. Children love to eat insects when they are given the chance. In Edible, Martin testifies that she saw plenty of well-fed kids cheerily eat handfuls of bugs such as sautéed larvae, often when their parents weren’t looking. She says, “I’ve had kids sneak back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and beyond, happily crunching away behind their parents’ backs. One four-year-old boy ate more than two dozen of my sautéed larvae at a demonstration in Georgia, until his mother physically dragged him away, still chewing” (Martin 5). At around age four, these kids had no concept of whether these bugs were dirty or unhealthy or weird; the bugs tasted yummy and so they ate without a care. The entire stigma against eating bugs had not formed in their “unsocialized, unossified minds” (Martin 5). Thus, any negative feelings towards entomophagy come from cultural and societal concepts that shape our values. Perhaps one way to overcome these fears is through clever marketing skills.
Entrepreneurship: Chips or Chirps?
Six Foods is a start-up by high-achieving Harvard students with the dream to bring insects into our day-to-day diet. They “plan to get around the yuck-factor with insect-based foods that don’t look like the creepy-crawlies they come from” (Hodson). As I logged on to their official website, the cute logo, sleek design, and persuasive introduction to their product “chirps,” or chips made out of crickets, immediately intrigued me. By presenting many images comparing the sustainability of crickets to that of cows, and the nutritional values of chirps versus those of potato chips, Six Foods’ website convinced me that chirps would become the next Lays or Fritos. Without hesitation, I pre-ordered three bags for myself. As a sucker for anything natural, healthy, and environmentally friendly, I couldn’t wait to munch on some chirps. A few months later, when I bit down on my first chirp, I couldn’t help but break into a wide grin; it was a bit nutty, full of texture, high in protein, and nothing short of delicious. Instead of squirming at the fact that I was eating crickets, I began to grow a fondness for crickets. As more and more people become aware of the sources of their foods and the carbon footprint of their foods, there is no doubt that companies such as Six Foods will succeed. Plus, chirps look exactly like tortilla chips, with nothing reminding us that they’re made out of insects, so the yuck-factor is overcome quite easily.
In August 2014, Claire Martin of the New York Times covered another entomophagy start-up, Bitty Foods, with an article titled “Jiminy Cricket! Bugs Could Be Next Food Craze.” Megan Miller, the founder of Bitty Foods, hopes to appeal to followers of the Paleo Diet and gluten-free eaters, both booming demographics; gluten-free eaters alone are expected to spend $15 billion in 2016 (Claire Martin). The company also focuses on grinding up crickets and processing them so that nothing about insects are visible in the final products, cricket flour and baked goods such as delectable cookies. For now, one of the largest challenges is lowering the cost of crickets. According to Martin, Miller’s bag of cricket flour costs $20, while a same-sized bag of regular wheat flour costs $1. Miller, however, is optimistic that prices will decrease as crickets become more widespread.
According to “More Legs, More Flavour”, an article by Hal Hodson in New Scientist magazine, both Six Foods and Bitty Foods source their crickets from Big Cricket Farms, which Kevin Bachhuber founded in May 2014. The 5,000-square-foot warehouse can produce 50,000 pounds of crickets per month to sell, and what sets it apart from other insect suppliers is that, according to Bachhuber, other farms may feed “gone-off dog food” to their insects, which is “obviously not OK for human consumption” (Hodson). Bachhuber, on the other hand, is pioneering the standard for edible insect farms, as he says, “I want the USDA to come inspect this place… and have them say, ‘Yeah, this is how it should be done’.” He is aware, however, that “even a whiff of a problem, like a food-borne illness caused by eating insects” would “tank [the] entire newborn industry” (Hodson).
A psychologist of disgust at the University of Pennsylvania, Paul Rozin claims that new foods have to make their way into popular culture from “the top down” (Hodson). He states that “if Pepsico starts using cricket flour as 3 percent of Cheetos, then [we’ve] got a major impact” (Hodson). Hence, if burgeoning start-ups such as Chirps and Bitty Foods can impact the gastronomic circle so that large corporations consider insects as an acceptable ingredient, then it is only a matter of time before insects will officially be considered not just pests, but legitimate food in the United States.
Edible bugs are gentle to the Earth, nutritious for humans, and even have a touch of sexiness. There are unknowns in the business, as there are in any new venture, but current progress proves that the benefits of entomophagy are likely to overweigh the hindrances. Eating bugs to save the planet may sound dramatic, but it’s a real possibility. As more startups are creating buzz in the food industry with their clever marketing techniques, entomophagy is likely to become the next big thing.
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