What's the *bug* deal? 🧠
Insects are an underutilized alternative protein source that offer promising options for sustainable, nutritious, and delicious food. While eating bugs is a practice with a rich history across the world’s various cultures, very few Western societies are familiar with it today.
For people who did not grow up with insects as normal ingredients, the wonderful world of eating bugs is a new discovery. Entomophagy – the practice of eating insects – will normally come up in the search results for anyone interested in topics like a) supplementing their daily diet with protein, vitamins, fiber; b) finding alternatives to meat for protein;, c) combating global food insecurity,; or d) the future of animal feed.
The insect industry is broad – beyond feeding insects to humans, we can consider insects’ role in the future of livestock feed, fine-dining restaurant menu items, premium fertilizer, waste solutions, circular agriculture, improved soil health, natural medicine, functional food, biodiversity management, or even space travel. But, if you’re new here and are looking for the basics, we’ve provided short answers to eight common bug-beginner questions below.
Insects are a highly sustainable food source. Most insects require fewer resources, including land, water, and feed, to raise then other protein sources, while producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Many insects have an extremely efficient feed-to-body-mass conversion ratio (insects are cold-blooded and require less feed per unit of body weight than traditional livestock to sustain themselves). We can also consume an insect’s entire body, wasting little flesh.
Insects are also excellent sources of macro and micro nutrients, making them a great addition to any diet. Depending on the species, they can be great sources of protein, fiber, and other vitamins/minerals. For example, pound for pound, eating insects provides similar levels of protein to conventional meats like beef and chicken Insects often have higher levels of nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium because we consume the exoskeleton and all.
Last but not least, insects are delicious – or, at the very least, not “gross.” Insects have been consumed by humans for thousands of years throughout history. Currently, it is estimated that over two billion people around the world eat insects as part of their diets.
The real question is why not. There’s a reason why insects have been a staple food for thousands of years and around 2 billion people eat bugs today. Choose any food enviro-metric you’d like: gallons of water, Co2 equivalents of greenhouse gases, acres of land, feed-conversion-ratio comparisons, you name it. Insects come out ahead of traditional livestock like beef.
Insects take 12x less food than cows, produce 100x less CO2, take 1000x less water to raise, and can be grown anywhere.
Not only are insects healthy for the environment, but they are packed with nutrients for us as well. If we compare 100g of crickets to 100g of beef, crickets have 2-3X more protein; more calcium, iron, vitamin a, fiber, potassium; an ideal omega 3 to 6 ratio; and all 9 essential amino acids.
Who in their right mind (and over age 5) would eat bugs? You call it gross; I call it one of the most intriguing marketing issues of our generation. Look at sushi– less than 40 years ago the U.S. did not relish the idea of consuming raw fish (many even considered it barbaric.)
Now it’s a thriving industry. All it took was some clever branding, the California Roll, and time. The United Nations issued a report in 2013 called Edible Insects, spurring small edible insect businesses into action. They urge us to turn to entomophagy (the fancy word for eating insects) as an additional tool to address world hunger, meet growing population needs, and not further overtax our planet’s resources.
Have you ever gone through a bad breakup and been told, “Don’t hate your ex. Hate is too similar to love. Both are emotions of passion.” Well, fear/anxiety have a similar relationship to curiosity. By making insects interesting – by adding in fun educational elements, Bugible strives to transform fear of the unknown into excitement for the unexplored. To open minds and mouths to a healthier, yummier, more diverse future.
Sources cite over two million recorded species of edible insects (and counting! There are likely hundreds of thousands that we just haven’t tried out.) Some of the most common species include beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers, and crickets. In North America, grasshoppers and crickets are the most widely produced and consumed.
Bugs that are farmed specifically for human consumption are as safe if not safer (due to larger genetic variance from humans) than traditional livestock. Be aware that insects caught in fields often have greater levels of pesticides and herbicides than those caught in forests, because these insects often feed off of vegetables and grains that are farmed with heavy pesticide use. Otherwise, common methods of preparing insects also lend themselves to making them more safe to consume. Methods like roasting, frying, or boiling help inactivate potentially harmful microbial content in wild insects.
Bugs are high in complete proteins, which contain all 9 essential amino acids. In general, edible insects contain 67-98% of edible protein, with 46-96% of this protein being composed of essential amino acids. Many bugs contain healthy fats, including essential linoleic and α-linolenic acids (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids). They also contain other vitamins and nutrients, like iron and zinc, deficiencies of which are common public health concerns. Most edible insects contain more iron per 100g serving than beef! Lastly, we cannot overlook the nutritional value of the exoskeleton as a source of fiber. Chitin, the main component of exoskeletons, is an insoluble fiber that is beneficial for digestive health.
While different cultures have insects integrated into menus and local cuisine to different degrees based on geography, you don’t have to rely on epicurean tourism to snack on tasty insects. Insects are increasingly available all over the globe from online stores. For a list of reputable sources to buy bugs online from, check out my list here. Additionally, insects can often be found in local shops from various geographies where bugs are commonly consumed. Luckily, insects are increasingly easy to find as they become more and more available in health food grocery stores or on aggregators like Amazon.com.
Insects are often described as “flavor vehicles” and will take on the flavor of a seasoning or marinade, while adding a savory, umami component and a satisfying crunch.
Each insect has its own unique flavor, but categories can be created around different species. For instance, crickets and mealworms are known for being nutty, earthy, and/or mushroomy. Grubs and larvae that are higher in fats have a meatier flavor. Many scorpions or locusts are said to be “shrimp of the land” and have a slight, well, shrimpy flavor. Black ants contain formic acid and have a sour, lemon-pepper flavor. These are just some examples of the varied world of insect flavors.
