Edible Insects: Why Aren’t We Eating More Bugs?

by Leah Butz

The European Union has been taking steps to normalize edible insects in 2021. Earlier this year, the EU’s Food Safety Authority determined that dried mealworms (the larvae of the Tenebrio molitor beetle) are safe for human consumption, and in November the EU’s European Commission okayed migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria) in frozen, dried, or powdered form, categorizing them as “novel foods,” defined as “new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food.” Their decision follows Switzerland’s 2017 Foodstuffs Act, which allowed the sale of mealworms, grasshoppers, and crickets in grocery stores. 

These insects, like many others, are good sources of fat, protein, and certain important vitamins. And the United Nations has encouraged the global consumption of insects, noting their environmental benefits as a food source. They emit far fewer greenhouse gases than other animals raised as livestock and they have a high feed-conversion efficiency. However, many Western cultures (including the United States and various European countries) resist eating insects, viewing the practice with disgust. 

Entomophagy (Human Consumption of Insects) Around the Globe

Eating insects is not new to humans — cultures around the globe have included them as dietary staples for thousands of years. The migratory locust, for example, has traditionally been consumed in countries such as Zambia, Cameroon, Thailand, and the Philippines. 

Some of the most popular edible insects worldwide include beetles and beetle larvae, wasps and wasp larvae, grasshoppers, and butterflies/moths. Insects are included in a variety of different dishes across numerous cultures, and their flavors are frequently compared to different types of shellfish. In fact, people with shellfish or crustacean allergies are usually advised to avoid eating insects, because they produce some of the same allergens.

The EU has also been considering adding crickets, which have long been consumed in Thailand, to its novel foods list. Cricket Lab is a venture that has partnered with Thai cricket farmers to sell protein-rich “cricket flour” which can be used to create pasta, protein bars, and a variety of tasty baked goods. Cricket Lab hopes to mainstream the consumption of insects in order to supply the whole world with this incredibly sustainable animal protein. But they aren’t the only company trying to bring insect food products onto more people’s dinner tables. In the past fifteen years, many other companies have begun to sell products including cricket cookies, grasshopper salt, chocolate-covered silkworms, and more.

It is estimated that about 2 billion people worldwide consume thousands of different insect species as part of their regular diet. From the Assyrian Empire to Enlightenment-era France, people around the globe have been practicing entomophagy for millennia. Nowadays, however, the Western world avoids insects as a food source, and it is generally Western tastes that drive global food trends and markets. Mainstreaming entomophagy in the United States and Europe, therefore, would help the edible insect industry grow worldwide. Brooklyn Bugs, an advocacy group promoting the popularization of edible insects, uses educational programming to increase public appreciation of insects as a food source. 

Why We Aren’t Eating More Insects

There are a variety of theories as to why people from Western cultures are so frequently revolted by the prospect of eating insects. One historical theory has roots in the Ice Age. Because of cold climates in the north, Europe is not home to very many of the world’s edible insect species. Furthermore, what few edible insects do exist are not very large, making them not worth catching. Therefore, neither European cultures nor European settlers in North America developed a culinary tradition that incorporates bugs as a protein source. 

There is also a common misconception that insects are dirty or unsafe to eat. However, insects are no more unsafe to consume than any other food and require the same attention to their farming and processing as other animal products. Biological pathogens, such as disease-carrying bacteria and infections transmitted by animals to humans are generally considered less of a threat from insects than from other animal products because of the genetic differences between insects and humans. In other words, insects are more unlike humans than pigs, and, therefore, the diseases that affect insects are much less likely to also affect humans. However, some foodborne illness can still be transmitted through insect consumption, so insect farmers must take strong biosecurity measures to ensure that their bugs are not contaminated by outside factors such as moisture, soil, or livestock.

Finally, cultural dietary patterns such as kosher and halal influence some people’s decisions about whether or not to eat insects. The Torah specifically states in Leviticus 11:41 that “every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is a detestable thing; it shall not be eaten” — except for a few locust and grasshopper species. Locusts and grasshoppers are also permissible under Islamic dietary law, and eating insects for survival is considered halal. Buddhists, however, do not support killing any creatures, including insects

Benefits of Edible Insects

Insects are extremely protein-rich and could serve as a sustainable alternative to common animal products such as beef and pork. A 2012 study published in the journal PLOS ONE compared the environmental impacts of livestock and mealworms and found mealworms to be a more sustainable source of protein. “Production of one kg of edible protein from milk, chicken, pork or beef result[s] in higher greenhouse gas emissions, require[s] similar amounts of energy and require[s] much more land,” the authors wrote. An earlier study published in the same journal also found that production of five different edible insect species emits lower amounts of chemicals harmful to the environment than  than cattle and pigs. This includes ammonia (3.0 to 5.4 mg/kg body mass/day, compared to 4.8-170 mg/kg body mass/day for cattle and pigs) and greenhouse gases such as methane (0-0.16 g/kg body mass/day, compared to 0.049-0.283 g/kg body mass/day for cattle and pigs).

Using insects as food also shows potential as a way to improve global food security and malnutrition problems, especially in developing countries. Many insect species are densely packed with important vitamins, fats, and proteins; queen termites, for example, are given to undernourished children in some African countries because of their nutritional density. Many developing countries that have populations suffering from calorie deficiency could benefit from the high fat content of insects. Furthermore, the farming and cultivation of insects for food could provide income and livelihoods to people around the world, thus contributing to local economies. 

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