I mean, of course, in the West. Insects are eaten widely elsewhere – around 2 billion people from ~80% of countries eat from 1,900 varieties. For example, autochthonous Australians eat a range of insects and larvae, including the ones in the picture, a much sought after honey-ant. As well as the famous witchetty (witjuti) grub (almond-like raw, chicken-like roasted). This is theoretical to the writer – I haven’t tasted either, but neither do they turn up in the local convenience store.
So what problem does the West have with insects? I think it’s disgust. There is no single food that can sustain us by itself, but it is our culture that defines what we eat (the words ‘taste’ and ‘culture’ share a common meaning). Foods eaten by one culture, such as insects, can trigger disgust in another. Of all the human emotions, disgust is the only one that has to be learned (and next to impossible to unlearn) – it is not innate. We learn disgust from watching others. It is not the same thing as distaste, which is a biological mechanism for avoiding foods that are potentially harmful (such as rotting food).
Are insects even ‘food’ ? In fact, nearly all insects have exceptional nutritional value. According to the 2013 Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, insects “provide satisfactory amounts of energy and protein, meet amino acid requirements for humans, are high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are rich in micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc, as well as riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and, in some cases, folic acid ”
The protein and iron content of insects is comparable to, and often much greater than, that of beef. Beef has an iron content of ~6mg per 100g, while that of the mopane capterpillar, for example, is 31–77mg, and that of locusts 8-20mg. While iron deficiency is not an issue with a western diet, according to the WHO it is the world’s most widespread nutritional disorder in developing countries.
Insects are arthropods, and so are crustaceans. Crustaceans can be thought of as sea insects. Look at a prawn or a lobster to see the similarity. Yet we have no problem with eating crustaceans, while expressing disgust with terrestrial arthropods. Think of locusts as ‘sky prawns‘ instead.
While not consuming insects, we happily eat insect byproducts. Honey for example. If you think about how honey is produced it is probably disgusting (repeatedly regurgitated and re-eaten until enzymes in worker bees’ stomachs have broken down the nectar into simple sugars). Honey is bee vomit. But it is culturally accepted and we aren’t bothered by its production process.
Quite recently, insects have drawn the attention of the world’s top chefs, notably René Redzepi in Copenhagen, and Alex Atala in Brazil. René’s Nordic Food Lab has been funded by the Norwegian government to expand their research into insect gastronomy. The Nordic Food Lab is working to make insects delicious to the Western palate and suitable for its culinary culture. The project is called “‘Discerning Taste: Deliciousness as an Argument for Entomophagy’.”
One of their more cheeky creations is the “chimp stick” – a shaved liquorice root, brushed with honey, and studded with fruits, seeds, crushed grains, leaves, flowers – and ants. Just like our chimpanzee relatives would eat, sticking a twig into a honey-ants’ nest.
Some other examples:
Alex Atala serves a sweet lemongrass-flavoured ant embedded in a clear gel – just like it had been preserved in amber, while simultaneously separating the antiness from the eater. Other times it is just an ant – served on pineapple.
Insects are nutritious, sustainable and presumably tasty. Besides, they get the last word and eat us when we die. So, we might as well get in there first.