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Bug Bites: Insects Might Be the Protein of Tomorrow

CCA LiveE | Thursday December 1st, 2011 | 1 Comment

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

Malaysian Jungle Nymph. Photo by University of Chicago News Office, courtesy Entom Foods.

By Jasmine Probst

So there I was, staring down a heaping plateful of…grasshoppers. There were easily a hundred piled up.

“OK, I’m gonna do it,” said my friend who, on a recent Saturday night, joined me and my husband to dine at Guelaguetza, a restaurant in Los Angeles that serves traditional Oaxacan fare including chapulines a la Mexicana­, a dish of sautéed grasshoppers, onions, jalapenos and tomatoes topped with avocado and cheese. He grabbed a fork and dug in. Crunch. “Yeah, not bad.”

My husband went next. Glossy little bodies scattered across the table.

While my husband and friend were busy clearing the plate with newbie enthusiasm, I was struggling to enjoy the modest grasshopper taco I’d composed. It didn’t taste bad; the flavor was reminiscent of shrimp, and mildly smoky. Still, bugs for dinner?

Perceptions & Population Growth

Actually, in 80 percent of the world, this isn’t uncommon. Approximately 3,000 ethnic groups worldwide—many in Africa, Asia and Latin America—have culinary traditions of eating more than 1,000 different insect species, from beetles to bees to ants to cicadas to various types of worms, numerous kinds of larvae, and more. Even scorpions and tarantulas are relished.

But in the United States and Europe, there’s a prevalent cultural bias against insects as a source of edible protein. Like many in the developed western world, I have been socially conditioned to keep bugs away from food—not to put them in it. It isn’t part of my food heritage, so eating a grasshopper, for example, is a novelty. However, that might change sooner than you or I expect.

It is estimated that by 2050, the world population will reach nine billion. With that will be a greater demand than ever for food. Traditional livestock already uses 70 percent of agricultural land. Expanding livestock production to accommodate a growing meat-hungry population will most likely come at the cost of rain forest and other natural resources.

Entrepreneurs & Entomo-what?!

Entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—has recently started gaining traction as a viable alternative. It’s catching on in the Netherlands, where the grocery wholesaler Sligro is stocking some foods that list insect protein as an ingredient. And a handful of entrepreneurs in the U.S. are also working to break down the taboo and prepare for tomorrow’s cravings.

Entom Foods, still in the planning phase and run by a group of students, was awarded $10,000 by the University of Chicago in an innovation and entrepreneurship competition in May. The start-up has ambitions of processing insect meat into an “appealing” form, like a power bar, in a cost-effective way. Their expected target market is “the green and health-conscious consumer.”

Others are taking their efforts to the street. Don Bugito, owned by Monica Martinez, is a food cart that debuted at the San Francisco Street Food Festival in August, serving wax moth larvae tacos to a gastronomically curious crowd.

Food for Thought

A strong case can be made for grubbing on bugs. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the protein content is comparable to that of meat. Although nutritional values vary by species, insects generally provide a good supply of essential amino acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and ample vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron, zinc, and calcium.

Bugs also have a high food-to-feed ratio. For example, crickets require six times less feed and 1,000 times less water than cattle to yield one pound of food. They’re biologically distant enough from humans that there is little chance of disease jumping species, the way swine flu did. And, in contrast to traditional livestock, insect cultivation is relatively sustainable: they thrive in close quarters, produce little waste, and emit a fraction of the greenhouse gases.

Despite the benefits, there’s still the gross-out problem, which is what I experienced when face-to-face with those grasshoppers.

But to put things in perspective for anyone who thinks they’d never let a creepy crawly come close to their lips: by some calculations, Americans unknowingly ingest a pound or more of insects annually. The FDA publishes a handbook that specifies acceptable levels of bugs and bug parts, among other unappetizing defects, in processed food. Peanut butter—a common household staple—is allowed up to 30 insect pieces per 100 grams. Yum.

And consider this: just two decades ago, for many Americans the thought of eating raw fish was hard to swallow. Today sushi is largely ubiquitous, and available to go at many U.S. grocery stores. This proves that consumers can change their tastes.

I, for one, am working on my appetite.

 


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  • Dhaval

    Jasmine,
    Thanks for the thought provoking article. As a vegetarian, I have always pointed it out to my meat-eating friends the amount of water and grain that is consumed just to produce one pound of meat. I have always wondered if that grain can be utilized better to feed the starving populace of the world. The statistics is just not in favor for a sustainable meat industry and I think insects meat, as pointed out by your article, can definitely something we all should consider – for a sustainable future of our food supply.

    Dhaval.