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Rub a Dub Dub, Is It Time to Eat Grubs?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Gryllus--and that’s an Order! Actually, it’s not an order but a genus of some crickets related to grasshoppers and katydids. Other edible genera include fryus, buyus and tryus.

Gryllus--and that’s an Order! Actually, it’s not an order but a genus of some crickets related to grasshoppers and katydids. Other edible genera include fryus, buyus and tryus.

Excuse me, waiter, but there’s not a fly in my soup. Increasing the prominence of insects on menus is just one of the suggestions made in a report recently issued by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) The recommendation to consider the untapped potential of insects as food comes at a time when there is looming concern regarding food security. The world population is anticipated reach nine billion by 2050, and food production will need to double to meet the corresponding increased need for food.

If ethical or religious objections are extracted, what would bug a person about eating insects? For starters, it’s just that–terms like “bug” and “pest” have made insects synonymous with nuisance and not something to be dined on. According to the report, if people could get past its ick factor, entomophagy could be a more sustainable protein for the planet and its population.

In addition to protein, insects are also a significant source of zinc, iron, and vitamin A. Their genetic distance from humans decreases the chance of disease or a virus such as swine flu being transferred through their consumption. Insects not only produce less greenhouse gases, they also return nutrients back to soil, are more easily farmed and require less water than livestock.

To avoid cochineal extract, check food labels to see if they contain ingredients such as carmine and Natural Red 4. Their appearance in food can also be avoided by refraining from saying “Beetlejuice” three times.

To avoid cochineal extract, check food labels to see if they contain ingredients such as carmine and Natural Red 4. Their appearance in food can also be avoided by refraining from saying “Beetlejuice” three times.

As it is, insects have a way of making it into foods regularly eaten even if they aren’t ordered. Last year, Starbucks agreed to stop using cochineal extract in its products. Dubbed “beetle juice,” although it’s not technically from a beetle, the dye is commonly used to enhance the coloring of food. Its use raised objections by vegans and vegetarians because it comes from the Dactylopius coccus, a small white insect gives a vibrant red color when crushed. As an alternative, Starbucks agreed to enhance the hue of their red velvet whoopie pies, strawberry frappuchinos and other goods using the tomato-based extract, lycopene.

Even if they aren’t ingredients, the Food and Drug Administration permits a certain amount of insects in food products because it’s practically impossible to keep them completely out. The Food Defect Action Levels outlines the permissible amount of bugs (and other natural contaminants) allowed in food. According to guidelines, pasta may contain an average of 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams; a cup of raisins can have 33 fruit fly eggs and still make its way to shelves–it’s 34 or more that are unacceptable. While these levels represent limits and the actual amount consumed is probably lower, on average an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it.

It wasn’t that long ago that sushi was met with apprehension upon its introduction in the United States. The founders of Ento, a portmanteau of entomology and bento box, are hoping insects can have a similar success story. They currently offer insect meals presented in an ento box. The sushi inspired presentation is beautiful but not so blatantly bug. They’re hoping the ento box will be a gateway bug and that by 2020 insects in their original form will be carried in grocery stores, presumably somewhere near its predecessor, sushi.

The Ento Vision from Ento on Vimeo.

Insects and the City: Sushi Samba was so 2002–there’s a new trend currently invading chic cities.

Insects in recognizable form are already on the menus of some acclaimed restaurants. James Beard award winning chef Jose Andres’ restaurant, Oyamel, offers a grasshopper taco and the Artesian Bar in London’s Langham Hotel serves a tarantula and scorpion infused punch. More interesting combinations are on the way; Noma chef René Redzepi’s organization, the innovative Nordic Food Lab, recently announced funding to explore insect gastronomy.

The recent cooking techniques and flavor pairings are inventive but there is nothing new about eating bugs. In fact, it’s quite old–paleoanthropologists and biologists believe insects were consumed as part of our paleolithic predecessors’ diet. During biblical times it was determined Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. (Leviticus 11:22) Later, first century scholar Pliny the Elder wrote that Roman aristocrats “loved to eat beetle larvae reared on flour and wine.”

The practice continued for centuries. Even in the late 1870s gastronomes like the French were eating grasshoppers, Italians dined on beetles and Russians ate locusts but entomophagy was on the decline. In 1885 Vincent Holt published his manifesto, Why Not Eat Insects? Despite being well articulated, the argument failed to catch on, much to the relief of insects.

