Eating Bugs

They're packed with protein and environmentally friendlier than other meat. But can greenies kick the ick factor?

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Mark Peterson / Redux for TIME

People sample various bug dishes at the Bug Chef Cook-Off at the Broad Appétit Food Festival, downtown Richmond, Virginia.

At the broad appetit food festival in downtown Richmond, Va., visitors can stuff themselves with pizza, Thai noodles, fried chicken and--this being Virginia--smoky barbecue. But some of the biggest crowds are gathered around David George Gordon, a cheerful 58-year-old writer from Seattle. Gordon isn't cooking anything that complex--just some pasta, prepared on a hot plate--but scattered among his orzo like tiny six-legged meatballs is a show-stopping ingredient: crickets. The author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, Gordon considers Orthopteran Orzo his signature dish. He scoops the pasta into paper cups and begins handing out samples to the more adventuresome onlookers. That includes me--I have a deep fear of insects, but I have a deeper fear of my editors. The crickets are pretty good; they give the pasta a tangy crunch, though a few of those legs stick in my throat on the way down. Jon Fuller, 16, agrees. "It's really not that bad," he says and takes a second helping. "The goal is to get from 'Not bad' to 'Actually good,'" says Gordon. "Bug appétit!"

In the U.S., we're more accustomed to exterminating insects than to eating them, but in scores of countries around the world--including Thailand, where food markets are stocked with commercially-raised water beetles and bamboo worms--bugs have long been a part of a well-balanced meal. Insect lovers like Gordon argue that entomophagy--the scientific term for consuming insects--could also be a far greener way to get protein than eating chicken, cows or pigs. With the global livestock sector responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions and grain prices reaching record highs, cheap, environmentally low-impact insects could be the food of the future--provided we can stomach them. "This is an idea that shouldn't just be ridiculed," says Paul Vantomme, an officer at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, which recently held an entomophagy conference in Bangkok.

The very qualities that make bugs so hard to get rid of could also make them an environmentally friendly food. "Nature is very good at making insects," says David Gracer, one of the chefs at the Richmond festival and the founder of future bug purveyor Sunrise Land Shrimp. Insects require little room and few resources to grow. For instance, it takes far less water to raise a third of a pound (150 g) of grasshoppers than the staggering 869 gal. (3,290 L) needed to produce the same amount of beef. Since bugs are cold-blooded invertebrates, more of what they consume goes to building edible body parts, whereas pigs and other warm-blooded vertebrates need to consume a lot of calories just to keep their body temperature steady. There's even a formula, called the efficiency of conversion of ingested food to body substance (ECI), that can be used to compare the weight different animals gain after eating a certain quantity of feed. Beef cattle have an ECI of 10. Silkworms range from 19 to 31. German cockroaches max out at 44.

Incredibly efficient to raise, insects are also crawling packets of nutrition. A 100-gram (3.5 oz.) portion of cooked Usata terpsichore caterpillars--commonly eaten in central Africa--contains about 28 grams (1 oz.) of protein, slightly more than you'd get from the same amount of chicken. Water bugs have four times as much iron as beef.

Bugs can be tasty too--Gordon swears by his white chocolate and waxworm cookies--but Americans first need to overcome the "eww" factor. We think bugs are dirty, disease-laden or otherwise dangerous to eat--though they're not, as long as you cook them properly, are not allergic to shellfish (which, like insects, are arthropods) and aren't collecting bugs from fields that have been hit with pesticides. We're revolted by their alien appearance, but then again, lobster could hardly be described as cute and cuddly. And food taboos are not eternal; think of how unlikely it would have seemed 50 years ago that there would be more than 9,000 sushi restaurants in the U.S. There's also the possibility that someday the exploding global population and the damage of climate change could bring about the collapse of our resource-intensive food supply. "At that point," notes Gracer, "insects could become a pretty attractive option."

In Richmond, with the smell of overstuffed po'boys wafting through the air, the threat of agricultural apocalypse still seems a long way off. But if the entomophagists have yet to win many converts, they've definitely earned the curiosity of the crowd, which huddles beneath a tent to watch Gordon and Gracer in a bug cook-off. Gordon serves his crickets orzo with tarantula tempura, which he makes by frying a fist-size arachnid. (I skip the spider. I like my job, but not that much.) It's Gracer who takes first prize, however, with a series of dishes, including a tasty salad with Queen Atta ants, stinkbugs and, best of all, waxworms, whose popcorn-size larvae are meaty and flavorful. But I don't look too closely. Gordon likes to say that when you try to eat insects, there's a dialogue between your brain, which says bugs can be good for you, and your stomach, which is ready to revolt. I know my brain is right, but as Gordon says, "The stomach always votes last."