June 5, 2013 | 11
I grabbed a box of cereal out of my cabinet. The flakes smelled stale, but I was hungry enough. I poured a cup or two into a bowl, followed by a splash of milk. Well into my third bite, I knew that stale cereal wasn’t all I was eating. I saw what were likely grain beetles—small food pests capable of chewing through cardboard to get at your conflakes—swimming in the bottom of the bowl, extending their legs in hopes of finding a flake—like a desperate swimmer in a flood. I immediately discarded the cereal, repulsed by the other bugs I had surely already eaten. But while I didn’t always see them, I had been eating bugs my whole life. So have you.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization recently released a report [PDF] touting the nutritional and environment benefits of eating our many-legged friends (or pests), which scuttled into all corners of the media. (You can read a very thorough write-up bug eating at io9 and here at Scientific American.) The gist is that insects may end up solving a real food crisis by giving up their lives for human consumption. To most of the world, this was old news—insects are considered staples and even delicacies in many cultures. But Western media still let out an audible cringe at the thought of crunching down on chitin.
Ignorance is bliss…
Out of Sight, Still In Your Mouth
You’re deluding yourself if you think farming is as clean as making a microchip. We are always on insect territory. Try as we might with insecticides and other engineered poisons, bugs crawl all over our food to feed (and procreate) on it. When we harvest and package our crops, a lot of bugs come along for the ride. Be aware, all the hitchhikers aren’t removed. At least there are limits on how many bugs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lets you unknowingly eat.
The FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook lays it all out. Staples like broccoli, canned tomatoes, and hops readily contain “insect fragments”—heads, thoraxes, and legs—and even whole insects. (I won’t tell you about the rat hair limits…) Fig paste can harbor up to 13 insect heads in 100 grams; canned fruit juices can contain a maggot for every 250 milliliters; 10 grams of hops can be the home for 2,500 aphids (pictured above).
All of these are merely aesthetic limits. It’s seemingly for your mental well-being. Like a child moving a mountain of peas around on a plate until it looks like she’s eaten more, the insect legs, bodies, and heads are less noticeable to us at the FDA’s proposed concentrations. Your shredded wheat won’t look like shredded thrips anytime soon. Anything over these limits would be aesthetically unpleasing, but it’s doing you no harm. You obviously aren’t keeling over from eating too much carapace.
The “action levels” sets by the FDA are for maximum insect contamination, so you ultimately ingest less than these limits. Nevertheless, bugs are making it into your gut whether you see them or not. Layla Eplett over at the Scientific American Guest Blog estimates that “an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it.”
So, I hate to break it to you, but you already eat bugs. Not nearly enough for you to recognize it or to potentially harm you, but down the hatch they go. You don’t really notice now, so just how much bug would have to be in your food for you to notice? If Westerners aren’t ready to dive into katydid kabobs, we can at least calculate the equivalent amount of bug burgers in your food.
Bugs like thrips and aphids have to be tiny indeed to pepper our food with their parts without us noticing. By my estimation, 5,000 aphids weigh about the same as a paperclip (each aphid being 1/5 of a milligram). If you are feelings adventurous, that means you could mash and mold 567,000 of the little plant suckers into a leggy equivalent of a Mac Donald’s quarter pounder.
You should be happy the bugs that call our food home aren’t bigger. The largest insect with reliable data on its mass is New Zealand’s Giant Weta, weighing about the same as a jumbo supermarket chicken egg. Just four of these bugs would be the same weight as a Big Mac. But you’ll thankfully never find one of these insects in your food (you’d notice the crunch).
Following FDA guidelines, you don’t have to order a bug burger to eat the same amount as one. If you are a fan of spinach, the action limit is 50 or more aphids, thrips and/or mites per 100 grams. That’s spinach that is 0.01% bug by weight. By the time you eat 1,000 kilograms of spinach you have eaten a quarter pounder’s worth of aphid. (Popeye has eaten a lot of bug burgers.)
Bug beer is even better. Many of the bugs and bug parts will be filtered out during brewing, but the FDA’s limit on the hops that go into the tank is 2,500 aphids per 10 grams of hops. That’s right, 5% of the total weight of the hops making your summer ale can be bug. A quarter pounder’s worth of aphid butt goes into the brewer for every 2.5 kilograms of hops.
Dessert is the same. If we consider the “insect parts” that the FDA limits to be about the same weight as a tiny aphid—a conservative estimate—then once you eat around 100 kilograms of your favorite chocolate you’ve eaten a full kilogram of bug. That’s a serious amount of cocoa, but nonetheless, bug you eat.
And if you fancy making bread from scratch, about one and a half kilograms of insect is sprinkled into every 100 kilograms you use.
Total up all the food you eat over the course of a lifetime, and I’d be surprised if we couldn’t trace a cringe-worthy percentage back to bugs.
Despite all the potential knee-jerk revulsion, it’s important to remember that like all the animals we eat, insects share the planet with us. They outnumber us by a wide margin. If anything, we share the Earth with them. To have insects spice up our food is unavoidable, but harmless. The op-ed pieces screaming about what “gross stuff” the FDA lets us eat are over-blown and under-informed. Think of how many pounds of food you have eaten in your lifetime. How many plates were infested, and how many times were you hospitalized with chitin-related injuries? The fact of the matter is that insects were here first. We do our best to minimize our contact with them, but the circle of life offers the little creepy crawlies up as a viable, nutritious food source, and we should embrace that.
After all, humans have eaten insects for millennia, and one day they will return the favor.
Bug blogger Bug Girl informed me that grain beetles were much more likely candidates for my cereal pillagers than my original identification of thrips.