Although the practice has mainly been abandoned in Europe and English speaking countries, currently about 30 percent of the world’s population–nearly 2 billion people are entomophagists. Of the one million distinct species of insects, over 1,900 have been reported to be edible. The most commonly eaten insect groups are beetles, followed by caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants.

Bugs can provide a source of nutrition during seasonal times of food scarcity. Caterpillars are eaten during the rainy season in Central Africa. Their sales provide a supplemental income and nutrition. Caterpillars have more protein, fat, and calories than fish and meat and species that are iron rich are also given to people who are anaemic, pregnant or breastfeeding.

Insects are popular not just for being nutritious but also because they’re considered delicious–a whole range of insects are considered delicacies throughout the world. Escamoles, also known as insect caviar, is a dish of ant eggs that are either fried in butter with spices or boiled then served along with tortillas. The eggs come from the gigantic Liometopum ant, which scientifically speaking, is one big ass ant. There’s also the option of simply trying an ant with a big ass. A specialty in Columbia is known for its sizeable derriere. Hormigas culonas, meaning “big ass ants” have serious junk in the trunk along with some protein but not much saturated fat, making them a good snack option.

Although they’re actually winged termites, white ants are commonly eaten in Uganda. After being de-winged, they are fried, sun dried, or steamed in banana leaves and served as a snack or main dish. During dry season, white ants stay inside their hills–these elaborate nests are often palatial palaces up to 26 feet tall. When rainy season comes, usually in April and May, the ants head from the hills and on to plates.

Sometimes they need coaxing to come out, so people will drum on the ground to mimic the sounds of rain. Of course, this would be Andrew Zimmern’s experience. In his quest for Bizarre Foods, Zimmern ‘spends time with a remote Ugandan tribe and is amazed by the ways they hunt for white ants.’:

My own experience was decidedly less exotic; the white ants pretty much just showed up for a backyard Mexican fiesta:

Images:, top: author; bottom: Erwin Soo.

Related articles by the author:

Food Fights: Reconsidering Famine and War in the Horn of Africa
Talk “Dirty” to Me: Blood, Purity and Cuisine
When Sparks Fly: Aphrodisiacs and the Fruit Fly
Viral Videos and Infectious Disease–Healing in Northern Uganda
Fava–the Magic Bean
Exploring the DromeDairy: Camels and Their Milk
Second Helpings: Recycling Cairo’s Food Waste

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. enozo 9:58 am 06/4/2013

    Another article from the “Stupid Ideas” department.
    What happens when food efficiency is increased ? A smaller ecological footprint or just more people that consume a lot of extra energy, material, space, water, etc. etc.) ?
    The former is what ALWAYS happens. Therefore, every time food efficiency increases, more, not less environmental damage results. This is because population growth quickly (exponentially quickly!) matches the new food availability. But more people also need a lot of extra stuff, not just food.
    It has already happened : at the end of the 60s there were fears of mass starvation in some countries. Thanks to the green Revolution it did not happen and the population doubled from the 3.5 B then to the 7 B now. However, environmental conditions are a lot worse now for this reason. And people are still looking for yet another increase in efficiency to continue the Ponzi scheme of population growth.
    Eat steak instead : it is a lot less efficient and it will therefore limit the number of people and, hence, the environmental damage.

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  2. 2. oldvic 10:22 am 06/4/2013

    I have a lot of plants to eat before I consider insects as a protein source. Besides, they’re even more energy efficient.

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  3. 3. karl 10:30 am 06/4/2013

    I welcome the idea (I have been dinning on it for a while now, literally) but also have some concerns, you can have alergic reactions that are nasty.
    If you harvest crickets, scorpions, ants or moth larvae (all yummy by the way) you can use food waste such as old veggies to feed them, and solve two problems in one shot.
    The only drawback I see is that if you brand a beef you do one operation to mark 500 kilos of protein as yours, try doing that with crickets!
    Ento… where to start? ok, try making people eat only “organic”, that way the world won’t be able to sustain even the 3.5 billions you speak of, but who is to choose whichone starves to death and who lives (if anyone makes it)? second, if environmental conditions are worse is because we use low efficiency processes for everything, how about driving that gas guzzler to compensate for lack of something else?, having a big ranch for beef instead of a bugfarm on a building? or the need for a smarter smart phone when you aren’t using the one you have now to it’s fullest?

