Exploring the Wild Mealworm

Less known to Western palates—but no less integral to the global food chain—is entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs. Contrary to the Western aversion for eating insects, bugs are part of the regular diets of roughly 2 billion people across the globe. My name is Aly Moore and I eat bugs. My goals is to convince others that they should too.

After studying food policy at Yale and consuming many edible insects on my travels, I began speaking and hosting events around the wonderful world of edible bugs. I have continued for the past six years. 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.

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 most insects gives you more protein than a gram of beef. Insects contain complete proteins—with the right balance of essential and non-essential amino acids—providing a better source of protein with a lower carbon footprint. Choose any foodish enviro-metric you like: gallons of water, CO2 equivalents of greenhouse gases, acres of land, feed-conversion-ratio comparisons, you name it. Insects will come out ahead.

Bugs are perfect for urban farming and can be grown anywhere from Detroit to Antarctica to even Mars. I joke that in the movie The Martian, mealworms would have been a much better farming choice than potatoes to sustain life on Mars. With over 1,900 species of edible insects already identified, we have a whole world to explore.

What Bugs Are Edible?

Insect flavors range all over the map—scorpions and waterbugs are a bit fishy, sago grubs taste like bacon, and crickets have an umami, nutty flavor.  In Oaxaca, grasshoppers are roasted with garlic, dusted with chili powder, and sprinkled with lime. 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. Most first-time bug eaters find the idea of eating worms hard to stomach as our mental associations with them revolve around decomposition and other slimy, horrifying scenes. Mealworms, however, are a viable and environmentally friendly substitute for traditional livestock offerings and can be raised or harvested in the wild with great success.

On Eating Mealworms

The mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the superworm (Zophobas morio) are consumed as larval forms before they become beetles. Mealworms are traditionally consumed canned or live, or can be baked into breads and cookies, deep fried with potatoes for more nutritious french fries, or simply roasted with salt for a protein-rich snack.

Nutritional data on mealworms varies hugely depending on the breed, conditions they are raised in, and the feed they subsist off of. Some sources suggest that mealworms are 12.72% fat (the good kind), 20.27% protein and 1.73% fiber.

The protein from insects is highly bioavailable. Briefly: 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. Critters like mealworms make an excellent addition to any diet, especially when more traditional forms of protein are unavailable.

The Mealworm 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. Bugs, like mealworms, are available freeze-dried, canned, or live for human consumption. 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.

It is estimated that livestock production takes approximately 70 percent of agricultural land and is responsible for some 15 percent of all human-generated greenhouse gasses. Mealworm farming, in comparison, can yield one-half to two-thirds fewer gas emissions and land use than the cultivation of chicken, pork, and milk. The numbers rise to 90 percent for beef production.

Unlike traditional livestock, mealworms and many other insects do not need large horizontal areas to live in. They can be stacked in vertical environments to maximize the efficiency of limited space. Often recycled cardboard egg trays, a climate-controlled rearing station, cages, and water are sufficient to raise mealworms. They can feed on a variety of common restaurant waste products, most commonly carrots and mixed grains. To produce one kilogram of protein (including the feed for growing) mealworms require one tenth the amount of land required to produce one kilogram of beef.

Because mealworms are cold blooded, they do not waste energy converting feed into body heat. Mealworms are efficient at turning feed into body weight at about 2.2 kilograms of food into each kilogram of bug weight. This is similar to chickens and much better than pigs and cows. Female mealworms mature in about 10 weeks and lay around 160 eggs in their short three-month lives.

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Wild Mealworms

Contrary to what their name suggests, mealworms are not traditional worms, but rather the larvae of the darkling beetle. They are light brown and darken as they age. They can grow to as long as 1.25 inches when full grown and are food-motivated, subsisting in any environment that will provide them with a reliable food source. When foraging for wild mealworms, we must examine dark, moist places such as beneath rocks or rotten logs or in animal burrows. They will eat decaying leaves, dried grasses, or grains. More commonly, mealworms are found in human-created environments such as warehouses, mills, or farms that have stored grains. They can bury themselves in crushed wheat bran, living in the substrate that they consume.

At the end of the day, mealworms are not picky. Foragers looking to collect wild mealworms will have success checking areas where excess biological waste has accumulated. The activity of collecting wild mealworms will more closely resemble the gathering end of the hunter-gatherer totem pole. It is critical to ensure that the substrate that foragers collect their mealworms from is relatively clean in a sense. Mealworms obtained from places rich in bacteria, pesticides, sewage, or excrement should be avoided. Even those obtained from grain stores should be properly cleaned and cooked before eating. If you have the time, you should conduct what is referred to as “purging the bug” before cooking. Purging harvested bugs involves leaving them to rest for several days without food to eliminate any waste in the bugs’ systems before cooking.

Mealworms can be euthanized by placing them in the freezer to lower their body temperatures into a state of dormancy and eventual death. After, the protein-packed critters can be boiled, roasted, or fried depending on the type of meal.

Safety While Eating Insects

In the wild, a general rule of thumb is to avoid eating brightly colored insects or insects covered in fuzz. While many insects can be eaten raw or live, I recommend cooking insects to mitigate the risk of contracting parasites. As discussed earlier, make sure to harvest your mealworms from an area less likely to be contaminated by highly industrialized areas or bacteria-prone environments.

Eating Insects Is Not New

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, Western cultures have reframed bugs as pestilent forces of famine, disease, and contamination. Despite the insects’ status as the most successful class of animal to ever have hopped, squirmed, flown, or swarmed about the planet—there are nearly 40 tons of every insect for every human—we are highly adverse to adding these exotic foods to our diets.

I urge you to add this sustainable, obtainable, and—if cooked properly—delectable, food source to your next meal. At the very least, retain the information about the existence of this very achievable protein source in the case that you’re ever in a bind for food.

P.S. If you get to cooking some mealworms up, here’s my top pro tip: Sticker Mule hot sauce​ to spice it up! I’ve been a customer of Sticker Mule for ages for all my Bugible swag and “I Ate Bugs!” stickers. They emailed me about their hot sauce and sent me a free bottle. Gotta say… it does kick ass.


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