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Insects: The future of food? Gizmag goes "taste buds on" with grubs, crickets and caterpillars

By

August 16, 2013

You want flies with that? Mealworms on a pigeon burger at Rentokil's pop-up 'pestaurant' (...

You want flies with that? Mealworms on a pigeon burger at Rentokil's pop-up 'pestaurant' (Photo: Gizmag)

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By 2050, the UN expects that there will be almost 10 billion people on the Earth. This poses some serious practical questions, not least among which is how we'll put food into 2.5 billion or so extra tummies (especially given that we don't adequately fill all of the 7-plus billion we already have). If you're yet to hear alarming phrases like "food security" and "sustainable intensification" you've probably been living under a rock. Which is apt, actually, because that's exactly where you might find one of the proposed answers: insects. A pop-up kitchen in London on Thursday served up a variety of bug-based bites to passers by, and Gizmag arrived soon after it opened to sample the wares on offer.

If the need for entomophagy – eating insects – sounds like alarmism, the idea is being taken seriously by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which released a report on this very subject earlier this year.

Chief among the arguments is that insects are very efficient to rear compared to other sources of animal protein. Cattle requires 12 times more feedstock than do crickets per unit mass of protein grown, while requiring less land and water, and generating less greenhouse gas and ammonia.

Eating insects isn't the only option being explored, of course. But synthetic meat is in the very early stages of development, and good old vegetarianism suffers next to humanity's seemingly insatiable appetite for meat. China's expanding and beef-loving middle class has seen the country's meat consumption boom from 10 kg per person in the mid 1970s to 45 kg per person by 2010. (Australia's supply of red meat to China increased 214 percent between 2012 and 2013.)

It's only really in the economic West where the idea of eating insects is an alien concept. According to the FAO, 1,900 different insect species are consumed by 2 billion or so people in more than 80 countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

This was about 10:30 a.m. Apparently things got busier by lunchtime (Photo: Gizmag)

This was about 10:30 a.m. Apparently things got busier by lunchtime (Photo: Gizmag)

As of approximately 10.30 a.m. local time, there were at least a dozen or so more thanks to a pop-up kitchen (or "pestaurant") organized by Rentokil to celebrate 85 years in the pest control business. It was a neat enough publicity stunt, but besides the point. Out of curiosity more than desire, I'd been looking for an opportunity to sample insects for some time, so I was buying what Rentokil was selling … or giving away, as it happens.

Disappointingly, the menu available was both altered and reduced from the one which was circulated ahead of the event. Gone were roasted salted queen weaver ants, barbecue zebra tarantula (no, not an insect) and numerous other exotic-sounding items. A Rentokil PR person tells Gizmag that this was due to an import license that temporarily went missing. Still, there was no shortage of insects to sample, and Gizmag gamely tucked into crickets (Thai green curry and salt and vinegar flavor), barbecue mealworms and sun-dried emperor moth caterpillars followed by chocolate-dipped grasshoppers and ants.

Actually, the main course was a sweet chilli pigeon burger, the loose theme of the day being pests rather than insects, but I wasn't interested. Odds were against this being a grimy stub-footed London pigeon, and indeed, the same Rentokil PR rep later confirmed to Gizmag that these birds were "top of the range" – delicious combined with venison and bacon, no doubt, but hardly pests, and not why I was there.

Salt and vinegar crickets (Photo: Gizmag)

Salt and vinegar crickets (Photo: Gizmag)

So how did the insects themselves taste? In a word: salty. I started with the crickets, which seemed to be vying for space in the bar snack market. Switch these in for a bowl of salted pork rinds after four pints with your mates and they mightn't bat an eyelid. They were neither particularly tasty nor offensive to the taste buds; they were simply incredibly dry, salty, yet ultimately innocuous.

