Eating insects!

My sister recently sent us some gifts: among them, insects. To be specific, crickets (packaged as “Crick-ettes,” for some strange reason) and worm larvae (packaged as “Larvets”). They were flavored like potato chips: salt and vinegar or cheddar cheese or bacon and cheese. She also sent a couple of lollipops, one with a cricket embedded inside; the other with a scorpion. And one package of chocolate-covered bugs.

boxes of insects

Crick-ettes and Larvets (as if renaming them changes anything!)

My initial reaction was a knee-jerk “Eeeww!”

My son’s reaction was a sardonic “Really?”

My husband, the only one not completely turned off at the very idea, just laughed at our reactions.

I did eventually try a couple. First, a bacon and cheese flavored cricket. It tasted like a crispy bit of dry, dusty, wooden stick: it was flavorless, even with the supposed addition of bacon and cheese flavoring.

So then I tried a larva: cheese flavored. But actually, also completely flavorless.

The chocolate one I tried tasted better, in that it mostly tasted of chocolate, but with a bit of a crunch to it.

chocolate-covered insects

The chocolate-covered insects were both crickets and larvae.

My husband ate the rest of the chocolate ones, but we threw away the other boxes. No one wanted them.

These were packaged in tiny amounts; just about six crickets and perhaps two dozen larvae per package. Clearly they’re marketed as novelties, not as food. They’re something to buy in order to dare someone to eat it, which I suspect is why my sister bought them for us. (My sister hasn’t tried them, her excuse being that she’s a vegetarian.)

Insects have been in the news a lot lately. In particular, the idea of eating insects.

Apparently, eating insects is what will save the human race from itself. It is a far more efficient protein to produce than any other protein. In other words, it takes far fewer resources—feed, land, water, etc.—to produce one kilo of insect protein than to produce one kilo of any other kind of protein. It’s also healthy: besides protein, it’s high in vitamins and minerals. And good for the environment: less land needs to be used and farming insects produces less in the way of polluting waste products or greenhouse gases than any other animals.

These are marketed as a "scorpion sucker" and a "cricket sucker."

These are marketed as a “scorpion sucker” and a “cricket sucker.”

So everyone seems to agree that people should eat more insects and less of any other protein.

That’s fine, in theory, but the problem is in practice: people in the West are, in general, disgusted at the very thought of eating insects.

In Malawi, where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer, insects are definitely on the menu. At particular times, after it rained, winged ants would emerge in large numbers from their nests in the ground. I would find circles of students crouched down around each nest in the wet grass, grabbing these delicacies as they fluttered up and popping them into their mouths alive.

Once I even had the nerve to try one. It tasted like dust.

Sometimes these winged ants are captured by placing a basket over the nest. Then they’re fried and salted, which makes them somewhat more palatable: like potato chips, but with less flavor.

At the same time as we Westerners in Malawi were disgusted by these insects that were such a treat for the locals, the locals were disgusted with us for eating shellfish like shrimp or crabs. Malawians were horrified that anyone would actually eat them.

We think we make independent choices, but it’s alarming how much of our behavior and preferences are culturally determined. Outside of the West, most cultures eat insects.

If this is ever going to take off in the West, it has to become more than just a novelty item. Here’s my suggestion to any insect producers out there who might be reading this: you need to approach this differently. The insect must not be visible as an insect. Here in the West, that will always elicit a disgusted response.

block of chocolate with a cricket on top

I bought this at a gourmet chocolate shop last month. Again, it’s sold as a novelty item, and that is indeed why I bought it: as a joke. My husband ate it.

Instead, process it into flour. Market it as a high-protein additive to pretty much anything. It could be baked into bread or other baked goods for a high-protein, low carbohydrate version. It could be added to energy or sports drinks or smoothies or yogurts. Figure out how to make a meat substitute with it, like the ones that are available made from soy. Add it to chocolate. The possibilities are endless.

In other words, make it into anything else that’s edible and doesn’t look like insects. That’s the only thing that will eventually overcome our reluctance and even disgust at your product.

According to one article I read about the Dutch insect industry, the insect producers here are hoping to do just that, and already McDonald’s and a falafel chain are interested. But first, they have to get the laws changed to allow the use of insects as human food. Once that happens, I suspect that more producers will get involved, since insects will bring their costs down by replacing less efficient forms of protein or fillers.

If it happens, I’m all for it, providing it a) doesn’t look like what it is, and b) has more flavor!

What are your feelings about eating insects? Add a comment below, and don’t forget to tell us where you are from!

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