"Sushi of 30 years ago is the insects of today," says Blue Hill Chef/Owner Dan Barber. And you know what? He may be right.
Wait, wait, insects?
Yes! The insect food industry is booming around the world, as the likes of Kyle Connaughton get into cooking with critters. "There are energy bars made with cricket flour, chocolate-dipped and candy-coated worms, cricket cookies and cricket crackers...Caterpillar sushi and mealworm tofu are also in the works," reports Huffington Post. A 2014 report by New Nutrition Business projects that the bug grub industry will be worth more than $360 million within the next five years.
Back up. Why are people eating bugs?
Good question. As you're probably aware, there are several challenges facing our current food system: a growing global population, millions of people going hungry or under-nourished, and mounting concerns over global warming. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that eating insects may be our road map to a more sustainable future.
Ok, so this is real. Tell me more.
People in 80 percent of the world's countries eat insects. "In South Africa, termites are served with maize porridge. You can get spicy grasshopper (chapulìn) tacos in Mexico. In Indonesia, dragonflies boiled in coconut milk are a delicacy. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, caterpillars are traditional eating," writes Jennifer Billock for Lucky Peach. Why? Insects are incredibly nutrient-rich. They're protein and fiber packed morsels, and today, the FAO is also touting just how great eating insects can be for human and planetary health.
What are the sustainability benefits of eating bugs?
In-depth research by FAO notes that "The consumption of insects ... contributes positively to the environment and to health and livelihoods." Raising insects takes up far less space, water and feed than traditional livestock (i.e. cattle). Insect greenhouse gas emissions are up to 12 times lower than beef, they could return about 30 percent of all livestock land currently in use, and insects require far less produce to deliver the same amount of protein as more traditional sources. Win, win and win. Some claim global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 18 percent, and food prices could lower by 30 percent if insects become a common menu item.
How does this address global hunger?
Insects are easy to raise by individuals. Insect farms consist of a simple container with a lid, perhaps a bit of water and feed. They are cheap to maintain and take up little space. Think: immediate, healthy, low cost protein for families. Cricket topped mac n' cheese, anyone?
What are the nutritional benefits of eating bugs?
The protein in insects is comparable to that of beef and milk: Crickets provide about 21 grams of protein per 100 grams of cricket; ground beef offers 26 grams per 100 grams of meat. Mealworms are high in protein, amino acids and vitamins and minerals, and low in fat and cholesterol.
"Many edible insect species are also high in essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3s," writes Daniella Martin in Edible: An Adventure Into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet. "Aquatic insects tend to have higher levels of essential fatty acids, though all edible insects contain them to some extent. Many insects, such as crickets, grasshoppers, ants, and certain caterpillars, are exceedingly high in calcium...Crickets and cockroach nymphs are both impressively good sources for B12. If vegans could accept the idea of eating insects, they could potentially manage their B12 intake just by popping a few crickets a couple times a week."
This isn't just good news for humans, but potentially for the livestock that we raise. If our cows and pigs and chickens are devouring insects, those extra nutrients for them means more nutrition for us as well.
Is there a catch?
Some studies say 'hold your horses.' Not all insects offer this off-the-charts protein. Others also note that insects, just like other animals, are also prone to disease and the FDA needs to develop rules for harvesting insects just as they do for other foods.
So what if I want to start cooking with insects? Where do I start?
Get to know your critters! There are over 1,900 types of edible bugs to choose from. "Crickets, for instance, taste like nutty shrimp, whereas most larvae I've tried have a nutty mushroom flavor," writes Martin. "My two favorites, wax moth caterpillars (aka wax worms) and bee larvae, taste like enoki-pine nut and bacon-chanterelle, respectively."
Get a rundown of flavors and what is eaten where, at National Geographic.
Originally published at Plate Online.
Eve is the author of A Taste of Generation Yum: How a Generation's Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food. Follow Eve on Facebook and Twitter @EveTurow.