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.
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.
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.
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