[enviro-vlc] INSECTS (THE ORIGINAL WHITE MEAT)
vern.weitzel at gmail.com
Mon May 26 23:29:04 EST 2008
I have resisted posting stories on this. But insets as food is
increasingly prominent in the news. FAO even has a workshop on
This story comes with a good reading list as well. Vern
Home / June 7th, 2008; Vol.173 #18 / Feature
INSECTS (THE ORIGINAL WHITE MEAT)
By Janet RaloffMay 23rd, 2008 Text Size
ALL YOU CAN EATBuffet offering in Thailand of stir-fried grubs with chilis. PB
You bite into a piece of candy and find a cricket leg. Eewwww. Or notice that
raisin in a bowl of cereal has legs and wings. Bam, down the disposal it goes.
Such filth in foods is supposedly illegal, but the Food and Drug
Administration’s actual tolerance is far from zero. FDA rules allow up to 60
insect fragments on average in a composite of six 100-gram chocolate samples.
For peanut butter, it’s OK to have up to 30 insect pieces per 100 grams. Grossed
In the industrialized world, most people find the idea of eating insects
repugnant. Processed foods containing bug bits tend to reflect poor sanitation.
Because bugs can host disease-causing germs, insects tainting the food supply
pose a health risk
Yet in many parts of the world, diners actually desire insects. Youngsters in
central Africa may down ants or grubs while at play. Urbane snack-seeking
consumers throng street vendors throughout Southeast Asia to buy fried crickets.
Even car-driving Aborigines in Australia’s outback may motor a couple of hours
to find, and then picnic on, a cache of honey ants.
Residents of at least 113 nations eat bugs, says Julieta Ramos-Elorduy of the
National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. This practice, known as
entomophagy (en-toh-MOFF-uh-jee), makes sense, she says, because insects tend to
be quite nutritious. Indeed, many scientists around the world have put insect
eating on their research menus. It was also the focus of a February United
Nations conference in Thailand, where researchers discussed insect-eating trends
and evaluated the nutritional value of bugs and the environmental aspects of
“We’re not going to convince Europeans and Americans to go out in big numbers
and start eating insects,” concedes conference organizer Patrick B. Durst.
However, fostering respect for entomophagy could do a lot to maintain health and
environmental quality outside the industrial West, argues Durst, a senior
forestry officer with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s regional
office in Bangkok.
He holds out hope that Westerners may become more accepting of insect
protein—especially if they “don’t have to look the bug in the eye as they’re
eating it.” Dutch researchers are working on just such a
development—biotechnology to produce insect cells, minus the insects, as an
inexpensive source of edible protein.
Almost 125 years ago, Vincent Holt published a 99-page tract in Britain titled
Why Not Eat Insects? It failed to catalyze a bug-eating revolution. David
Gracer, a community college writing teacher by day, has now taken up Holt’s
cause outside the classroom. Not only does Gracer travel the lecture circuit, he
also holds cooking demonstrations so that Americans can sample insect-based
snacks and bug-laced entrees. His company, Sunrise Land Shrimp, in Providence,
R.I., supplies frozen and dried insects to chefs and other individuals.
Grilled cicadas are more likely to elicit a “yikes” than a “yum” from most
Europeans and North Americans. “But why?” asks Gracer. “Most of these people are
happy to eat crab, lobster and shrimp—the ocean equivalent of insects.”
Shrimp, other crustaceans and insects are all arthropods—members of the largest
phylum in the animal kingdom. When people appear squeamish about tasting a
grasshopper or beetle larva, Gracer points out that despite lobster’s prized
status, crustaceans tend to “eat trash and dead things” whereas most insects
dine at nature’s salad bars.
A matter of taste
Edible insects fill a rather small niche market in the United States, Gracer
concedes. Throughout most of the developing world, by contrast, dining on bugs
is not only a time-honored tradition but often a treat.
That’s something biologist Gene R. DeFoliart has explored for 33 years, first as
chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s entomology department, and more
recently as host of the food-insects.com website. Since retiring 17 years ago,
he has been compiling data on entomophagy. His site offers a book-in-progress
with 28 chapters.
Westerners tend to consider insect eating a last resort; you choke down bugs
only if there’s no chicken or beef available. Throughout the tropics and
subtropics, however, certain insects, such as adult termites or various grubs,
can be preferred to the flesh of birds, fish or traditional meat animals,
DeFoliart has found.
