Does the cure for world hunger lie in insect cuisine? This may not sound appealing, yet today, as many as two billion people eat insects on a regular basis. Is it time to convert the other five billion of us into insect enthusiasts? Worldwide, the most popular insects are beetles and caterpillars. Wasps, ants, cicadas, locusts, dragonflies, crickets and flies are also frequently eaten. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a household in the capital of Kinshasa eats about 300 grams of caterpillars per week. That comes to 96 tons of caterpillars consumed annually in that city. I can’t speak from first-hand knowledge, but evidently they have a nutty, fruity taste.
In Mali, children hunt and eat high protein grasshoppers as a snack food. In Southeast Asia a huge variety of insects are not only eaten by natives, but are marketed to tourists. An astonishing 150 to 200 species of insects are consumed there. In Japan, many dine on silk moth pupae, fried cicadas, and boiled wasp larvae. In Africa, in addition to crickets, grasshoppers, termites, beetle and moth larvae, large swarming termites are gathered, fried or roasted, and served as a bread or on porridge.
In Latin America, caterpillars that feed on agave plants are roasted and eaten with tortillas.
The list goes on, with most available insects being dined upon by some culture somewhere. The world is filled with nutritious and available food.
Our current and strong aversion to eating insects has not always been a part of civilized human history. In ancient Rome and Greece, insects played a significant role in dietary practices. The Bible makes reference to eating insects. Native Americans used crickets to make flour. Theories abound as to why most Americans today are not fond of eating insects. One theory is that when settlers began to interact with Native American tribes, they considered the consumption of insects to be primitive, and therefore undesirable.
Another theory is that as Western cultures turned to farming as a method of sustenance, insects became the enemy, unappetizing, and perhaps even unnecessary to the daily diet.
It is interesting (and perhaps a bit gross) to note that a good share of the five billion of us who don’t believe that we consume insects are actually eating roughly two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs every year! They are part of our meals with an FDA-implied blessing. Staples like broccoli, canned tomatoes, and hops may well contain insect fragments, including heads, thoraxes, legs, and even the intact insect. Fig paste might contain up to 13 insect heads in 100 grams; canned fruit juices may contain a maggot for every 8 ½ ounces, and 2,500 aphids may be found in 10 grams of hops.
If reading this causes feelings of nausea, keep in mind that many hold that insects are the future to feeding our planet. At the present rate, the global population will rise from its present seven billion to nine billion by 2050. A recent report by the United Nations suggests the rearing of edible insects for human consumption as well as for cattle feed. The high nutritional value and easy cultivation gives them an untapped potential. They are high in fat, protein, vitamins, fiber, and minerals.
Insect cultivation can be quite “green” and efficient. When we consider quantity of food consumed verses quantity of food produced, insects are clearly far more efficient than cows.
In fact, as a rule, the bigger the beast, the more food, land and water are needed to produce the final edible product. Insects emit less greenhouse gasses and ammonia than do cattle or pigs, and require less land for rearing.
As an added bonus, insects feed on organic by-products like human and animal waste. Rearing and processing of insects can be performed inexpensively and without sophisticated machinery.
Perhaps the only stumbling block today is the “yuck” factor. But, who knows - someday we may find ourselves driving through our favorite fast food chain for a Caterpillar Burger.
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
Published: Jan. 8, 2015 - Volume 13 - Issue 39