Are Insects The Next Sushi?
December 4, 2015
I know an old lady, who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why, she swallowed the fly.
Soon after, she was totally fine, and went on with her day. In other news, we bravely swallow hundreds of spiders in our sleep, each night; yet somehow shake off the cobwebs, and drag ourselves to work every day.
So, apparently ingesting bugs doesn’t usually make you sick, or kill you. But if you live in North America, it does pretty much the 2 next best things; either scares the poop out of you, or causes you to vomit; just enough to keep it in, like some distasteful inside joke.
The average North American thinks eating bugs is completely disgusting, and apart from it happening accidentally, hopes it never happens. Like never ever.
I’ve never eaten a bug before. Okay, well, at least not intentionally.
There was one time a Bumblebee flew right into my mouth, and I thought ‘Game Over’. Miraculously, it hit something in there, maybe that little rubbery appendage that sits in the back of my mouth (so glad my Uvula decided to play goalie at that moment!). Anyways, somehow it flew out again, and I lived to play another day.
I have swallowed several dozen mosquitoes for 2 main reasons. The first being I live in Winnipeg, where they are hard to avoid. Secondly, I am a jogger, and run several miles weekly through swarms of these buggers with my mouth open. At least I don’t need to carry a protein bar.
Then there were the handful of times, my older brother thought it would be funny, to make me eat ants. But I can wait until my next therapy appointment to elaborate further.
I don’t really recall the ‘taste’, of the various insects that have touched my tongue, or made it all the way to my stomach. I don’t remember it being as bad as many other things I have tasted, such as spoiled chocolate milk, square batteries, pepper spray, my older brother’s socks (involuntarily), and frozen metal poles.
The reason I am bringing insects up, so to speak, is to introduce the theme of today’s essay. It is very possible that soon we will see insects, become a part of Western cuisine.
The world is changing. Every day, the homeostasis of the Biosphere; that part of the Universe naturally habitable to humans, shifts a bit more. It meanders towards higher temperatures, extreme weather, increased pollution, and species going missing.
These shifts over time challenge our ability to grow food, with unstable weather, flooding, droughts, and forest fires continuing to challenge agricultural spaces. Using pesticides, steroids, and antibiotics, becomes necessary to keep up with the demands of herbivores and omnivores. Yet the food world is a complicated and fragile place. There could be a Dutch Elm disease brewing, for our Grain or Bananas. We may only be one Crazy Pig Virus away, from losing an important part of our current food ladder.
There are already significant health risks associated with over-consumption of most meats in general; red meat and bacon being the main culprits.
It is possible that a virus, bacteria, or some other vector for a cow genocide arises, and possibly affects a majority of cows, or another animal we eat in large quantities. Imagine the devastating implications, of losing a species, such as the pig, chicken, or cow, based upon our current dietary habits.
In addition, we are altering the epigenetic makeup of many generations of animals, who are being bred to be slaughtered.
And us North Americans, are starting to handle food, in a different way.
Many more amazing restaurants seem to pop up all the time, where I live in Winnipeg, Canada. I remember growing up, 30 years ago, when a ‘night out’ meant the Olive Garden, or Red Lobster. These days, I can easily sample just about anything, from anywhere, including Thailand, Ethiopia, Ireland, Israel, Ukraine, or Bangladesh.
An interesting food trend that has seemingly swept Canada by storm is Sushi. Apparently if you cut raw fish the correct way, and add rice, avocado and soya sauce, it is the best thing ever. Personally, I love Sushi, it almost always tastes awesome, whether I eat it on the coast, or prairies.
Sushi has likely ‘caught on’, for a variety of reasons, some of which relate to health, and others to taste or convenience.
There is a ritual attached to it, especially for us Canadians, including fumbling with chopsticks, or even trickier; the soya sauce packets. I almost always inadvertently spray soya sauce, somewhere it does not belong.
Sushi is a very social meal as well, and is easy to share. Double-dipping is totally acceptable, even by Seinfeld’s standards. It’s often low in fat, although too much rice can equal a lot of carbs. One of the hardest parts of sushi, is likely portion control.
Sushi creates the Umami-Effect, making every mouthful explode into a satisfying experience, in and of itself.
Luckily, it is usually super-expensive, so I don’t over-order very often, to protect my future retired-self.
Sushi is a good example of a particular cultural dish, becoming ‘mainstream’ in Western Society.
There are many other examples of foods that at one time, were thought to be gross, or unappetizing. Shellfish were previously associated with impoverished coastal villagers, and thought to be ‘slimy’, and unpalatable.
More recently, seaweed has gained immense popularity in Western cuisine, and is now considered ‘delicious’.
A potential new food trend that may be looming, like a swarm on the horizon, is eating insects. It is possible that insect restaurants will begin to burrow their way into the odd strip mall in the beginning, perhaps one day becoming as popular as sushi.