Entomophagy thrives in Mexico, where Ramos-Elorduy has cataloged some 1,700
species that are eaten. Although grasshoppers are especially popular and
inexpensive, diners in Mexico’s bigger cities will shell out $25 U.S. for a
plate of maguey worms, larvae of the giant butterfly Aegiale hesperiaris,
This reflects the fact that insects “now have a clear place in industrialized
societies since chefs of different nationalities cook them in very sophisticated
ways,” Ramos-Elorduy contends. In Mexico, she finds that “the great demand is
for five-star restaurants.” Small bistros tend to serve insects seasonally, she
says, but “the five-stars do it daily.”
Throughout much of Africa, mopane (moh-PAH-nee) worms—caterpillars of
Gonimbrasia belina, a moth that feeds on mopane trees—are a spectacularly
popular snack. In fact, people have been eating so many that biologists have
begun worrying that these bugs might be headed for extinction. Sales of dried
mopane worms in South Africa alone can exceed 1,600 metric tons per year,
TASTY MORSELSAsian market offering insect larvae and other delicacies.VB
Meyer-Rochow/ Jacobs Univ.
Because the caterpillar metamorphoses in soil, it used to be “taboo to dig the
worm that has gone underground,” notes O. Ricky Madibela, formerly at the
Botswana College of Agriculture in Gaborone. Today, however, people excavate
dirt around mopane trees for this “seed of the next generation” of caterpillars.
And that, he argues, is unsustainable.
In many regions, however, once-popular entomophagy is waning. Evidence for this
shift emerged in Ecuador while entomologist Andrew B.T. Smith of the Canadian
Museum of Nature in Ottawa and Ecuadorian Aura Paucar-Cabrera of the University
of Nebraska-Lincoln, were studying the scarab Platycoelia lutescens. For the
project, Paucar-Cabrera interviewed 48 residents in and around Quito about this
white beetle’s role in the local diet.
Everyone recognized the Andean insect—called catso blanco—as a culinary
flavoring. And the 24 people from the rural and urban working classes all said
they ate the beetles at least once a year. Some took their entire families out
to nearby meadows in late October or early November to catch adult beetles
emerging after metamorphosis in the soil. But among the 24 wealthier families
and professional adults surveyed, only one admitted trying the beetles. The rest
professed no interest in ever doing so.
Similarly, teens and young adults in Kenya’s Luo tribe tend to view eating bugs
as so last-century, notes food scientist Francis O. Orech of the University of
Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. A Luo himself, Orech recalls eating
ants and termites as a child. Now, to interview some 30 Luo about entomophagy,
he and a largely Danish group of researchers had to consult people over age 45
to find individuals who still knew where to reliably find bugs, how to catch
them and how to prepare them for eating.
Better than beef?
The five species most widely eaten by surveyed Luo were ants, termites and a
species of mondo cricket. All were good sources of minerals, but the crickets
were the richest and an ant species the poorest, Orech’s group reported in the
International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition in 2006.
In fact, the team found that crickets contained more than 1,550 milligrams of
iron, 25 milligrams of zinc and 340 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams of dry
tissue. Traditional cuisines in developing countries often fall short of the
global guidelines for these minerals. Based on analyses of Luo-caught insects,
just three crickets would provide an individual’s daily iron requirement.
Gram for gram, crickets or grasshoppers can be more nutritious than an equal
quantity of beef or pork, says Victor B. Meyer-Rochow of Jacobs University in
Bremen, Germany. One reason: Water constitutes a high percentage of meat, he
says, whereas insects tend to be drier. Many insects also are richer in minerals
than many meats, such as hamburger, his data show. And most lipids in bugs tend
to be long-chain, unsaturated fats—healthier types than those predominant in
A comprehensive survey of bug nutrients appears in the 2005 book Ecological
Implications of Minilivestock: Potential of Insects, Rodents, Frogs and Snails.
It reports published values for calories, protein, fat and fiber in most major
species of edible insects. Additional tables summarize the potential of these
bugs to contribute important amino acids, minerals, healthy fatty acids and
vitamins to the diet.
The data were gleaned by Sandra G.F. Bukkens, now an independent nutrition
consultant based in Barcelona, Spain. Overall, she says, “I was pleasantly
surprised. Insects were far more healthy than I expected.”
Many insects had a fairly high concentration of essential amino acids—types that
humans need but can’t make. These include lysine and tryptophan, two that tend
to be limited in traditional diets in the developing world. The quality of
insect proteins is usually good too, compensating, Bukkens says, for what is
lacking in largely vegetarian diets.
Despite this upbeat assessment, Bukkens isn’t pushing insects on her family.
“I’ve eaten them, but I’m not particularly keen about them,” she says. If food
were limited, she would “eat anything. But since we have plenty of meat in
developed countries, I don’t see why we should switch to insects.”
