Bugging Out

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Follow him on Twitter at @arilevaux. 

Moth mousse whipped with hazelnut milk. Cricket broth with a side of grasshopper garum sauce. Liquorice-glazed ant stick. Bee bread. These dishes are part of a menu put together by the Nordic Food Lab, a kitchen/laboratory/think tank in Copenhagen. The idea behind its "Pestival" menu is to "explore the 1,400 untapped wholesome crawling creatures that are edible to man."

That goal is in line with a recommendation contained in a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, to wit: the food industry should help in "raising the status of insects" by including them in new recipes and adding them to restaurant menus.

Pound-for-pound, insects have as much as 10 times the protein as beef. Such comparisons, coupled with growing numbers of hungry and malnourished people, have led in recent years to increasing calls for more entomophagy, also known as bug eating. The UN report,titled "Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security," argues that increasing our insect intake is good for both humans and the environment.

Insects are incredibly efficient at converting feed into protein-crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein, according to the report. And farmed insects can be fed things that would otherwise be considered waste products, like grain stalks after the seeds have been harvested.

The biggest obstacle to widespread acceptance of entomophagy is a phenomenon the report identifies as the "disgust factor." I know this factor well, and I suspect you do too. But before you get too bugged out by the prospect of entomophagy, consider this: you probably already consume a lot of bugs, even if you fancy yourself a vegetarian. It's nearly impossible to avoid the stray bits of insect protein that are commonly found in salad, or to spit out every mosquito that flies in your mouth as you ride your bike down a hill. Current FDA regulations allow an average of 60 insect fragments per hundred grams of chocolate-and even more for peanut butter.

But given the sugar, preservatives, and other unsavory elements of the average peanut butter cup, bug parts might be its healthiest component. Insects not only offer more protein than mammals, fish or fowl, but in many cases provide higher levels of unsaturated fat, minerals like zinc and calcium, and other nutrients.

In addition to the nourishing aspects of entomophagy, according to the report, raising and gathering insects can provide opportunities for economic improvement as well. "Insect harvesting/rearing is a low-tech, low-capital investment option that offers entry even to the poorest sections of society, such as women and the landless."

Beyond human well-being, there are environmental advantages to entomophagy as well. Insects emit almost no methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's produced excessively by cattle. Insect ranching does not require the clearing of land, as is necessary to create space to raise livestock and feed. Insects are incredibly efficient at converting feed into protein-crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein, according to the report. And farmed insects can be fed things that would otherwise be considered waste products, like grain stalks after the seeds have been harvested.

While convincing the average soccer mom to sprinkle a handful of flies into the soup pot might seem like a lot to ask, the report suggests a hybrid tactic that might have legs: using insects as animal feed, primarily for chicken and fish. This seems like a more palatable way to put insects on the menu than trying to get people to eat insects directly, and would free up land and fertilizer for agricultural pursuits that feed people, not animals.

Dutch scientists, meanwhile, are exploring another way around the disgust factor. They're culturing high-protein ovary cells from worms and larva that they hope to slip into burgers, breads, and other processed foods.

After all, if modern consumers have demonstrated anything, it's their willingness to eat foods that are processed into oblivion and sold in pretty packages. Mystery meat products like hot dogs are infamous for their inclusion of unmentionable body parts, so what's a little bug powder among the ground-up noses, feet, and rectums we so willingly toss on the grill? Nobody seems bothered by so-called pink slime in hamburger meat, so worm ovary powder could probably fly under the radar as well.

But is it really necessary to hide bug protein in food? Mainstream diners eagerly eat bug-like animals every day. Shrimp and lobsters share the arthropod phylum with insects, along with spiders, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlies. And while shrimp and lobsters are scum-sucking bottom feeders, most edible insects are clean-living, leaf-munching vegans.

In some countries, insects are already regularly featured on menus, such as maguey worms in Mexico and the aquatic larvae known as zazamushi in Japan, which are popular sautéed with soy sauce and sugar.

But these are exceptions, not the rule, and it's hard to imagine the UN's recommendation to add insects to restaurant menus gaining traction among bug-averse Americans, at least without some sort of catalyst. But one night in Bangkok a few years back, I became aquainted with a time-honored strategy that might help.

On a street crowded with young revelers, a vendor's cart contained several stainless steel bins filled with deep-fried insects, and I ordered a serving.

They're deep-fried, I repeated to myself. Thus, it would run contrary to the laws of physics for these bugs not to be good. And indeed they were good, tasting like potato chips, or crispy fried chicken skin, or any other type of fried crispy thing. And as with most other crispy-fried salty things, the fried bugs were a good pairing with beer.

Perhaps the UN should focus its insect-promoting efforts in bars and pubs. It's easier to envision a basket of fried crickets alongside a jar of pickled pig trotters and a bottle of Mezcal with a worm in it. In a culinary context, fried bugs with beer may not hold a candle to moth mousse, but it's a lot simpler to prepare, and an easier sell than hiding powdered worm ovaries in a hot dog.

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