Putting Edible Insects On The Menu

mealworms or beetle larvae
Mealworms: High in protein, cheap to produce, and oh, so tasty!
(cc) Wageningen University

Imagine sinking your teeth into a big, juicy burger. Or maybe slicing into a tender steak. Or dipping your spoon into a steaming bowl of spicy chili. Now imagine that all of those dishes are made, not from beef, but from bugs. Mmm. Yum.

To most North Americans and Europeans, the very idea of eating insects may turn the stomach. But keep in mind that lobsters are also known as sea bugs. And that lobsters, along with crabs, crawfish, and shrimp look an awful lot like bugs because they are.

While edible insects may not get your mouth watering, in many countries, particularly parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, insects are considered a delicacy. What kind of insects are we talking about? How about caterpillars, grasshoppers, ants, termites, and even scorpions and tarantulas.

For the most part, people who eat insects do so not because of a dare or to win a challenge on a reality TV show, but simply because the insects taste good. Of course, anything would taste good fried in enough butter with garlic, onions, herbs, and spices. But edible insects have other advantages. They tend to be rich in vitamins and minerals, and are a good source of protein. They’re also relatively inexpensive and cultivating them imposes less of a burden on the environment than raising cattle, pigs, and chickens.

Recently, Wageningen University in The Netherlands conducted a study, the first of its kind, that compared the environmental cost of cultivating edible insects, specifically mealworms or beetle larvae, with the cost of raising cattle for beef and milk, pigs, and chickens. They looked at such factors as land use, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and resulting protein.

Not surprisingly, it takes less land to raise worms than it does the other animals studied. Worm farming also produces less greenhouse gas and takes the same or less overall energy to produce the same quantity of dietary protein.

All of this is important since current livestock farming uses about 70% of our available agricultural land and produces as much as 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As our population grows, the need for sustainable agriculture becomes more important.

Of course, vegetarians can attest that protein is only part of the nutritional picture and that we don’t really need animal protein in our diet at all. Legumes, nuts, beans, and lentils, when supplemented with other foods, will do just as well. And cooked right, a veggie burger will satisfy the appetite as well as any slab of beef … or bugs. Not only that, but you don’t have to worry about picking the wings and legs out of your teeth afterward.

Want to give edible insects a try? Check out “Eat-a-bug Cookbook: 33 ways to cook grasshoppers, ants, water bugs, spiders, centipedes, and their kin” from Amazon.