That may sound immediately gross to you, if you have been living your life completely in a First World country.
Eating insects as a food source, or ‘Entomophagy’, is estimated to be practiced by 2 BILLION people worldwide.
It is really only taboo in the Western World, specifically the USA and Canada. Bugs in general are often thought of as ‘disgusting’, ‘scary’, or ‘gross’. We are often afraid of them due to early childhood experiences, where they ‘creeped us out’.
We may also feel it is ‘beneath us’ to eat insects, as we may associate this type of meal as more appropriate for an ‘animal’, like a chimpanzee, or anteater; the latter animal named solely after its diet.
I wonder what our names would be, if we did it this way?
These memories and associations are hard to ignore, but you are likely a grown up now, so it is okay to challenge your fears or misconceptions. That is the point of being an adult.
Besides, if you learn how to eat bugs, maybe one day you can win a lot of money on Fear Factor.
Here are my Reasons Insects May Be Worth Considering For Dinner:
Insects Can Taste Good
It is important to get the palatability issue out of the way immediately. Homo sapiens have survived eating insects for at least the last few million years. These days, Ants and Beetle larvae are a preferred meal, for many tribes in Africa and Australia. Crispy fried Locusts and Beetles are very popular in Thailand. There are many other cultures throughout the world that prize insects as a culinary delicacy.
There are currently 2,086 documented edible insect species. Over 3,071 Ethnic groups in 130 different countries practice Entomophagy. The most popular insects to eat are: Crickets, Locusts, Cicadas, Grasshoppers, Ants, various Beetle Grubs (Mealworms), larvae of the Darkening or Rhinoceros Beetle, various Caterpillars (Bamboo Worms, Mopani Worms, Silkworms, wax worms), Scorpions, and Tarantulas.
Other, less popular edible insects include: Bees, Wasps, Leaf and Plant Hoppers, Scale Insects, True Bugs, Termites, Dragonflies, and Flies.
Dutch Entomologist Marcel Dicke compared insects to the ‘shrimps of the land’, in hopes that this would help people see insects in a more palatable light. In fact, several years ago, arthropods, like lobsters and shrimps, were considered disgusting, and a ‘poor person’s food’, by people in the West.
In North America, the American lobster did not achieve popularity until the mid-19th century, when New Yorkers and Bostonians developed a taste for it.
These days, arthropods are some of the most expensive and subjectively delicious items, on any restaurant menu.
Many people who eat insects feel that bugs can compete with meat for flavor. Chefs who cook with insects indicate most species will taste like the food the insect ingested. Grasshoppers that are fed potatoes often taste like french fries, and Beetles fed apples taste sweet.
There are currently several companies using Cricket flour to make protein bars, for human consumption. If you are interested, there is a link to their sites at the bottom of the essay. Below is a link to other insect recipes.
Insects Aren’t Scary, They’re Kinda Cool
The 6-10 million different species of insects, accounts for about 90% of the diversity of all living things on our planet. Many are able to easily be farmed, similar to cattle or chicken in the United States or Canada.
And for those of you morally opposed to eating animals for protein? Well now, you have yet another alternative. Instead of killing a lamb to make a burger, you could kill 300 termites, and produce a relatively similar patty. Well, at least the shape.
Insects Have Good Nutritional Value
Insects are a natural source of essential carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. Insects are a healthy and nutritious alternative to other protein sources, such as chicken, beef or fish. Insects are rich in protein and fibre. They can also be an excellent source of healthy fats, with some species having levels of Omega 3 Fatty Acids similar to fish.
Insects are often high in Calcium, Iron, B Vitamins, and Zinc. They are also high in Selenium, which increases hair growth and is often used as a treatment for alopecia or baldness. They have abundant Lysine stores, which is an Amino Acid commonly lacking in grain eaters.
Farming Insects= Less Environmental Impact
Ideally, any farming should be done in a sustainable way, and this would include Insect Farming, which is also called MINILIVESTOCK. Minilivestock is the intentional cultivation of insects and edible arthropods for human food. Studies have demonstrated that Minilivestock is an environmentally safer way to produce protein compared to current Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFOs).
Raising insects for food emits fewer greenhouse gases, than CAFOs raising livestock. There is a decreased need to clear forest land for either grazing or agriculture. There is also a decreased need for water depending upon the insect, as many insects thrive in dry climates.
There is less overall feed required, which depends upon the insect. For example, per weight, Crickets require 12 times less amounts of feed, compared to cows; and 50% less, compared to pigs.
Modern industrial farming is unsustainable, due to the ever increasing demands on food sources, water, land, and significant waste products produced. With less and less land becoming usable, there will be increasing crowding of existing facilities, and their occupants. Global warming will also create flooding and droughts, forest fires, tornados, and a host of other unstable weather patterns, further complicating agricultural farming, creating crop loss.