Even DeFoliart, whom many refer to as Mr. Entomophagy, admits to never cooking
insects at home. In fact, his daughter once cajoled her mother into sampling a
roasted cricket. When his daughter offered mom a second, DeFoliart recalls with
a chuckle his wife’s reply: “Oh no, I’ll have to rest awhile.”
Clean and green
Diners who want to reduce the size of their environmental footprint might
reassess their aversion to bugs, DeFoliart says. Insects typically eaten by
people are vegans—at least for much of their life cycles, he says—and generally
“clean-living in their choice of food and habitat.” Moreover, edible insects can
forage on a far wider range of plants than do traditional meat animals. As such,
he says, bugs can tap food sources normally worthless in conventional meat
production, such as cacti, bamboo shoots, mesquite and woody scrub brush.
What’s more, insects turn more of what they eat into tissue that can be consumed
by others. For crickets fed diets comparable in quality to the feed given to
conventional Western livestock, diet conversion efficiency is about twice as
high as for broiler chicks and pigs, four times higher than sheep and nearly six
times higher than steers, DeFoliart reports. Insects’ quick reproduction and
high fecundity makes them look even more environmentally attractive. For the
crickets, DeFoliart has calculated, this translates into “a true food conversion
efficiency close to 20 times better than that of beef.”
Gracer likens these differences to gas-guzzling versus gas-sipping vehicles:
“Cows and pigs are the SUVs of the food world. And bugs—they’re the Priuses,
maybe even bicycles.”
And bugs can be raised sustainably, the U.N.’s Durst says, pointing to an
industry that has sprung up in northeast Thailand since 1999. Entomologists and
agricultural extension agents at Khon Kaen University developed low-cost,
cricket-rearing techniques and offered training to local residents. Currently,
4,500 families in Khon Kaen Province raise crickets, as do nearly 15,000 others
elsewhere around the country, Khon Kaen entomologist Yupa Hanboonsong said at
the recent meeting organized by Durst.
A single family can manage cricket rearing as a sideline activity without
outside help, needing only a few hundred square feet of land. The 400 families
in just two local villages produce some 10 metric tons of crickets in summer,
the peak yield period. As the weather cools, yields may eventually fall by 80
percent or more. Still, that translates to extra, year-round income of $130 to
$1,600 U.S. a month per family, Hanboonsong says. That’s quite a windfall for
residents of one of Thailand’s poorer regions.
Most of their farmed crickets go to big city markets, like outdoor stalls in
Bangkok. Hanboonsong says, however, that some are exported to neighboring
cricket-consuming nations, such as Laos and Cambodia. Thai families also farm
ants, another popular edible insect. And her Khon Kaen colleagues have just
developed new rearing techniques for farming grasshoppers and the giant water
bug (a Thai favorite). Indeed, Hanboonsong’s survey of Thai insect consumers
found that 75 percent eat bugs simply because they’re tasty—especially as a
snack with beer.
Bug farming gets around the problem that most insects are quite seasonal, Durst
says. It also reduces pressures on wild populations. But data reported at his
conference didn’t turn up much evidence of insect overexploitation in Thai
forests. In fact, he says there were suggestions that increased entomophagy
might pay bonus ecological dividends. For instance, it might make local villages
better stewards of their environment because of the potential for collecting
There was even talk of how people might be marshaled to harvest insects for food
in areas plagued by pests, substituting people for pesticides to protect crops.
It’s not far-fetched.
Hanboonsong reported that when chemical insecticides didn’t rout locusts from
corn fields 30 years ago, the Thai government launched a campaign (including
recipes) to collect and eat the pests. Although locusts had not previously been
among the 150 species of bugs in the Thai diet, residents took up the challenge.
Today, locusts are no longer a pest, and some farmers now plant corn as bait for
the bugs, which they supply to local markets.
Biotech bug burgers
Durst suspects that two major facets of insects continue to turn many American
and European diners off: concerns over hygiene and the fact that the critters
look like—well, bugs. Hygiene can be dealt with by cleansing the outside of bugs
thoroughly and emptying or even removing their guts. More difficult is
camouflaging their antennae, buggy eyes and legs, or perhaps the fact that some
look like soft, overly puffy worms.
Dutch scientists think they may have a solution to both impediments. They’re
using biotechnology to produce vats of insect cells—just isolated cells. The
researchers described their efforts last year in Biotechnology Advances.
