“The Lion King” is known for many iconic scenes, but not for one of its most prescient: when Simba, a natural carnivore, asks about dinner and is told that in lieu of meat, bugs are on the menu. “Slimy, yet satisfying,” is how they’re described.
Disney surely couldn’t have imagined that two decades later, the same audience who enjoyed grub jokes would be saying hakuna matata to protein powder made from pulverized crickets or ordering roasted grasshoppers at baseball games.
Experts agree that this is a good thing. Many argue that entomophagy, aka eating insects, is our dietary destiny, and is well overdue.
America has long been in the minority of cultures that regularly consume bugs, despite growing awareness of the environmental, nutritional and ethical benefits of doing so. In the five years since the United Nations released a major report outlining the ways bugs could solve an exploding population’s protein problems, the market for edible insects in the United States has grown by more than 43 percent.
That’s not to say it’s been easy. Selling bugs — literally and figuratively — to the American public has proved an interesting puzzle.
On the surface, there’s nothing overtly unappealing about insects as food. “The taste isn’t terribly unfamiliar, or strong — it’s almost not there,” said Gina Louise Hunter, a cultural anthropologist at Illinois State University. “We eat lots of things that are far more gross as a concept, and potentially pathogenic. Lobster, for example, is a bottom feeder and eats carrion,” she told HuffPost.
The problem is one of perception. “We have symbolically and psychologically categorized insects as inedible,” Hunter said. “It’s not that they’re dirty and disgusting so we don’t eat them; it’s that we don’t eat them, so we think of them as dirty and disgusting.”
That wasn’t always the case. In Greek and Roman literature, there are mentions of various insects as being delicious. In biblical times, people used to eat locusts. But over time, we gradually turned away from bugs, and with globalization, Hunter said, “eating insects has been come to be seen as primitive.”
Overcoming that cultural bias remains tough. Americans see bugs as something you’d eat out of desperation, or for a “Fear Factor” stunt, not because you’d actually want to. The nose-to-tail movement has faced similar obstacles: People are perfectly content to enjoy ham but not pig testicle, which is only maybe 3 inches away on the same animal.
“There is so much pent-up demand for food that is healthy and sustainable,” said Jarrod Goldin, one of the three founders and president of Entomo Farms, North America’s first human-grade insect farm.
The Ontario-based business’s main trade is crickets, both dried and powdered. Sales doubled in the last year, but Goldin isn’t surprised by that. “Crickets are much more than just a protein,” he told HuffPost. They’ve also got fiber, which meat can’t claim; iron, the nutrient that’s most lacking in diets around the world; and vitamin B12, which you can’t get from plants. There’s ongoing research about omega-3s, prebiotic properties and peptides that may inhibit obesity, plus the nutrients in cricket powder are more bioavailable than other sources, which means your body can absorb and use them more efficiently, giving you a bigger bang for your buck. “It’s more like medicine than food,” Goldin said. (He uses this logic to justify cricket powder’s higher price relative to other protein powders, such as whey.)
And, he added, cricket powder is “the least processed ingredient I know of.” One of the reasons crickets are at the forefront of the edible bug movement — they’re known as the “gateway bug,” according to Goldin — is their ability to be farmed.
Goldin and his two co-founder brothers, who were into raising insects as bait and pet food until he heard about the U.N.’s paper and saw an opportunity, now have three (soon to be four) facilities with more than 100 million head of livestock, as he refers to them. They live in retrofitted chicken barns in cricket condos (think of the cardboard inserts in a case of wine; the bugs like to hide in these crannies), and even though they’re free-range, the entire operation fits in 20,000 square feet. That alone is a huge improvement over cattle or even chicken farming, not to mention bugs don’t emit any measurable amount of methane gas, one of the top polluters.
Crickets eat a basic grain diet (Entomo does offer an organic line if you prefer). After living out nearly the entirely of their six-week life span, they’re frozen, cleaned, dehydrated and ground into powder. The whole operation, compared to other factory farming, is humane, low-environmental impact and sustainable. “In scales of economy and efficiency, crickets are the lowest-hanging insect,” Goldin said. “And they’re delicious.”
While most of America is probably still not ready for even a cricket-powder smoothie, we are making progress. Last year, the Seattle Mariners started hawking chapulines, a traditionally Mexican dish of grasshoppers, and sales remain strong. It says a lot that people are willing to eat bug snacks in this all-American context. We’re breaking down some of those cultural barriers, and not just for health reasons.
Among the people pushing the hedonistic pleasure of bug eating is Robyn Shapiro, founder of Seek cricket-based snacks. She recently released The Cricket Cookbook, for which she enlisted well-known chefs, including Alison Roman, to whip up creations like cricket hummus and cricket ice cream. She’s hoping that pushing bugs to the center of the plate gets more people to embrace them. And if that doesn’t work on the current generation, she’ll settle for the next one.
“Every kid born today is going to be growing up in a world where they know crickets are something you can eat,” she told HuffPost.
So much for slimy, yet satisfying.