Eating Insects

The likely result, when someone finds an insect in food they are purchased or been served at a restaurant, is for that person to hire a lawyer and sue those responsible for that “contamination”. Our Western culture is such that we simply do not consider insects and other arthropods to be acceptable parts of our diets. We may unwittingly consume bits of insects that are present in foods, such as vegetables or processed grain products, and suffer no harm either physical or mental because we were unaware that bug was present. We can actually purchase insects to eat, usually as curiosities or pranks, such as fried grasshoppers, chocolate covered ants, or scorpions in lollipops. Many herbal remedies in popular use today are concoctions made from insects. And, what would a bottle of quality Tequila be without that large caterpillar in the bottle, the prize for the one who finishes the last serving. Generally speaking, insects are not hazardous to our health when eaten, and would in fact add some healthy protein to our diet.

Our current and strong aversion to eating insects has not always been a part of civilized human history. Ancient Roman aristocrats considered large beetle larvae to be a delicacy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle provided detailed instructions on how best to harvest and prepare cicadas, noting that the nymphs in the ground were the best, until the adult females were eventually filled with eggs and themselves became the delicacy. Even The Bible gives encouragement on using insects as food, such as grasshoppers, locusts, and beetles. Native Indians of North America had an effective technique for driving hordes of Mormon Crickets into trenches covered with straw. The straw was then set ablaze and the large, cooked crickets then ground into a flour and used in bread, providing an excellent source of protein to these people.

Asian cultures, such as in Japan and China, currently dine on insects such as honeybee larvae and the larvae of large flies. Certainly many of us may have watched programs depicting native peoples in South America harvesting beetle larvae from dead trees, and roasting them as an excellent food resource in a protein-poor country. They also may dine on roasted tarantulas, and it is said that these huge spiders taste very much like shrimp. This could be expected, as shrimp, crabs, and lobsters are closely related to insects, so perhaps we are not that far off ourselves. In Africa many native people gather the large termites that swarm during the year, fry or roast them, and then serve them as a bread or on porridge. In Latin America today the caterpillars that feed on agave plants are roasted and eaten with tortillas.  In North America today we certainly have no problem dining on the products from insects, such as honey. A similar sweet treat of sugar could be the swollen “repletes” of Honey Ants, which use living nest mates to store their nectar in once it is returned to their colony. The replete simply hangs from the ceiling of special chambers in the colony, jaws locked to that surface, and is filled up with nectar by worker ants returning that food to the colony. Much of this nectar may even be the “honeydew” drippings exuded by aphids and other insects that feed on plants, as they void a large quantity of liquid materials as they feed. And who among us could visit New Orleans and not manage to enjoy a feast of crawdads – actually crayfish, which are just big bugs.

The list goes on and on, with virtually any and all available insects being dined upon by some culture somewhere in the world. From crickets, grasshoppers, termites, beetle and moth larvae in Africa to silk moth pupae, fried cicadas, and boiled wasp larvae in Japan, the world is filled with nutritious and available food. If only we could get over our cultural and learned disgust of it. Now we can even watch “survivor” programs on TV, and be coached by the survival expert on how to look for insects if you are lost in the wild, and how best to prepare them for eating. They may not be as enjoyable as a chocolate candy bar, but they will keep you alive. While in Thailand in the military I often watched the local Thais leaping to capture one of the 5 inch long “rice bugs”, which were actually huge Giant Water Bugs. These insects would fly to lights at night, and the locals would either eat them raw or prepare them as a spicy treat.

Our aversion to eating insects may have several origins. As human cultures turned to farming as a way of growing their own food the insects became the enemy. Dining on them, referred to as Entomophagy, just did not seem like the proper thing to do when the insects themselves were destroying so much of the crops that were grown. Europeans settling in other parts of the world may even have brought that belief with them, and looked down upon native peoples who were seen to use insects as a food staple. And yet, if we can get past the psychological problems with eating insects we realize the health benefits they might provide. They are a wonderful source of protein, and cooked grasshoppers contain up to 60% protein with just 6% fat, compared with hamburger that may be only 18% protein with 18% fat. And, the fat in insects is unsaturated and healthier than meat fat might be. The yield from farming insects could be much higher than from raising beef as well. We could harvest several times the amount of food, from insects, as we do from livestock fed the same quantity of plant material.

This is not to say that ALL insects can be eaten, but Nature has developed some interesting self defense strategies in bugs. In the game of survival insects are considered a major food resource for a great many animals – birds, mammals, and other insects. One of the ways that insects keep from being eaten by the predators is to have toxic substances in their bodies. Quite often it will be the brightly colored insects – red, orange, and yellow in particular – that are warnings to predators that there is something distasteful about that particular bug. One of the most toxic may be the venom in caterpillars known as flannel moth or puss caterpillars, in the moth family Megalopygidae. The venom is delivered to a victim upon contact with “urticating” hairs that cover the body of the caterpillar, and there are stories telling of intense and lingering pain and even death due to organ failure from contact with one of these brightly colored caterpillars. Even our beloved and familiar Monarch Butterfly is toxic, and the caterpillar gathers the toxic substances as it feeds on milkweed. The caterpillar and the butterfly have evolved to withstand the toxins, which are substances called cardenolides (cardiac glycosides), but an animal eating that butterfly or many of them could become ill. Fortunately the toxins also appear to be terribly bad tasting, and the bird that captures a Monarch in its mouth is likely to immediately spit it back out, and from then on will avoid the Monarch and other similar butterflies.

Eating insects as they are found, raw and wiggling, is often done. But, in countries where insects are a staple in the diet it is recommended that they be cooked first when possible. Cooking will often break down any toxic substances that may be in the insect, making them safer to eat. Insect larvae often will be infested with various kinds of parasites, and cooking will kill these parasites to ensure they cannot infest a human. Some kinds of insects, such as cockroaches, are known to carry many serious pathogens on and in their bodies, and even those who encourage the use of insects as food would suggest avoiding these kinds of bugs.

It is not anticipated that this short article is going to have a startling impact on the culinary habits of people in North America. We still are going to spit out that bug that flies into our open mouth. But, perhaps we can have a better curiosity about insects, and less revulsion over them. Little children show that wonderful curiosity about little critters they find crawling around in the yard, but somewhere along the line they are taught to avoid and fear them. This is unfortunate, and often may lead to an unreasonable phobia that keeps us from enjoying a wonderful part of nature.