The goal, explains Marjoleine C. Verkerk of Wageningen University, is to produce
a sanitized source of bug proteins that can be dried and added to breads or
perhaps molded into pseudo-burgers. Her team is mass producing isolated ovary
cells of silkworms, fall armyworms, cabbage loopers and gypsy moths.
Grown in a bioreactor, these cells won’t support the growth of viruses or turn
on cancer-triggering genes, things they could do in a whole bug, her group
notes. As the researchers analyze the nutrient content of these cells, Verkerk
has also begun to survey consumer attitudes on fortifying conventional fare with
insect-derived materials. It remains a bit of a tough sell, she admits.
A Japanese consortium has a more far-out use for insects: space food.
Although trained as a chemist, these days Masamichi Yamashita says, “I prefer to
be called a ‘space farmer’ wishing to fly to Mars.” At 60, he’s unlikely to be
called up as an astronaut. So he’s doing the next best thing. Through his work
at Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Sagamihara, he’s
helping design a habitat that will allow future generations to survive years
aboard cramped spacecraft or planetary outposts.
Key to the effort will be integrating bugs as a potential source of food and of
natural plant-waste recycling for astronauts, his team argued a few months back
in Advances in Space Research. He and his colleagues are developing an ecosystem
that includes pupae of silkworms and hawk moths as sources of food. These
metamorphosing insects—especially the silkworms—are popular in Japan and other
parts of Asia.
Their taste? “I ate soft-shell crab in Washington, D.C., once,” Yamashita says.
“That might be close.”
For a profile of the Audubon Nature Institute's new insect eatery, click here.
-Gene R. DeFoliart on insects as food at www.food-insects.com.
-Find out more about the new Insectarium at the Audubon Nature Institute in New
Orleans at www.auduboninstitute.org.
Conway, J.B. 1990. Honey ants and Australian aborigines. Food Insects Newsletter
Illgner, P., and E. Nel. 2000. The geography of edible insects in sub-Saharan
Africa: A study of the Mopane caterpillar. Geographical Journal 166(December):336.
Madibela, O.R., et al. 2007. Effect of traditional processing methods on
chemical composition and in vitro true dry matter digestibility of the Mophane
worm (Imbrasia belina). Journal of Arid Environments 68(February):492.
Ramos-Elorduy, J., et al. 2006. Lack of a legislation and regulation of the
exploitation and commercialization for edible insects in Mexico. Folia
Entomologica Mexicana 45:291. Available at link.
Ramos-Elorduy, J., et al. 1998. Creepy crawly cuisine: The gourmet guide to
edible insects. Park Street press release. Rochester, Vt.
Ramos-Elorduy, J., et al. 1997. Nutritional value of edible insects from the
state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 10(June):142.
Van Huis, A. 2003. Insects as food in sub-Saharan Africa. Insect Science and its
Application 23(Sept. 1):163.
Citations & References:
Bukkens, S.G.F. 2005. Insects in the human diet: Nutritional aspects. In
Ecological Implications of Minilivestock. M.G. Paoletti, editor. Enfield, NH:
Verkerk, M.C., et al. 2007. Insect cells for human food. Biotechnology Advances
Smith, A.B.T., and A. Paucar C. 2000. Taxonomic review of Platycoelia lutescens
blanchard (Scarabaeidae: Rutelinae: Anoplognathini) and a description of the use
of this species as food by the people of the Ecuadorian highlands. Annals of the
Entomological Society of America 93(May):408-414.
Christensen, D.L., F.O. Orech, et al. 2006. Entomophagy among the Luo of Kenya:
A potential mineral source? International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition
DeFoliart, G.R. 2005. Overview of Role of edible Insects in Preserving
Biodiversity. In Ecological Implications of Minilivestock. M.G. Paoletti,
editor. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers.
______. 2003. Insects as Food. In Encyclopedia of Insects. V.H. Resh, and R.T.
Cardé, eds. Burlington, Mass.: Elsevier Science.
______. 1999. Insects as food: Why the western attitude is important. Annual
Review of Entomology 44:21.
Hanboonsong, Y. 2008. Edible insects and associated food habits in Thailand.
United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s conference. Feb. 19-21.
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Katayama, N. . . . M. Yamashita, et al. 2008. Entomophagy: A key to space
agriculture. Advances in Space Research 41(March):701.
Meyer-Rochow, V.B. 2005. Traditional Insects and Spiders in Several Ethnic
Groups of Northeast India, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand. In
Ecological Implications of Minilivestock. M.G. Paoletti, editor. Enfield, NH:
Vern Weitzel (Mr.) BSc, BA, MA, M Env Man & Dev <vern at coombs.anu.edu.au>
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