Insects, like any ingredient, can be cooked in a huge variety of ways. It is recommended that you first euthanize insects in a “humane” way. Insects are commonly euthanized by being placed in a freezer for 2-3 hours. Raw insects can be washed and then prepared by boiling or roasting them directly over a flame. Other methods include frying them in oil, or roasting them in an oven for 1-2 hours at 200F.
Many insects you can purchase come dry roasted. You can eat these as they come, but you may choose to flavor and to lightly fry or saute them. Dry roasted insects have a longer shelf-life than raw – “wet” – insects. Moreover, insects can be ground up into powders or “flours” and used to make a broader variety of baked goods, like breads or cookies.
Everyone may not understand wine or entomophagy, but everyone does understand passion. While we might have very different passions, maybe we can agree that sometimes the world looks best when seen through the lens of a glass of wine. Wine has a unique role in connecting the food plebeian with the flowery language of foodies. It’s a bridge for everyday consumers to connect with their inner food critics and senses of culinary adventure and exploration.
Marketing food involves a technique called framing that can be used to position items as more desirable. Wine is luxurious. When things are paired with wine, suddenly they become more elegant – they’re elevated. People talk about the subtle cherry notes they can pick up from some moldy cheese when it’s paired with wine.
Wine tastes and smells like so many different things beyond grapes. The more you drink wine, the more you start to notice subtle flavors like apple, vanilla, spices, or even charred tobacco. It is through this lens of exploration that we hope to encourage people to taste bugs through.
There are over 2,000 species of edible bugs, and many more to be discovered. They all have unique, beautiful flavor profiles just waiting to be explored. Imagine that you have a friend who is an artist. She paints beautiful pictures, but only uses red, pink, and yellow. She can make lovely paintings, but one day you show her the other rainbow of colors that exist – the blues, greens, purples, oranges, silvers, and more. Now she can make even more vivid paintings.
That’s where we are in the culinary world. We have a huge range of raw ingredients that chefs use, but there are rainbows of additional flavors to explore with bugs. And bugs can be tasty.
One of the top restaurants in the world, Noma, has made use of bugs for many years on their menu. Fancy restaurants in France serve up snails – or escargot. You’ve been eating bugs all along and haven’t known it too! Processed foods are allowed to contain certain levels of bugs (it’s unavoidable in food packing facilities.) The foods with the highest amounts of bugs are peanut butter, ketchup, and chocolate bars. They are probably more nutritious because of the bugs.
Here’s another fun fact: Bugs are small enough that they quite literally are what they eat. If you have some crickets and feed them mint, they will have a minty flavor. If you feed your crickets banana, they will adopt a banana flavor. We are only at the beginning of our exploration of bugs as ingredients.
I place most bugs into three unofficial flavor categories. The first group tastes nutty and earthy. Crickets and mealworms are examples of bugs that taste similar to seeds, nuts or mushrooms. The second group tastes like seafood. Locusts and scorpions are examples of bugs that have been compared to crab. The third group tastes meaty or savory. Sago grubs are often called the bacon of the bug world.
I actually have an old blog post that touches on this (read it here). People have many different reasons for their decision to be a vegan or vegetarian, but If the ultimate goal of a vegan is to reduce the harm done to animals, then an exclusively plant-based diet is not the answer.
Here’s the dilemma: Vegans don’t eat animals, insects are animals, so vegans don’t eat insects. The end. But this overly simple syllogism does not entertain the very real possibility that vegans, by the nature of their quest to reduce animal suffering, may not only be permitted to eat insects—they may be obligated to do so:
- Untold numbers of sentient animals are killed each year to grow and harvest edible crops.
- Farmers routinely unleash arsenals of agricultural ammunition upon “pests” like squirrels, rabbits, mice, moles, deer, wolves, coyote, etc. (AND insects)
- Harvesters unavoidably shred millions of feeling animals who live among the crops. This suffering is just as palpable as the suffering of those animals slaughtered to feed us chicken, pork, beef…
- Plus pesticides used to harvest the vegetation vegans consume to obtain daily nutrition kill more insects than a vegan would need to consume to obtain the same nutrition.
This is the agricultural reality that we all too often ignore. Vegans might respond that incidental animal deaths caused from growing crops is ethically superior to directly killing animals to make burgers. Or that vegan-friendly farming techniques are being developed. With insects as an option, however, the choice is no longer between the incidental or non-incidental deaths of obviously sentient creatures. To summarize: The more vegans replaced plant-based calories with insect-based calories, the fewer animals they’d end up harming. This is the vegan’s dilemma.
From overpopulation, declining biodiversity, climate change, and growing hunger needs… our species faces many challenges ahead. We’ll need to adapt. Sometimes that means facing the things we fear the most. To change. Bugible is here to make us not just comfortable with change, but maybe even enjoy it. What Bill Nye did for Science and Neil DeGras did for Astrophysics…
Bugible aims to make topics around nutrition, sustainability, and the impact of food/feed not just accessible, but interesting.
To open minds and mouths by replacing fear with a taste for curiosity and understanding.
I love new experiences. There’s nothing better than watching someone try something new (like insects!) for the first time and be pleasantly surprised. If this blog does not pique your curiosity, then, dear friend, your curiosity might be tragically un-piquable.
Entomophagy is the fancy word to refer to the act of eating insects.
To be *technically* correct, this includes arachnids (tarantulas & scorpions) and myriapods (centipedes).