Eating Bugs – Solving the Ick Factor

June 18, 2013 in Food Economics, Foodland, Foodland Chronicles, General, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Choosing today’s topic began by simply glancing at our subscription of Sierra Magazine’s cover (July/August 2013 issue) – a darling little girl with a bug leg hanging out of her cute little pink rosebud lips, her hand clutching a popsicle stick on which was impaled a large beetle with the portion missing around the right front leg. The cover lured me to thumb through the issue and find the article. I happily report that Sierra has generously posted the entire article and you can read it for free; all of the pictures posted for your enjoyment. Don’t miss the words on the ‘Lice Cream’ truck…including cooties n’cream – love the humor!!! Peter Frick-Wright did a great job keeping my interest for the entire article, as he sprinkled it with humor all the way through – including a recipe for Sheesh! Kabobs yielding 6 servings. If you don’t read the entire article, at least, read the last few paragraphs. He sounds like someone, all of us humor lovers would enjoy knowing. Indulge me for including just one of his humorous but wise quotes, “Nothing overcomes the bug/barf barrier like the combination of hunger and ready availability”.

I admit right here that I knew next to nothing about insects as human food prior to reading the Sierra article and subsequently the FAO report (see link below).  My attention during my career was to assure that there were no vectors (mice, rats, insects of any variety) running around the hospital kitchens where food was prepared for hundreds each day. I’ve never had many positive thoughts toward bugs; with the possible exception of butterflies, ladybugs and honeybees. My sister, 2-years younger than me, used to chase me with ‘tobacco’-spitting grasshoppers when I was about 8 years old. Then about two years ago, I finally, using ‘mind over matter’, got my grasshopper fear under control. My motivation? The dahlia-chomping critters were un-invited dinner guests in my garden. What an eye-opener this week has been for me.

A three-year Danish research project, run by Nordic Food Lab and the University of Copenhagen has received 500,000 pounds (about $666,000) to find ways to help people discover that insects can be delicious and not just a novelty food. The research money comes from the Velux Foundation’s program for environment and sustainability. The goal is to utilize insects in everyday foods.

There are various groups that have done quite a bit of research on the environmental impact of eating insects and on the nutritional benefits, but the Nordic Food Lab is focusing on ‘how to make them delicious’. Yum! Michael Bom Frost, the lead researcher of the Nordic Food Lab has been reported to have said that the argument that insects are tasty and delicious will help to influence populations and policy makers. Personally, I believe that it’s going to be a tough sell for many western consumers.

One comforting aspect of the research is that the University of Copenhagen is focusing on the microbiological and pathological aspects of using insects as food. Yes, many of us want to know what kind of germs they may harbor and if there are diseases and allergies that may be introduced by eating insects.

In May 2013 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published their comprehensive report Edible insects, Future prospects for food and feed security. You can download the entire 5.7Mb (190 page) Full Report for free. If you want more than the Sierra Magazine article linked above this is probably more than you ever wanted to know about bugs as food, unless you’re a public health nutritionist; an entomologist; or study entomophagy (eating of insects); or just like learning new things. Even if you don’t want to read the report don’t miss the pictures halfway through the report (ends at page 89).

See the ‘Livelihood Improvement’ section of the report. The report explains that developing and disadvantaged societies, and in time of social conflict and natural disasters insects are presently consumed. But “Because of their nutritional composition, accessibility, simple rearing techniques and quick growth rates, insects can offer a cheap and efficient opportunity to counter nutritional insecurity by providing emergency food and by improving livelihoods and the quality of traditional diets among vulnerable people. The FAO doesn’t stay stuck in this area, however; it moves into new uses for insects as food and feed.

The FAO reports that presently over 2 billion people include insects as part of their traditional diets; and that more than 1,900 species have reportedly been used as food. The report includes an interesting list of the most commonly consumed insects, mostly beetles, in the section ‘The Role of Insects’. The report says that, “People throughout the world have been eating insects as a regular part of their diets for millennia.

The FAO report says that most Western people view entomophagy with disgust and as a primitive behavior. I like to consider myself as not fully emotionally driven; but in this matter of eating insects, I find myself feeling full of disgust and being emotionally paralyzed with just the thought of chomping a green-oozing grasshopper.

I’m persuaded by the arguments in the FAO report and the Sierra article that insects are a sound environmental option for food and feed; and new insect-related business opportunities abound. I want to be a forward-thinking individual, but I must have been fully entrenched with the negativity in the concept of eating bugs. Being a Bible reader, it’s amazing that I’ve not been influenced in the very least by the book of Leviticus reference to the eating of the desert locust, grasshopper and beetle; including the vivid description in Leviticus of this allowed food “ Leviticus 11:21
 Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth.” John the Baptist reportedly ate locusts and wild honey; see the Book of Mark. Note: I’ve had no problem with honey, derived from flower blossoms by those industrious bees. Muslims are specifically directed that locusts are permissible food. And the Jews were allowed kosher locusts in ancient times. But as the Jews were dispersed out of Israel, the tradition of intake of “winged swarming things” mentioned in the Torah, was only preserved among the Jews of Yemen and parts on northern Africa. The westernized Jews put away their insectivorous habits.

Certainly, many in our western population are eating all sorts of ingredients (using the word very loosely here) added by the food processors. Those of you who read this post frequently know that I’m not a big proponent for their often-cheap fake junky fude. I’ve written fairly frequently about the issue of eating real whole foods, but undoubtedly I will need to re-think the use of insects or their parts in food. It’s environmentally a move in the right direction, and it appears that it’s going to prove to be a nutritionally excellent choice, and surely I’m all for those important values.

Because it has proved so difficult to get many people to shift to less meat and more vegetables and fruits, you will not see a big insect-eating crusade launched from these blog pages. The challenge of running the gauntlet from the meat gluttons and fast-food lovers and their harsh ridicule of “nut and bark eaters” is hard enough. Vegetables and fruits, no matter how tasty and attractive they can be prepared, require all the guile and persuasion I can muster for these hard cases.  Let hunger and economics do what they might for the great new cause of entomophagy.

I also have to admit that in reality, I’m personally not ready to run out to purchase one of the edible insect cookbooks listed in Box 13.2 of the FAO report (including Creepy Crawly Cuisine and Man Eating Bugs). I used to believe that I was an adventuresome eater, but Tibet qualified that belief in several respects in 2010. I do, however, feel ready for commercially raised insects being fed to the fish and chicken that I eat. I’m guessing that it will take more years than I have left on earth for me to be able to chomp a grasshopper. In that same strain of thought, I enjoyed watching my husband’s facial expressions as he described his intimate knowledge of grasshopper anatomy, gained as a scientifically curious boy, who treated grasshoppers unkindly. He described the ‘tobacco’-spitting grasshoppers of my childhood memories, and looked a little queasy while considering munching those carefully observed parts. I think I’ll not say ‘never’ as related to eating insects; but remember that if we’re ever hungry enough, it might be easier to reconsider. Remember the adage: ‘hunger is the best sauce.