Snacking on insects? Don’t get bugged out
Chewy and moist, the first bite didn’t seem strange at all. Like any other energy bar it was dark and densely packed, with a slightly sticky texture. It was only a close examination of the wrapper that revealed that the special ingredient was ground cricket flour.
Last week, the US office engaged in an insect protein taste test. Inspired by the 2013 UN report about eating insects, as well as the spate of articles about eating insects in publications ranging from Slate to the New York Times, we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The results were a little, well, disappointing.
We chose Chapul brand cricket bars primarily because they made eating insects seem easy. Unlike many insect foods that entail a whole bug (such as the sautéed grasshoppers at Brooklyn’s Black Ant), cricket bars seemed easy on the squeamish eater. There were no exoskeletons to crunch or legs to chew on. The bars were like any other, and the flavors that came through were those of the other ingredients – peanut butter and chocolate for the Chaco bar. Eating insects was so easy – and tasteless - that it made me wonder why we were eating them at all. Vegetarian versions of the bars would have had all of the other ingredients: dates, peanuts, cocoa powder, honey, etc.
Insect eating proponents claim that getting bugs and beetles into our diets will alleviate the demand for conventionally-farmed meat and replace it with something that is good for the environment, low cost, and healthy. While that is true, the challenge is to get people to actually eat them. Additionally, for all of the positive benefits to exist, people should be replacing conventional animal protein with insects, not eating them in lieu of plants.
And there’s the rub, because for many Westerners the thought of eating insects brings up a gag reflex. While the UN report states that there are two billion people around the world who eat insects, that leaves five billion of us who are likely to find the idea repulsive.
Sometimes food trends do shift and undesirable foods can become mainstream. This was the case for lobster, once called “the cockroach of the ocean” and fed to prisoners. But food trends can also fail to gain widespread appeal. Vegetarians have certainly found it hard to convince people to stop eating meat. Trends towards other seemingly unpalatable foods, such as offal meat, in the US have gained a following, but haven’t led to large scale change yet.
More interesting is the push to include insects as a part of the farm animal's diet, thus reducing the demand for fishmeal and grains. Although there are areas of the world (including the EU) where insects are currently prohibited as animal feed, this seems a more likely entry point into the food system than trying to change ingrained cultural food preferences.
Images: Alisha Bhagat
Look out for Jonathon Porritt's blogpost on Monday (28/7) when he will be examining the benefits of insect-rich animal feed.