Insect cuisine deserves adventurous palates, not just industrial processes

Unsustainable meat consumption is a threat to the planet. It’s having runaway consequences for the climate, water, land, forests and food production. If the world hopes to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2, the elimination of hunger and malnutrition by 2030, within planetary boundaries, the food system needs to change fast. But what else will meat eaters accept?

The hunt is on, and nothing is off the table – not even insect protein. No longer a fringe proposal, a diet based on insects has legs, at least in open-minded sustainable food circles.

The perfect protein?

An influential 2013 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security, was the starting gun for a race to market that has generated a largely startup-led effort to put crickets and mealworms in supermarkets.

The pitch: these animals have an exceptionally high feed conversion rate, meaning that where a cow might turn 10 kilograms of feed into one kilogram of cow, the rate for a cricket is just two-to-one. They demand very little land or water. Their feed might consist of all kinds of things, including common waste products. And insects emit much less of the greenhouse gases, particularly methane, that make livestock such a climate threat.

As such, they could be the shortcut to sustainable protein for a world that is demanding more meat. It’s protein in a very healthy package, too, as evidenced by a host of recent nutritional findings for different insect species which suggest they supply antioxidants, healthy fats, minerals and vitamins, and have positive effects on gut flora.

Strange ingredients, same old cookies

Before we slap on the label of “superfood,” we should consider exactly what startups are proposing that consumers do with insects. Many concepts are in the air, but most share a certain texture. Milling crickets into a smooth powder to make chips, protein bars and shakes. Raising mealworms in zone-based automated environments to process into cookies, 3D-print into snack foods, or grind into Ikea meatballs. These two species alone – the house cricket, Acheta domestics, and mealworm Tenebrio molitor – seem to be the pigs and chickens of this new food system, and today’s food scientists are busily inventing its hot dogs and chicken nuggets.

Despite the hype, in fact, most insects being raised in the United States are just being used as livestock and fish feed. This is where the big investment is, too, with ag giants like Cargill getting involved. The livestock industry is excited about the prospect of feed on demand from robotic production facilities that are immune to the vagaries of agricultural seasons and commodity markets. And this is a notable advance compared to raising livestock on soybeans – but hardly a revolution in the food system. Chickens have been eating bugs as long as they’ve been laying eggs.

What this generation of consumers is getting, instead of a change, is a growing presence of insect-derived protein in otherwise nondescript industrial products. The new ingredients are something to hide deep in a processed snack, as though grown-ups need to be tricked into eating them like picky children duped by peas blended into spaghetti sauce.

Billions served

Why process insects into oblivion, anyway?

Let’s start with tacos in Mexico. This is home to one of the world’s great insect cuisines, a wildly diverse menu that begins with Oaxacan chapulines (grasshopper) tacos, and goes on to fried ant eggs, mesquite-flavored mesquite bugs and too many other regional specialties to name. Insects are part of a daily diet for many, and an ancient culinary tradition that is, of late, surging in popularity in Mexico City.

Some two billion people worldwide eat more than 1,000, and possibly as high as 2,000, different species of insects, a level of diversity that is extraordinary anywhere in the food system. One count reached 549 species in Mexico alone – but Mexico is not alone. Insect food is prized everywhere.

In Southern Africa, the mopane worm is harvested from vast areas of forest and cooked up in millions of households. It’s an already existing, and much loved, protein source in a region with one of the greatest food security concerns.

In Thailand, all sorts of edible insects are both normalized and celebrated. One special condiment – nam prik mang da – is made with the giant water bug, a beetle that has been compared in tasting notes to Gorgonzola cheese.

Granted, that last one might have turned a few stomachs – but just a few readers must be thinking, “Sure, I’d try that.” And that is precisely why the future of the food system needs adventurous palates and a love of diversity.

Acquired tastes

Aversion to insect eating is culturally specific, and if six-legged livestock will save the world, maybe it’s time to get over it – like people, throughout the history of food, have gotten over so much else.

When Europeans first encountered New World foodways, they were so disgusted with the insect eating they saw that they branded it with a lasting stigma (while forgetting some venerable European insect traditions that have since died out). At the same time, they were highly suspicious of most other new foods they encountered, too, like tomatoes and lobsters.

Over time, some of these foods were accepted. This did not happen because someone started extracting lobster meat, milling it into a paste and 3D-printing it into imitation fish filets. The Europeans just learned to like some new things.

If today’s foodies can learn to dabble in the joys of insects, it may well open up vistas in cuisine as well as sustainability. The extraordinary diversity of insect life deserves attention for many reasons – not least because more than 40% of insect species face extinction in an accelerating global collapse that entomologists are only starting to comprehend.

Celebrating diversity may seem like a small measure in the face of an environmental emergency on this scale. But the food system is at the center of the emergency, and so is the severe lack of diversity in that system. Sustainable Development Goal 2 recognizes this by setting an ambition, Target 2.5, to maintain genetic diversity in everything people eat. And this target has inspired the Food Forever Initiative, a worldwide partnership to raise awareness of the importance of agricultural biodiversity – based on the notion that what people do at the table can and will change the whole food system.

That change will include chefs who boldly experiment with the potential of insect ingredients. It will include educational organizations that work with young people to invent a new generation of food habits untainted by the ick factor that limits the diets of grown-ups. It will include anyone who’s willing to consider insects as more than just protein powder. Even if the first step is simply to say, “Sure, I’d try that.”

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