The servers at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., bustled about the dining room, handing out hors d'oeuvres to bemused and somewhat reticent guests. As attendees received their food, the looks on their faces ranged from mild interest to bafflement to unadulterated disgust. Some staunchly refused to eat, while others succumbed to their curiosity and had a few nibbles. The sound of crunching tortilla chips (and the occasional dry heave) soon filled the air.
How did a little guacamole and a few chips provoke such an extreme reaction? It may have had something to do with the roasted crickets resting atop of each morsel.
Americans have long seen the act of eating insects – entomophagy – as taboo and, let's face it, a little gross. But a recent study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggests that insects can and should be more than a "famine food" and eaten when food is scarce.
"Many people around the world eat insects out of choice, largely because of the palatability of the insects and their established place in local food cultures," says Marcel Dicke, head of the Department of the Laboratory of Entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Dicke, who headlined a lecture last month at the Royal Netherlands Embassy, is co-author of the Dutch-language "Het Insectenkookboek" ("The Insect Cookbook"), which will be released in English in the United States this fall. "In short, the world is facing an upcoming animal protein crisis," he says.
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Because of booming population growth worldwide – the United Nations estimates a population of 9 billion by 2050, an increase of about 2 billion people – we will be forced to more than double the current food production rate, Dicke says. But the current food production system may be ineffective and unsustainable. "If we look at all agricultural land, we see that 70 percent is devoted to livestock, and only 30 percent is devoted to producing food for human beings," Dicke says. "That would be fine, except we only get two pounds of edible product for every 22 pounds of feed, and we only eat about half of that. This is very inefficient."
The solutions to this problem will inevitably fly, wriggle or crawl their way onto our dinner plates, Dicke says – and in many cases, they already have. "Whether you know it or not, you're all eating insects already," he says. "Everything that's processed food contains insects."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does, in fact, allow an amount of insect contamination in certain processed foods. For example, canned citrus fruit juices are allowed to contain five or more Drosophila (fruit fly) eggs or one or more maggots per 250 milliliters.
That's no reason to quarantine your orange juice, though. Of the estimated 6 million species of insects on Earth, at least 1,900 are considered edible, and Dicke says there are many advantages to eating insects, including nutritional quality comparable to processed beef, pork and fish.
"In many cultures outside of North America and Western Europe, insects are actually considered delicacies and are an important source of protein," Dicke says.
Caterpillars, for example, contain about 28 grams of protein per 100 grams, are chock-full of iron and thiamine (vitamin B1) and are only 370 calories. Beef and fish have comparable protein levels but don't provide as many vitamins or as much iron. One hundred grams of crickets contains 121 calories, 12.9 grams of protein and 5.5 grams of fat. One hundred grams of ground beef, by comparison, packs 23.5 grams of protein, but also has more than double the calories at 288, along with 21 grams of fat.
Michael Raupp, a professor of entomology and cicada expert at the University of Maryland who runs BugoftheWeek.com, shows his support of insects as a viable food source by snacking on cicadas whenever he gets the chance. "They have a very earthy taste, like a juicy nut," he says.
Fears of disease ingrained in insects are unfeasible, Raupp says, because entomological diseases, such as malaria, Dengue fever and Lyme disease, must enter the bloodstream, and humans don't become infected by eating insects. And, he points out, entomophagy occurs regularly in nature: "I mean, 2 million birds can't be wrong," he says.
So which bugs can you eat? Daniella Martin, who runs GirlMeetsBug.com, lists edible insects and their nutritional values on her website. She also provides recipes for treats like the "Bee-LT Sandwich" with sautéed bee larvae and deep fried scorpion. Martin says her favorite bugs to eat are wax worms, bees, wasps and fried bamboo worms.
One warning: Don't go into your backyard and start munching on the insects you find. Rather, buy farm-raised, healthy bugs that have been bred for the specific purpose of being eaten. Martin suggests Compton, California-based Rainbow Mealworms for your mealworm needs and Fluker Farms in Louisiana if you're into crickets. You can also find crickets, mealworms and other edible insects at your local pet store for about 12 cents apiece, or you can start up a breeding program of your own if you intend to eat insects regularly.
[Read: Best Fat-Burning Foods.]
The first step to introducing entomophagy into western diets is awareness, Raupp says – not just talking about the benefits of eating insects, but the broader subject of living with insects. "It's very difficult to change entrenched attitudes," he says. "I really focus on getting children interested and fascinated in nature because, unfortunately, western culture is often times totally disconnected with nature. They don't understand some fascinating aspects of nature like watching bugs, raising bugs and, in some cases, eating bugs."
Dicke says he believes the greatest hurdle standing in the way of entomophagy in North America and Western Europe is our culture, and overcoming that culture will require a shift in mindset from seeing insects as "pests" and "creepy-crawlies" to seeing them as delicacies, as much of the world already does. "As much as we'd like to think it, this is not a planet of human beings," Dicke says. "This is a planet of insects, and we're just being hosted by them."
If you're ready to experiment with insects in your kitchen, try this recipe for crêpes with mealworms from Dicke's cookbook, "Het Insectenkookboek." The recipe serves eight.
2/3 cup raisins
1 and 2/3 cups milk
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup soft white or light brown sugar
Scant 2 tablespoons butter
2 cups flour
Rounded 1/2 cup uncooked quick oats
1/2 cup buffalo worms (mealworms)
Sunflower oil for frying
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1. Wash the raisins, and soak in lukewarm water for 15 minutes.
2. On low heat, allow a scant 1/2 cup milk in a saucepan to become lukewarm. Stir in the yeast and the white or light brown sugar. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a damp tea towel and set it to rest in a warm place.
3. In a different pan, heat the milk and butter until the butter has melted.
4. Combine the flour, oats and salt in a mixing bowl; make a well and pour in the yeast mixture and about half (a little more than 1/2 cup) of the butter/milk mixture. Using a whisk, stir from the center outwards to incorporate the liquid. When the mixture is smooth and all lumps are gone, add the rest of the butter/milk mixture and the eggs, and beat for a few minutes to make a nice batter. Cover it again with a damp tea towel, and set it to rest in a warm place for 15 minutes.
5. Drain the raisins well and incorporate the raisins and the buffalo worms into the batter with a spatula. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for half an hour.
6. Heat a little oil in a frying pan, and ladle a generous amount of batter into the center. Lift and rotate the pan such that the batter covers the bottom. Shake now and again to loosen the crêpe and allow it to brown nicely. Flip or turn the crêpe and brown the other side.
7. While frying the crêpes, mix the powdered sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.
8. Set the crêpes on a warm plate and serve with cinnamon sugar or golden syrup.