Insects as Food!?!
Insects as Food!?!
by Stephanie Bailey, Entomology Extension Specialist
Activities from this unit would make a very interesting 4-H talk or demonstration to spark interest in a classroom setting.
Discussion Topic #1: Introduction
The thought of eating insects may be very unsettling to most people in this day and age. However, in many cultures insects and other arthropods have been eaten as a staple and/or as a delicacy. Research this topic in groups, finding out what might be a typical diet for a given culture.
List/Discuss all foods we think are delicacies, and research some of the ingredients. You might start with caviar (fish eggs), or how the cacao bean is processed to become the chocolate we love. Next, discuss some of the arthropods and other invertebrates that are commonly eaten, such as crab, lobster, shrimp, and escargot (snails). Most often these animals are marine. Why wouldn't terrestrial arthropods and snails be just as good? Is it because we can see terrestrial arthropods living day to day? Put forth ideas.
Discussion #2: Insects as a source of nutrition
In many parts of the world today, insects are a part of people's diets. Why? (Possible reasons might include: they are a good source of protein, easy to find, take up less space than cows, etc.) Their nutritional value is equal to if not better than our traditional meat choices. Which insect is the most nutritious? Which would be the easiest to rear? Try rearing mealworms in the classroom, to use in bug recipes later. Students may also attempt to determine some of the economic impacts such as time and costs in rearing insects, labor to catch insects, shipping costs, etc., compared to grocery prices for other types of meat.
An internet discussion list named entomo-l discussed the topic of edible insects over the course of a few weeks. There were several contributors, and unfortunately some of the names were deleted, but where possible the names are posted as written. See if this whets your appetite!! (Items are reproduced here without editorial corrections.)
- "I want to share some of my experiences. I'm living in Ecuador, South America and I tried some wonderful, tastier and amazing insects here. Near the Ecuador's capital, Quito, there is a small town called Cotocollao where people cooks the white beetles (Scarabaeidae: Cyclocephala). They cooks it with some pork meat and some vegetables. Some people in the Amazonian region eats the cerambicid's larvae and Cicadas."
- "I tried the cerambicid (longhorn beetle) larvae, and I can guarantee satisfaction. There are some kinds of ants edible here. One is the lemon ant, that most of the people eats alive (Really delicious, but hard to keep on the mouth). Another delicious ant is the "Hormiga Culona," a big ant that is eaten fried." Gustavo F. Morejon J. BioBanco - Wildlife Monitoring Centre Project International Federation of Scientific Societies & Fundacion Maquipucuna P.O. Box 01.01.1135 E-mail: email@example.com (Internet) Cuenca - Ecuador South America
- "Food Insects Newsletter". This excellent newsletter is put out by Dr. Gene DeFoliart three times a year. It was free, originally, but with 2418 copies distributed in 1993, there is now a $5 fee. Contact Dept. of Entomology, 1630 Linden Dr., University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53706 (checks payable to Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin).
- "I have tasted several species including dragonfly, grasshopper, cerambycid larvae, honeybees and termites and have found them all satisfactory. I DO recommend cooking all insects before eating. Grasshoppers, in particular, can carry several parasitic worms that can be passed to humans (so does beef, for that matter.)" Dave Pehling, W.S.U./SNOHOMISH CO. COOPERATIVE EXTENSION
- "In relation to edible insects, certainly in Mexico there is a great prehispanic tradition in the cuisine of many insects. Just two examples: 1. In the south of Mexico there is an ant (Atta cephalotes), which is consumed in the rainy season, when there is wing females, these ants have 42% of protein and his taste is wonderful. 2. In the mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Morelos and Veracruz, the people frecuently cook a "salsa," which have as main condiment crushed "jumiles" Euschistus crenator and other species of the same genera (Hemiptera:Pentatomidae)[stinkbugs]. These bugs have an aromatic and deep flavor like a mint or cinnamon. Also these bugs are eaten lives with the traditional "tacos"."
- "In has been a long standing tradition (since before the Europeans came to Mexico) to use a large variety of insect species in the traditional cuisine of Mexico. There is even a book on insect edible species written by a mexican entomologist. My favorite are redlegged grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) marinated in lemon juice, salt, and chile (of course)"
- "I have found that some of the local grasshoppers are fairly tasty when eaten fresh (ie, live). I've enhanced the entomology education of the neighbor kids by making them fork over a dollar before I'll let them see me eat one." From: "Victoria Nations"
- "I've tried several recipes out of "Entertaining with Insects" (available through BioQuip), and have found mealworms to be the tastiest. However, I've tried to present these dishes at a few Biology Dept. functions, and was distressed by the disgusted reactions of my colleagues. I'll admit that getting exoskeletons stuck between your teeth can be a daunting, but I would think that biologists would be more adventurous about eating their study organisms. Alas not." From: Carol Vervalin
- "We have a faculty member in my biology department that brings cookies/brownies with meal worms mixed in and garnished with one worm on top before baking. they don't taste bad!"
- "We fried moths once (the grey ones) as a survival exercize, just catch them and place them in the pan with a little hot oil. Some salt and pepper might help."
- "In Australia, Oecophylla are eaten as bush food. Snatch the ant from its activity and bite off the abdomen ... good! a mixture of sweet and sour and quite thirst-quenching."
- "According to F.H.E. Philippi, (maybe it was E. Perris), 1864, Zoological Record (I paraphrase, as it's been so long since I saw it): 'There's a tribe in the Andes of South America, which collects species of dryopoid beetles, dries them, grinds them up, and uses them as a spicy additive for food flavouring.'"
