2011.08.31 Grubs: the other white meat

Written by David Green.


“Most of the world eats bugs.”

That’s a quote from a New Yorker magazine article by Dana Goodyear about eating insects.

Worldwide, about 80 percent of Earth’s human inhabitants eat insects, with pleasure. If you want to get technical, we all eat insects. We eat insects by the thousands.

The Food and Drug Administration allows, for example, up to 50 aphids, thrips and mites for every 3.5 ounces of frozen spinach. A one-pound jar of peanut butter can contain about 130 insect parts before it’s considered contaminated. For chocolate, 137 parts for an eight-ounce bar. The list goes on and on.

That’s just the processed food. Fresh vegetables often have insects, unless they’re pesticide laden. We eat insects every day, but few of us among the bugless 20 percent eat them intentionally. What we don’t know can’t gag us.

Goodyear writes about a region of Mexico where toasted grasshoppers (with garlic, chile and lime) are a treat and shrimp is considered disgusting.

Witchetty grubs in Australia are said to taste like nut-flavored scrambled eggs. Children in Venezuela enjoy toasted tarantulas. In Mali, cultural differences keep chicken and eggs off the dinner plate, but children love eating grasshoppers. Meal worms are factory-farmed in China, and that gets to the perception problem faced by those in insect husbandry.

No one in the U.S. is going to eat something with the name “worm.” How about if it goes by the genus name, tenebrio? A tenebrio quiche just might make it in an upscale restaurant, suggests Gene DeFoliart, the former chair of entomology at the University of Wisconsin.

Goodyear points out the precedent for this move. In the 19th century, the English members of the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food hired French chefs to prepare banquets featuring a tasty new item: chevaline.

If a name change for a wax moth fails, then do as another scientist suggested: cover them in good chocolate. People will eat anything wrapped in chocolate.

And don’t forget, 20 years ago few people around here made it past the “yuck” factor associated with sushi. Now it’s pretty common.

Insects are associated with filth, although most of them lead clean lives fueled by a healthy diet. It’s mushrooms that are dirty. It’s lobsters that are bottom-feeders, eating debris off the ocean floor. And shrimp? You don’t even want to know about your farmed shrimp from Thailand. Don’t ask. Just keep eating.

Many researchers are convinced that insects are in our future. The population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050 and the demand for meat will be high. If there’s a World War III, control of water and food might be at the root, and those who can produce protein will be on top.

Back to changing attitudes. Insects can’t be viewed as enemies of man. They’re mini-livestock. 

Insects are about four times as efficient in converting feed to meat, compared to cattle. Grasshoppers have three times as much protein—ounce for ounce—as beef, and they possess some good micronutrients.

Unlike pigs, many bugs like crowded, dirty conditions. They’re great recyclers, too. Bugs: the green food. Grubs: the other other white meat.

In America, we love chicken but we don’t want to see or think about chicken eyes and beaks and feathers. There’s a similar problem with insects.

Some researchers are thinking about insect flour. Others are working on bug nuggets and bug steak. That comparison about grasshopper and beef protein? It would take about a thousand grasshoppers to equal the protein in a 12-ounce steak. If only they were the size of pigs, said an entomologist at Purdue, he guarantees we would be eating them.

It sounds like we’ll be eating them no matter what. Here’s a sampling of what people are creating. Land shrimp cocktail, made from wax worms. Soy marinated crickets. A Bee-L-T with bee larvae. Katydid and grilled cheese sandwiches. Spider rolls. Toll house cookies with fresh roasted crickets.

You might as well flavor those cookies with honey—the vomit of a bee. 

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