Relatively Low Risk Of Disease
Having an additional protein food source, in addition to various meat producing species being processed in CAFOs, may lessen the dependence on meat. This may in turn decrease the demand for meat products, allowing more sustainable meat farming methods to gain stronger footholds in the market.
The idea of free range eggs started off as a niche, but this method of egg collection is gaining market share as more consumers become aware of some of the deplorable conditions in many CAFOs, as well as nutritional advantages of less stressed meat.
Insects, by in large, have a much lower rate of transferring diseases to humans compared to beef, poultry or pork. Said another way, insects have a much lower transmission rate of bacterial, fungal, or viral infections to humans.
Fish are often associated with increasing mercury levels, as well as introducing various plastics into our food chain through ocean pollutants being consumed by plankton. We are only recently becoming aware of the impact of accumulating plastics in the human body.
Toxins in plastics are often carcinogenic, and may be partially responsible for worldwide rises in cnacer rates. There is very little data indicating insects are a significant ingester of plastics, compared to fish, or other smaller animals.
We Might Not Have A Choice
It is estimated by 2050, there will be 9 BILLION people living on Planet Earth. That means in the next 35 years, the population will increase by about 1.5 BILLION people. There are currently about 1 BILLION people who are chronically starving on the planet, and this number is likely to increase by about another 500 MIILION by 2050. There are going to be many, many, hungry people sharing this globe with us.
This population growth will require our current food production capabilities to roughly double, even though in the next 35 years conditions on our planet will likely become more difficult and challenging.
Land will become more scarce, and oceans will become more over fished. Species will continue to become extinct. Pollution and Global Warming will continue to Terraform Earth in various ways, forcing us to become more creative and flexible if we want to continue to thrive as a species, ourselves.
Insects are extremely plentiful and found in virtually every human occupied environment. There is less need for expensive technologies, allowing insect farming to become possible in impoverished places where starvation is endemic.
Some Cautionary Notes
Most insects are okay to eat, however most poisonous insects should not be eaten even if cooked (heat almost never destroys their poison, unless you heat the insect so much that it burns). Insects that have formic acid, like ants, won’t really hurt you other than a spicy taste.
Insects with stronger poisons, like SOLANINE (e.g. potato beetles), might make you sick (or worse if you eat too many of them). Some insects have such a strong poison, eating just one could kill you. An example would be the Blister Beetle. The poison of the Blister Beetle (CANTHARIDIN) is very difficult to destroy, even under very high heat.
While plastics are not thought to collect in appreciable amounts in insects, pesticides can build up through a process called BIOACCUMULATION. This can cause levels of pesticides in insects to increase over subsequent generations.
There are also risks of spore forming bacteria, if insect waste is not handled properly. This potential spoilage is a safety risk for both raw and cooked insect protein. While more study is needed, the data so far indicate simple currently available methods exist to prevent spore forming bacteria.
Cooking in general is always advisable to prevent the ingestion of live parasites, which is true for meat as well. There have been fears of salmonella poisoning with insect ingestion, which is prevented by cooking the bugs at 150-200 degrees.
There were cases of Lead Poisoning from eating Californian Chapulines in 2003.
The Italian Zygaenidae Moth contains cyanide, but apparently in such small amounts, even kids eat them without much trouble.
Lastly, some people can have adverse allergic reactions to certain species of insects, like wasps, or bees.
While I may have made a case for eating insects over meat, from a moral standpoint, the counterpoint must be stated. Entomophagy is not necessarily more humane than factory farming of livestock because it involves killing vastly more living things per unit of protein. Rather than promoting insect consumption, one could choose to focus on plant-based meat substitutes.
Who knows whether we will develop more efficient and better agricultural and livestock practices, or whether we will be forced to consider alternative food sources, such as insects.
Either way, I hope you enjoyed the food for thought!
Simon Trepel, MD
Note: If you are looking for more information on incorporating bugs into your diet, or perhaps starting your own edible insect farm, consider the links below.
Several North American companies now produce and sell protein bars made out of Cricket flour, which you can order from the following links
If you are interested in more information about Minilivestock, the agricultural technology company called Tiny Farms may be helpful. Their goal is to modernize insect rearing techniques.
Link to list of Edible Insects
Simon Trepel, MD FRCPC, is a practicing Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, in Winnipeg, Canada. He is an Assistant Professor, at the University Of Manitoba, in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Co-founder of the GDAAY Clinic. He is, more importantly, the proud Father of 2 beautiful Daughters. He writes in his spare time about things he knows something about, and occasionally about things he doesn’t; like Yoga, and Italian flavored coffees. He is thinking about ordering a Cricket flour protein bar.
Check out his Blog, called Simon Says Psych Stuff, at