Sundried emperor moth caterpillars (Photo: Gizmag)

Sundried emperor moth caterpillars (Photo: Gizmag)

The sun-dried emperor moth caterpillars were by far the most interesting thing on offer, if only because their flavor wasn't masked by overpowering additives. Whereas I didn't hesitate to try the crickets, here I had to steel myself because, sun-dried or not, these were very obviously caterpillars and fairly large ones at that. Still, I was very surprised at the flavor, which, more than anything else, recalled that of tea. Pleasant? I'll get back to you on that one.

Barbecue mealworms (Photo: Gizmag)

Barbecue mealworms (Photo: Gizmag)

Trying the barbecue mealworms I was firmly back in salty beer-snack territory, though I did manage to give myself a bit of a fright by accidentally twiddling one between my fingers, creating a momentary impression that the thing was alive. What can I say? I'm no fisherman. To my shame, I dropped it in a panic. People laughed at me, and rightly so.

When it came to dessert, it turns ants stand up to the flavor of chocolate much better than grasshoppers do, with an acidic almost fruity punch. The combination worked well.

What one couldn't help noticing, though, was that, burgers aside, there was no cooking going on, just lots of snacks in bowls. I'm glad I got there early, as the prospect of being 189th in line to dip my fingers in a bowl of mealworms is orders of magnitude less appealing than the mealworms themselves.

To his credit, Rentokil's PR guy told Gizmag that they had to raid the food halls of London's posh department stores to find insects to replace the imported inventory, but one wonders what would have been served up had Plan A worked out. We were firmly in novelty snack territory, here.

It made me all the more disappointed to have missed a pop-up London restaurant back in April run by Noma, the best restaurant three years running according to the magazine Restaurant. Noma's development chefs have been experimenting with insects resulting in a cricket broth and wax moth larvae mousse, among other dishes. Of course, Michelin-quality dishes are far-removed from the way millions of people consume insects everyday, but they may be a crucial stage if (and that's a big if) insects become accepted as a food source in the rest.

I'm still on the look out for my first culinary (let alone gastronomic) insect experience, but at least I've broken my duck so far as consumption of insects goes (accidental ingestion notwithstanding). When the next opportunity comes I suspect there'll be less of a mental barrier to getting stuck in. It turns out, there isn't very much to fuss about, but then that's hardly news to the 2 billion.

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life.   All articles by James Holloway
13 Comments

Some years back went to Thailand and we had some fat juicy mystery deep fried grubs from a seller off the side of the street. Bit of a dare, and it amused the locals who would likely not touch the stuff. Tasted like pork crackle, but softer and not porky. Bit like tofu on the inside.

Its true what they say about how much protein and energy bugs pack over bigger animals.

Four grub things weighing less then half a Mars bar and I wasn't hungry all bloody day. We walked around 9 km visiting the various temples, and there was energy to spare until late in the evening.

So in conclusion, given the choice between eating bugs or becoming soilent green for the next guy, I choose bugs. Each to their own.

Nairda
16th August, 2013 @ 09:24 am PDT

And yet we still have farm programs that pay farmers not to grow. I wonder if they take into account, if the farmers actually grew crops that they could, just how much food would be available then...

yinfu99
16th August, 2013 @ 09:43 am PDT

I'm less concerned about the farmers being paid not to grow as the farmers to leave millions of pounds of food to rot because they couldn't get a good enough price to cover shipping it. The fact that there is a single hungry person in the US is insane when you take that into account.

There was a telethon I watched not long ago where they were working with a potato farmer who had this happen. He offered them to the charity with the only stipulation that they had to remove them and ship them. They were raising funds to pay the trucking to their local food bank. He had something like 30 or 40 truckloads that was going to waste. They put that in perspective that a "bag" (they didn't specify the weight) could feed a family of four for a month. Each truck had "more than a thousand bags". I've seen mountains of corn rot in the field like that too.

So all in all I do not think the food crisis is as desperate as it is made out to be. We need to work on efficiency of harvest, transport, and delivery before we turn to exotic food sources.

VirtualGathis
16th August, 2013 @ 12:59 pm PDT

I have to ask, . . . how do they pass a health inspection?

Usually, if you have insects in your restaurant, you are in violation of most country's food health and sanitary laws.