Discussion #3 Food Defect Action Levels: How many bugs have you eaten today?
Many foods we eat have insects or insect parts in them, that we don't see. The Department of Health and Human Services has set a standard called the Food Defect Action Levels, which (to quote a publication) "are set on the basis of no hazard to health... These levels are set because it is not possible, and never has been possible, to grow in open fields, harvest and process crops that are totally free of natural defects."
"The alternative to establishing natural defect levels in some foods would be to insist on increased utilization of chemical substances to control insects, rodents and other natural contaminants. The alternative is not satisfactory because of the very real danger of exposing consumers to potential hazards from residues of these chemicals, as opposed to the aesthetically unpleasant but harmless natural and unavoidable defects."
"Defect action levels do not represent an average of the defects that occur in any of the food categories (averages are much lower). They are the limit at or above which FDA will take legal action against the product and remove it from the market."
Portfolio topic(s): How do you feel about FDAL's, and the idea that some of your food may be contaminated with insects or other defects? What are the tradeoffs? Do you accept the tradeoffs, or do you believe in zero tolerance, even at very high prices and environmental pollution? What about your tolerance to pesticides that are used?
Activity #1 Determine FDAL's for a few common foods (such as hot dogs, flour, noodles, etc., some examples are listed below). Convert these values into pounds per package bought in a grocery store, e. g. per 5 pound bag of flour, 12-ounce can, etc.
Activity #2 Buy a few of these products (generics and/or brand names) and use a microscope to examine the products for parts of insects, rodent hairs, etc. How many, if any, are found? Do they exceed the action level? What would YOUR action level be?
Discussion/Activity #4: The Bugfeast
If the class and teachers are adventurous, perhaps a real hands- on way to get to know insects is to eat them (I had a zoology teacher who once said studying helps but you never forget what you eat!). Teachers will probably want to send home a form for parents to sign, allowing students to take part. Activities surrounding the bugfeast may include:
- - Creating a menu of bug delicacies (real or imaginary dishes)
- - Shopping for the bugfood and other supplies
Cleaning and Preparing the Insects (taken from Entertaining with Insects)
Insects, like lobster, are best if cooked while alive or fresh frozen. In contrast to beef, lamb, and poultry, postmortem changes rapidly render insects unpalatable. To facilitate meal planning, many species of insects may be kept alive for several days in the refrigerator. In fact, refrigeration before cooking is advised for the more active forms because it slows down their movements and facilitates handling.
Mealworms and crickets are easy to obtain from bait and tackle shops, or from distributors. If mealworms came packed in newspaper, they need to be changed to bran meal or corn meal or starved for 24 hours, to purge their guts. To separate mealworms from any attached food, waste material, or other debris, place a handful of them in a colander and gently toss. Remove any dead worms, and wash the remaining live insects under cool water. Place the worms on paper towels and pat dry. The mealworms are ready to be cooked or frozen for later use. Crickets should be placed in a refrigerator before attempting to wash them, to slow them down. If, before they are completely washed, they become very active, put them back in the refrigerator. You may want to remove the legs, wings, and ovipositor of crickets after dry roasting them.
Preparing Dry-Roasted Insects (taken from Entertaining with Insects)
Take cleaned insects out of the freezer. Spread them out on a paper-towel covered baking sheet. Bake at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-2 hours, until the insects can be easily crushed with a spoon.
Alternatively, go to gourmet shops, or ethnic shops and buy canned insect treats such as chocolate-covered insects. Dry-roasted insects can be included in most any recipe that could include nuts, such as cookies, breads, brownies, Rice Krispie Treats (a.k.a. Crispy Critter Krispies), etc. Invite other classes to sample the bugfood
- Taylor, Ronald L., Entertaining with Insects Or: The Original Guide to Insect Cookery, Salutek Publ. Co.
- Ramos-Elorduy, Julieta and Peter Menzel, Creepy Crawly Cuisine, Park St. Press, (1998) Naylor, Phyllis R., Beetles Lightly Toasted, Yearling Books, (1989) (ages 9-12)
- Manes, Stephen, Chocolate-Covered Ants, Apple Publ.(1993) Holt, Vincent M. Why Not Eat Insects? E. W. Classey Ltd.,Hampton, Middlesex. 1967 (1885).
- Taylor, R. L. Butterflies in my Stomach (or: Insects in Human Nutrition). Woodbridge Press Publishing Company, Santa Barbara, California. 1975.
- The Food Defect Action Levels: Current Levels for Natural or Unavoidable Defects for Human Use that Present No Health Hazard. Department of Health & Human Services 1989.
Explorer's Club Annual Dinner
The Explorer's Club in New York, NY, is famous for its annual dinner, which often features edible insects. Listed below are some articles about this notorious event.
- Hotlix: this company from California is famous for its insect suckers and chocolate covered ants.
- Thailand Unique: this website sells canned insects and other goodies
- Bug Vivant: Edible-insect blog, maintained by former Univeristy of Kentucky Entomology student Meghan Curry. You can also visit their Facebook page.
- Eating Bugs: This site contains tips and facts from the Manataka American Indian Council.
- Food Insects: this site from Gene R. DeFoliart is very popular and contains lots of information about edible insects
- Insects As Food: a site about edible insects in Thailand
- People Eating Bugs & Food w/ Insects, Nutrition by Natalie: a YouTube video about insects in food
Last updated: 24 Jan 2016
Bug food cartoons courtesy of C. Ware, copyright 1997