There was an old lady who swallowed a fly, and we all know that didn’t end well for her. But aside from the occasional Bertie Beetle from a showbag, or a witchetty-grub from a bag of mixed lollies, for most people in the Western world insects are off the menu. With a growing population in the world, some people are suggesting that entomophagy, the specific term for eating insects, could help solve a future food crisis and give us all the protein we need. At first bite it seems like a far-fetched idea, but in fact, insects are already eaten in cultures around the world, and they are not too distantly related to foods many of us already eat.
Anyone who has walked through a market in South East Asia will attest to the presence of stalls filled with bizarre ingredients intended for the kitchen, and ultimately, our plates. Exotic fruits and vegetables that most of us have no idea how to cook with sit alongside meats and fish, and quite often insects. In Thailand, the Bangkok night markets are dotted with vendors selling pre-cooked insects for locals, and daring tourists. Insects in the tropics grow much larger than in cooler parts of the world, and are easier to catch, but many are bred specifically for the table. But people don’t eat them because they are starving; they enjoy the flavours and textures of these unusual “micro-livestock”. In Beijing, locusts are joined on the menu by silk worm larvae (which purportedly taste like peanuts), fried scorpions and centipedes on skewers. While scorpions and centipedes are not true insects, they please the crowds in a country with 1.3 billion mouths to feed.
Africans are no strangers to the usefulness of insects as a food source either. One study from 2013 found people from a single village in Southern Africa collected 29 species of edible insect from their local area over the summer when they are most abundant. One of the most popular insects is the commercially available Mopane Worm, which is actually the caterpillar of the Emperor Moth. The worm apparently tastes like biltong, a kind of African jerky, and visitors can get a certificate to prove they have eaten them, though not all agree with the flavour description.
While protein is the main reason people are suggesting insects as a food source for the future, eating the whole animal gives a decent dose of other things too – whole insects are high in calcium, iron, B12 and zinc, as well as other essential vitamins and minerals. Unlike eating a piece of meat, which is just muscle, you get all the essential nutrients in the bug, and they are really low in fat!
Still not convinced?
Some of us are still not convinced that insects are okay to eat. But they are really not that far removed from many of the seafood animals we eat, like crayfish, lobsters or the humble prawn. Lobster was once considered poor peoples’ food before it became the centrepiece of fine seafood dining, so there may yet be hope for insects in haute cuisine. It could just be a question of changing the names. People might be more willing to eating a “jumping prawn” than a grasshopper, or a “land shrimp” than a cricket, perhaps. Either way, it certainly won’t harm your health.