Where the Wild Things Are: Hunting Crickets

Around 40 years ago, the average U.S. citizen didn’t relish the idea of consuming raw fish. Many, in fact, even considered eating raw fish barbaric—something for the uncultured or poor. Now, sushi is a thriving industry. All it took was some clever branding, the California Roll, and time. My name is Aly Moore and I eat bugs. My goals is to convince others that they should too.

On some level, I think I have always known that I would end up eating insects. As a kid, my mouth watered whenever that Timon & Pumbaa scene came on during The Lion King. Though, in all seriousness, I first became interested in edible insects after a summer I spent building health clinics in Mexico. There, we would eat tacos from the stands open late. My favorites were tacos de chapulín, or grasshopper tacos.

Defining Entomophagy

I’ve always been adventurous, and, for me, this was just another food to try. When I returned home, however, my curiosity compelled me to investigate why I’ve never seen bugs on the menu elsewhere in the States. I soon learned about the burgeoning movement of “entomophagy,” the fancy word for “eating insects,” but noticed the lack of resources on the subject. Since, I founded Bugible, now the leading bug blog in North America, and EatBugsEvents.com, a service creating approachable and fun events around eating insects—from bug dinners to wine and insect pairings. My goal is to educate the public about the benefits of eating insects and to reduce the stigma around using these ingredients.

Eating insects is not a “new health trend.” Over 2 billion people globally already eat bugs, including countries like France (hello, escargot!). A broader dialogue about edible insects as an industry re-emerged with a bang in 2013 after the FAO and UN released a report that suggested edible insects as one of the most promising solutions for a sustainable and healthy protein source to feed the expected 9 billion humans on Earth by 2050.

Over the past few years, Western societies have seen a resurgence of activity in the edible insect industry. Entomo-entrepreneurs are building companies including cricket farms, cricket protein bars, pasta sauces made from mealworms, and even a nonprofit called Little Herds dedicated to lobbying and education.

Why Eat Bugs?

In short, insects are nutritious, sustainable, and can taste great.

For a comparable amount of protein, insects like crickets have more calcium, iron, B12, zinc, Vitamin A, and other micronutrients than beef. A gram of cricket gives you more protein than a gram of beef. It’s also a complete protein, with the right balance of essential and non-essential amino acids, providing a better source of protein with a lower carbon footprint.

My favorite sustainability soundbite to share is that it takes around 1,700 gallons of water to get one pound of beef from the farm to your table. For the same amount of cricket protein, it takes ONE gallon of water. Talk about sustainable. Crickets and other insects are perfect for urban farming and can be grown anywhere from Detroit to Antarctica.

Many chefs and notable restaurants have been using the complex and delicate flavor profiles of insects in their dishes with increasing popularity. It is not necessary, however, to shell out the big bucks to feast on edible insects. They exist in abundance in our own backgrounds in large variations depending on the bioregion. With over 1900 species of edible insects already identified, we have a whole world to explore.

bugible-bug-protein-graphic

What Bugs Are Edible?

Ants might be the first “wild animal” I ever killed and ate, around the age of three. Most species of ant are edible, with the flavor pleasurably sour or slightly lemograssy. Insect flavors range all over the map – scorpions and waterbugs are a bit fishy, sago grubs taste like bacon (actually). In Colombia, ants are roasted with salt and eaten at feasts. In China, black ants are used medicinally and are said to boost libido. Slugs are edible and highly nutritious. They have occasionally been known to host a dangerous parasite called the rat lungworm and must thus be cooked before eaten to be safe.

As with any food category, certain bugs will be more appetizing to some than others. The most common insects consumed in Western cultures today are mealworms and crickets. These have a nutty taste – a little like chestnuts or soybeans.

On Eating Crickets

Crickets are consumed in an increasing variety of dishes ranging from a mouth-watering cricket-mushroom bruschetta to a bag of whole roasted and salted crickets to a cookie made from a processed protein-powder made of crickets. They are sold by the pound, dried, in Mexican markets or can be found pan-friend playing the role of “bar nuts” in Thailand.

Nutritional data on crickets varies hugely depending on the breed, conditions they are raised in, and the feed they subsist off of. Some sources suggest that 100 grams of crickets, which is about 50 medium sized ones, will contain: 120 calories, 13 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of fat, 5 grams of carbohydrates, 76 mg of calcium, 185 mg of phosphorus, 9.5 mg of iron, 0.36 mg of thiamine, 2 mg of riboflavin, and 3.10 mg of niacin.