"Oh, those roaches? . . . They are the appetizer!"

BombR76
16th August, 2013 @ 03:18 pm PDT

If i was stranded in the wilderness or in an emergency situation, where i might starve if i didnt eat something, i would have no problem eating bugs, i think crickets/grasshoppers would be my preferred bug.

But i wouldnt while i have access to perfectly good meat, or even vegetables! Thats not to say i wouldn't try some at a stand like the author of this article did, or if i was traveling through some southeast asian country. Like most other people i find the idea of eat grubs probably the least palatable, i think we've evolved to find certain things revolting for our own good... grubs are often found on rotting flesh which is an indicator that we should not eat it.

Something you often hear when you read about people eating insects, is that usually they don't really taste like much. I think that would be a problem for people who enjoy eating food, enjoying the flavour of meat and plants isn't something we learn from a young age, its in our dna as humans.

I think if you ground the insects up and filtered out the crunchy bits, and made it into some sort of a processed food, it would probably work better on a larger scale.

Nathaneal Blemings
18th August, 2013 @ 10:55 am PDT

Live insects are problems, Bomb. Not dead ones that were shipped sanitized and frozen.

Joel Detrow
18th August, 2013 @ 02:25 pm PDT

I worked in West Africa years ago and after the rains people would gather the flying ants (termites?) to eat - raw and fried. They were tasty fried and known as a great source of protein. But on VirtualGathis comments above, the world food shortage is not about America, it's that millions of people can't afford food shipped from America. If you give it away it trashes local farmers ability to sell so they then can't sow and the shortage spirals. If you sell it, the poor still starve. We need local solutions which are as much political as technical - things like security of land tenure, freedom from corruption, not being enslaved by Monsanto, availability of water etc etc.

rippa700
19th August, 2013 @ 03:20 am PDT

For several years now in Colombia there has been a food chain (El Corral) which combines ringworms (sanitary certified and registered) with regular ground beef. The result is a very tasty burger, quite lower in fat (cholesterol & Tryglicerids) than a traditional one.

Entomophagy would be an interesting app"roach" (hee, hee...) if we could combine it with other traditional food sources in an efficient (and tasty) way...

Bon appetit...!

Charlie Channels
19th August, 2013 @ 06:51 am PDT

Insects tastes pretty good. But do be careful if you are eating them in Asia right now. There are cases where the insects have traces of DDT, other pesticides on them, and they can get you sick.

I have a pretty bad case of insectophobia (is that the word?) nowadays, but I used to eat them all the time. Grasshoppers and crickets were my favorite. Deep fried, dunk into the chili sauce (the Thai/Vietnamese one). But they were so damn expensive compared to everything else even back then.

Other than that, I don't get why it's all "insect and feces". Why not like..tofu, and other beans? Meat are excellent source of nutrients--so much so that you really don't need all that much to survive. I'm more than willing to bet that what we can produce right now is plenty to keep the entire population (even if you have them expand at linear rate for the next hundred years--which is not happening. Population growth is declining a lot, and might even go negative in our life time) perfectly healthy.

Savin Nay Wangtal
19th August, 2013 @ 07:24 am PDT

If you eat cereals, breads, candy, peanut butter, and canned fruits and veggies you may get up to 1 lb/yr from insects mixed in with the crops. That does not count the fact that the average person eats between 8-12 insects a year in their sleep.

Michaelc
19th August, 2013 @ 05:47 pm PDT

Bugs = landshrimp. What's all the fuss?

Fritz Menzel
19th August, 2013 @ 07:47 pm PDT

@Michaelc: We don't eat bugs in our sleep: http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/spiders.asp

Bugs aren't smart, but they aren't suicidal either. However, we're each entitled to our own internet folklore.

Fritz Menzel
20th August, 2013 @ 08:07 am PDT

i estimate that the population will be 100-250 million in 2050. The "cure " is coming for the human race. The destruction of ruminants is predicted,

Stewart Mitchell
24th August, 2013 @ 09:11 pm PDT
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