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  4. 4. N a g n o s t i c 12:31 pm 06/4/2013

    No rub a dub here in the United States, unless the grubs and their parents are isolated from pesticides, or they’re imported from non-pesticide exposed sources.

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  5. 5. N a g n o s t i c 12:37 pm 06/4/2013

    I’m surprised the article and comments (besides my own) make no mention of pesticides. Enozo, I take it “more people” are bad. And, you might have meant “latter” rather than “former”. Additionally, you must not have been alive during the 1960s. If you were, then you’d know your comment, “environmental conditions are a lot worse now” is patently wrong.

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  6. 6. stampsc 1:20 pm 06/4/2013

    It’s really depressing that that scientific american can’t conceive of any way to raise livestock that is good for the environment, so they are recommending we eat grubs.

    There are lots of farmers out there raising ruminants and other meat animals in ways that improve the landscape and watershed, build topsoil, and are just all around ethically and environmentally sound . . . and profitable. Livestock farming does not have to be detrimental to land around us – suggesting we eat bugs instead is solving the wrong problem.

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  7. 7. enozo 4:38 pm 06/4/2013

    you might think that environmental conditions were worse because they were, maybe, in the US. Now, in western countries, environmental standards have improved because most of the destruction and mess happens overseas like in China or in the Indonesian forest. Fish stocks are a miserable fraction of what they were. Very few of the iconic mammals (lions, elephants, tigers, etc.) survive outside small defined reserves. With them, less iconic ones. They are all technically protected but the relentless destruction of the environment in which they live has greatly reduced their numbers. CO2 in the atmosphere wasn’t at 400 ppm in the 60s either, but you probably believe that doesn’t matter either.
    It is so bleeding obvious that more people need more things that need to be taken from the environment that arguing against is ridiculous.
    More people also mean a lot less personal freedoms as more rules are required to regulate scarce resources like water, space (building regulations), etc. etc, even simple things like recreational fishing and hunting.
    Freedom to go to a place when you want to and not when the traffic is not a mess, you really have no idea how much it affects everything.
    Quality of life drops fast as population grows in an area.

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  8. 8. enozo 4:50 pm 06/4/2013

    I don’t know how to stop a Ponzi painlessly. All the ones I know of have ended up in collapse.
    My hope is that limiting food will result in a gentle slowdown instead. Not starvation (people die naturally too, you know) just difficulty in reproducing at current or above replacement rates. Will it work ? Not sure, but I’m sure that Ponzi schemes don’t anyway.
    If you are proposing to continue as business as usual, I can only remind you that Ponzi schemes are illegal in finance for a good reason : the time scale is different, the process exactly the same.

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  9. 9. N a g n o s t i c 6:57 pm 06/4/2013

    Enozo, I realize China, among other areas, is much more industrialized and pollute the environment more than they did in the 1960s. We (most everybody, including the Chinese) operate cleaner now than then, but there is a lot more of everybody now, than then.
    So, the increase in human population represents an increase in waste output, erasing some or all – I don’t know – of the gains had regarding cleaner operation. So, we should work on staying ahead in the clean operation department. There are fewer lions, tigers and elephants now. Don’t blame western developed countries for that. And don’t blame western developed countries for population increase-based animal and resource reduction in general, except for oil of course (who’s gonna miss that? Some microbes and the developing countries), and perhaps fish stocks.
    Can we (meaning educated, environmentally aware and concerned citizens of the industrialized West) make Asia, Africa and South America toe our lines? Good luck with that. Of course they want what we have, except for one thing – our emergent demographics. More old people, and among the decreasing ratio of the young, an increasing ratio of immigrants from developing or stagnant countries. Pretty soon, they’ll become a political force that doesn’t give a hoot about environmental concerns. Meanwhile we, the ones with all the plans for Green Energy, practice family planning. Idiocracy is just around the corner.

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  10. 10. marclevesque 7:58 pm 06/4/2013

    Excellent article, I enjoyed it.

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  11. 11. chubbee 8:35 am 06/19/2013

    The world population is anticipated reach nine billion by 2050, and food production will need to double to meet the corresponding increased need for food.
    I’ve seen this statement several times and I just don’t understand how a 30% increase in population would require a 100% increase in food production.
    Sounds like another one of those BS propaganda lines that journalists latch onto and repeat as truth, without verification.

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