I will avoid getting “too scientific,” but it is worth taking a small detour into why insect protein is so good to eat: proteins are made up of amino acids. The human body needs 22 amino acids to optimally function. While the body can produce most amino acids, there are 9 – the “essential amino acids” – that need to be consumed from our food. Many plant sources need to be eaten in combinations – like beans and rice – to allow the body to manufacture all of the amino acids. Many insects, however, are complete proteins and contain all 9 essential amino acids much like eggs or beef.

The Cricket Farm

Many companies that started as suppliers of insects for pets like reptiles are now upgrading their facilities to receive certification to be fit for human consumption as well.

If you are not compelled to purchase insects from an increasing supply of farms and other vendors (http://www.eatbugsevents.com/buy-bugs.html), there’s another option: farm your own insects. Mealworms, wax worms, and crickets, to name a few, all thrive in captivity. It is easiest to buy your first batch of ‘breeders’ from a reputable insect farm.

Creating a habitat for these creatures is simple: a plastic bin, ventilated and kept moderately warm, plus a food supply like oats, carrots, or apples, is all most crickets need to survive. Many place pizza boxes or egg cartons in the bins to give the crickets more surface area to roam and not crush each other. Plus, it makes harvesting – shaking the crickets off of an egg carton into a bag to be frozen – much simpler.

Unlike traditional livestock, crickets do not need large horizontal areas to live in. They can be stacked in vertical environments to maximize the efficiency of limited space. Crickets can also be raised in high densities compared to mammals, so we can get a much higher nutritional output per unit area used to raise them.

One female cricket can lay around 100 eggs in her 4-month lifespan. Roughly half the eggs will produce female crickets, meaning 50 more crickets, each laying 100 eggs, or 5000 additional crickets in the next few months. Thus, a minimal investment in a cricket farm can feed a family of four, no problemo.

Wild Crickets

Inhabiting grasslands, fields, open meadows, and many of our backyards, crickets have a long tradition as foraged human food, as well. Insects like crickets are wonderful sources of non-meat proteins in the wild. Collecting wild crickets normally brings up two issues: first, you need to find enough of them. Second, you need to get past being grossed out and actually eat them. (Hopefully by this point, the latter is a non-issue).

A simple trap for crickets can be set with nothing more than a Mason jar and some bait. Dig a small hole in the ground of a zone with many crickets, put the jar into the hole, and move the soil back into place around it. Put a piece of bait in the jar – a slice or apple, carrot, lettuce, oats, etc – and check back in the morning. Some crickets should be found snacking on the little treat.

Before consuming, wash the crickets. My preferred euthanasia method is freezing crickets. Then, I like to boil or roast my crickets, depending on the type of meal I’m creating.

Safety While Eating Insects

Before running off to pop the nearest edible insect into your mouth, there are a few things to consider: not all insects are edible, and some contain parasites or toxins that can be harmful to humans. Most of this can be avoided by choosing to consume farm raised insects, as discussed above, or by cooking the insect. In the wild, a general rule of thumb is to avoid eating brightly colored insects or insects covered in fuzz. More often than not, vibrant colors are signals to predators to avoid ingesting toxic insects. Some crickets have a tendency to carry parasitic nematodes such as rag worms. Because of this, I recommend cooking insects to mitigate the risk of contracting parasites.

I live in a very urban area.  When I’m out for brunch and a beetle scurries by, my friends often joke, “Oh! Aly! There goes your dessert – you’d better go catch it!” However, I must be careful foraging for wild insects in a highly industrialized area. Insects that have been living in areas that have been polluted with insecticides, pesticides, or heavy metals could be full of toxins.

Another note: insects are arthropods, or the same group a seafood crustaceans like shrimp or lobster. As such, those allergic to shrimp or other shellfish may be allergic to some insects.

When push comes to shove, however, it is totally possible to consume most insects raw. Insects are safer than eating many traditional meats like cow, chicken, and pig because they are more genetically removed from humans and we run a lesser risk of catching food-borne illness from them.

You’ve Done This Before

Most of us have eaten insects, whether we know it or not. Many of the food products we consume today – candy bars, chocolates, peanut butter, cheese – all contain more than trace amounts of insects. As kids, we ate worms on the playground. Unfortunately, adults who grew up in western cultures now consider the act of eating insects repulsive. In reality, insects have been an integral part of the food chain for millions of years.

To attend a bug dinner or receive more information, visit: eatbugsevents.com.

[originally written for http://tacticsandpreparedness.com/]

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