I once opened a container of rolled oats that had gotten lost in the back of my pantry and was horrified to find a few mealworms wriggling in it. Not only did the oats go straight into the trash but the trash bag was immediately taken out to the curb—just to be on the safe side. In the not too distant future, however, nutrition-conscious consumers might be paying extra for flour fortified with protein-rich mealworms.
Entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) still elicits disgust from most North Americans and Europeans. You won’t find any nutrition information for insects in the USDA’s Food Composition Database, for example. (The USDA does, however, view the presence of insect parts in processed foods as “natural or unavoidable” and maintains that this poses no hazard to humans. See USDA publication: Food Defect Action Levels Handbook for regulations on amounts of insect material allowed in manufactured foods.)
But our aversion is far from universal. Various types of insects are an important food source — as well as a delicacy — for close to a third of the world’s citizens.
As the world’s population swells, a growing consortium of entomologists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, adventurous eaters, and “ethicureans” are rallying around insects (a.k.a. micro-livestock) as a more sustainable, climate- and animal-friendly way to supply the world’s calorie and protein needs. Insects, they argue, provide high-quality nutrition (see chart below) and require far less feed, water, space, time or energy to produce than traditional livestock. For a comprehensive examination of the issues and opportunities surrounding the use of insects for food, see the FAO’s 2013 report “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security.”
Although still a decidedly niche market, the first insect-based products are already on the market. Cricket-based energy bars, for example, are available in three flavors at Chapul.com. And for a $1 surcharge, you can now order Mama Bird’s Granola with added insect protein.
Entomologist Harman Johar is founder and CEO of World Ento, a company that raises crickets and mealworms for human consumption. Although World Ento ships whole, toasted crickets and mealworms directly to a few intrepid consumers, Johar sees the development of insect-based flours and protein powders as the most likely route to gaining wide-spread consumer acceptance. “Getting people over the ‘ew’ factor is our biggest challenge,” says Johar. “Generally, if people can’t actually see the insects, they can get over it pretty quickly.” People who aren’t ready to eat a bugbased burger, suggests Johar, might be willing to accept a bun made with protein-rich cricket flour.
With few guidelines or regulations specifically addressing the production and marketing of insects for food, insect farmers are, for the moment, largely self-regulated. Most, however, hold themselves to high standards, both in terms of the quality and safety of the product as well as the quality of life for the insects. Johar’s insects, for example, live in climate-controlled conditions that mimic their natural habitat, and enjoy a diet of organic grains, fruits, and vegetables. When harvest time comes, the ambient temperature is gradually lowered, putting the bugs to sleep, before they are killed by freezing temperatures. The bugs are then sorted, cleaned, roasted, and packaged for sale. Toasted crickets reportedly have a faint grassy taste and a texture like potato chips with. Mealworms are said to be a bit moister and chewier, with a nutty, creamy flavor. Both have a wide range of culinary uses, ranging from cookies to calamari.
Despite the vastly lower inputs required, ento-culture has yet to develop the technologies, infrastructure, or economy of scale enjoyed by traditional livestock farmers. As a result, edible bugs and products made from them remain a bit pricey.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the next big thing in protein, the writing appears to be (crawling) on the wall.