Are crickets the new kale? How edible insects might just save the planet

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The six-legged creatures that make you shriek in terror when they surprise you in the shower are now surprisingly welcome guests on people’s dinner plates. Packed with nutrition and environmentally friendly to boot, edible insects aren’t just for daredevils anymore. With an open mind, explore the world of edible insects — you’ll be surprised to learn all the benefits six mighty little legs can carry.

Fried edible insects served on a slate plate with garnish, accompanied by a dark bowl and a fork on a wooden table.
Think you could never eat bugs? Learn why they’re being hailed as a highly nutritious, delicious and sustainable food source. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Unveiling cultural delicacies

Insects are standard fare on the meal plan in some parts of the world. For instance, In Korea, silkworm soup called “beondegi” is a delicacy, and in Mexico, “chapulines” or toasted grasshoppers are a popular snack.

The Goliath birdeater tarantula is the world’s largest spider, and it’s dinner for the indigenous Yanomami people. Once they catch the tarantula, after hours of hunting, it is roasted in fire, burning off the hairs and cooking the white meat inside the legs. People say the meat tastes like smoked crab. 

Although the practice of eating insects, or entomophagy, is unfathomable to many in Western cultures, according to Edible Insects author Gina Louise Hunter, it is common among 3,071 ethnic groups in 130 countries. Entomophagy has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Yet, in many places, it is still viewed as unsanitary or linked to poverty due to cultural and social stigmas.

Now sustainable food experts are promoting entomophagy as a nutritious and eco-friendly food source. And it’s working: Interest in edible insects is rising as Western chefs experiment with these exotic delicacies.  

Nature’s nutritional gems

Trying to hit protein goals for muscle gain can be a struggle for avid gym-goers. Many resort to questionable chicken thigh protein shakes or consuming an absurd amount of scrambled eggs, but what if the solution is just to eat a few crickets?

Instead of cooking up a whole steak or salmon, you could eat a handful of crickets to get the same, if not more, nutritional value. According to Oxford University’s Food Quality and Safety journal, 100 grams of cricket provides 15 grams of protein, 6.3 grams of fat, 41 milligrams of iron and other vitamins and minerals. This means crickets contain twice as much protein as beef and the same amount of vitamin B12 as salmon. 

“Crickets are highly nutritious,” said registered dietitian Catherine Rall. “They’re rich in protein and unsaturated fats, and also include a variety of essential minerals and vitamins including calcium, potassium and vitamins A, B and C.”

“Especially compared to other animal-based protein sources,” Rall said, “they’re a highly nutritious choice that can be a major part of a balanced diet. There are definitely some cultural barriers to overcome in terms of taboos and finding appealing recipes, but nutritionally, they’re outstanding.”

As a nutrient-dense food, edible insects could be key to solving global malnutrition. Insect rice — made of a combination of rice and insect flour — contains 150 to 200 times more protein than white rice, according to Food Quality and Safety. It’s an innovative rendition of a traditional staple that could increase the acceptance of eating bugs and help alleviate hunger in countries experiencing food insecurity. 

Edible critters are healing the planet

Compare the environmental footprint of insect farming to livestock and you’re in for a real shock. Even if you’re grossed out by the idea of eating creepy crawlers, learning about the eco-friendliness of entomophagy may persuade you to switch up your diet.

To start, crickets need six times less feed and 2000 times less water than cattle to produce the same amount of protein, according to the journal Insects. They can also be farmed vertically without the need for large areas of land. Not only do insects have a lower carbon footprint, but they are not as susceptible to diseases and do not need antibiotics or growth hormones like conventional livestock. 

As concerns about food insecurity grow with the world population, insect farming will likely play a significant role in building a more sustainable food system. Insects are a reliable and nutritious food source with many environmental advantages over livestock farming, so they may very well be the future of food.

Turning bugs into business with insect-preneurship

Many businesses are hitting it big by discreetly including insects in their products, giving consumers the benefits of bug-based ingredients and boosting their own bottom lines. Based in Canada, Entomo Farm is the largest cricket farm in North America, harvesting 50 million crickets a week. They produce almost everything cricket-related you can imagine — from cricket flour and powder to whole roasted pieces and even fertilizers and cricket pet food. 

For ready-to-eat products, look to Denmark-based Hey Planet. They make protein bars, chocolate and meat from beetles and crickets. Hey Planet highlights the insects’ slightly nutty flavor and proves bugs can be both delicious and nutritious.

Beyond the ordinary plate

If you’re dining in Cambodia, don’t be surprised if you’re served a plate of tarantula donuts with a side of sweet chile sauce and mango chutney. If tarantulas aren’t your cup of tea, go for a green papaya salad with marinated scorpions instead. Fried insects are a common snack in this country, so be prepared to try some of these delights if you visit.

In Tokyo, a restaurant called Ramen Nagi offered a limited-edition insect tsukemen, a bug-enriched ramen dish that quickly sold out. They topped the noodles with deep-fried crickets and mealworms and served them in broth flavored with grasshoppers, crickets and silkworm powder. “It’s almost like a deep-fried shrimp,” one customer told Reuters after tasting the crispy fried bug toppings. 

There are truly endless ways to incorporate edible insects into your favorite foods. Cricket powder is a popular and versatile way to sneak insects into your home cooking. Made from ground crickets, it’s high in protein and is gluten free with a slightly nutty taste, and it’s easy to add to all kinds of recipes. It’s barely noticeable when you mix it into a seasoned flour coating in a recipe like mochiko chicken, but it adds a serious protein boost.

Whole roasted cricket pieces, like those produced by Entomo Farm, taste similar to roasted sunflower seeds and are a great crunchy topping for salads. Sprinkle them over a Caesar salad or Mexican salpicón instead of croutons or tortilla chips.

Overcoming the ick factor

It might be difficult to wrap your head around the idea of eating insects at first, but the many benefits of entomophagy are hard to ignore. Maybe it’s time to give these bugs a chance — after all, they’re a viable solution to a more sustainable food system. You might be pleasantly surprised with their flavor and appreciate the nutritional boost these superfoods add to your regular recipes. Before you know it, you might find yourself craving a crispy cricket or a tender silkworm as a tasty snack.    

Robin Donovan is the author of more than 40 cookbooks, including the bestselling Campfire Cuisine, