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November 17, 2018. Cricket chips made with cricket flour spotted in a local Fred Meyer store in the organic section.

Picture by: Andy Melton | Flickr

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Bugs for dinner? Why eating insects is good for you…

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Anna Louise Lovat in Minnesota, United States

At my elementary school science fair, the best prize you could win was a small box of dried mealworms.

They promised a boastful afternoon in the playground, daring your friends to try one. I remember the crunch and the chalky taste, the captivated stares of my classmates, and their expressions of disgust.

This was my first experience with eating bugs; the fear and obscene delight of doing something alien and so deeply strange, or so I thought. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Around the world, insects are eaten by more than 2bn people every day, in a practice called entomophagy. There’s nothing shocking about this, except, perhaps, for our response.

In the 11 years since that science fair, I’ve eaten my fair share of insects: ants, crickets (whole and powdered), grasshoppers, beetles, flies and caterpillars. When the insects aren’t being presented as a fear-factor food for attention, they’ve been delicious – and in the case of the cricket flour, undetectable.

But even now, when presented with insect dishes my gut reaction is to hesitate.

Today, combating climate change is an integral part of our lives and planning for the future. Like it or not, insects are one of the most sustainable food sources we have.

Across the world, eating insects remains an important tradition. But not in the West – instead, there are fierce stigmas that surround entomophagy.

When did Western European cultures label eating bugs as abhorrent, and enforce a negative cultural view of those who do it? And how do we combat this fear-mongering?

A quick online search for cricket flour shows more than nine million results, with prices typically ranging from $15–$30. You can order ants for a similar price – salted or unsalted, depending on your preference. Even lollipops are available with your choice of larva, worm or cricket frozen within.

The market is there, but what’s holding consumers back?

Historically, people have long been chomping down on bugs – and enjoying it. We see traces of this in everything from the Bible, in which John the Baptist is said to feast on locusts and honey (Matthew 3:4), to cave art, which features prehistoric people collecting edible insects.

The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle recorded the best ways to gather cicadas for consumption – he recommends “grub form” for the sweetest taste. So if our ancestors were eating insects, why did the West paint a cultural taboo against those who do?

Racism.

To excuse colonialism as a moral benefit to those whose cultures were being eradicated, one has to cast the colonist’s way of life as superior, which Western society did. Eating insects became something only foreigners did. Here we are, some 500 years later, and these speculations still persist. In fact, in some cases they are heightened.

Learn more:

How a conspiracy theory about eating bugs made its way to international politics

A current conspiracy theory formed on social media pushes the belief that certain governments – in Poland, the Netherlands and the US – are planning to force-feed us insects.

Eating insects instils a fear of the loss of “Western culture” and a return to “savagery,” and has become a white supremacy talking point; it capitalizes on that gut reaction we have to hearing about others eating bugs.

Memes, blog posts and rants are spreading online, focusing on the belief that people will be made to “eat bugs and live in pods.” And it is working.

Red meat is, of course, synonymous with true American ideals such as freedom and liberty. Rumors surged across the US that the left intends to eradicate hamburgers and airplanes with the Green New Deal in 2019, and a key electoral message of Thierry Baudet, a far-right Dutch politician, was a refusal to consume insects.

It’s not hard to see the connections between these theories and xenophobia – in fact, it’s pretty blatant.

In 2019, then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson proudly proclaimed that “Eating insects is repulsive and un-American.” The argument profits off fear and turns food into an ‘us versus them’ debate.

So, how do we combat this? For me, I’ve jumped into eating insects at every chance I get. It hasn’t been a straightforward journey.

For a start, while insect-eating is beginning to spread in the United States, it’s not yet an easy process to acquire food-safe bugs where I am. And second, not many people know much about entomophagy so let’s change that!

What are the benefits of eating insects?

Bugs are friends, not foes

On the historical neglect of the US government to human-insect symbiosis

For one, it’s excellent for the climate. Food security is a huge global problem, and the United Nations has been pushing for the adaptation of insects into more diets since 2008.

Insects are an excellent sustainable food source, due to their environmental impact. Research into entomophagy indicates that ‘caterpillar, locust, and cricket larvae emit 100 times fewer emissions and 10 times less ammonia than cattle and pigs’.

It’s not just the climate insects are good for – there are many health benefits for those who dine on these six-legged creatures. Insects are high in protein, essential amino acids and nutrients including iron, fiber and calcium.

Not to mention there are so many delicious insect dishes out there such as chapulines, a dish consisting of grasshoppers and seasonings, a common street food in areas of Mexico with origins tracing back to the 16th century.

I reached out to Gabriela Valarezo, a food designer who is working on an agroecological project focused on growing endemic crops organically. Currently, from her home in Mexico City, she’s seeing a rise in the number of people who are interested in eating bugs, and how people are shifting the narrative around entomophagy.

“It’s a cultural practice, because [many] ancestors already knew insects were really good for health. They are highly nutritious in proteins. They also have healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.”

In short, we should be eating more insects. It’s good for you, it’s good for the world, and at the same time, you’re combating racist conspiracy theories.

So the next time you’re presented with an option for eating bugs – dig in.

Written by:

author_bio

Anna Louise Lovat

Winner of the Harbinger Prize 2023

Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States

Anna Lovat (she/hers) is a senior at Como Park Senior High, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She plans to study entomology (the science of insects) and mathematics in college and is committed to bridging the gap between scientists and farmers. Currently, she is an intern at the Snell-Rood lab at the University of Minnesota, where she is researching the effects of toxins and heavy metals on insects.

Her favorite insects are wasps, and she is always willing to talk about them. When she isn’t talking, reading or writing about bugs, you can find her reading science fiction, doing her math homework, or poking various insects.

She is also the designated spider relocator of her family.

Edited by:

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Ananya Prasanna

Science editor

Reading, United Kingdom

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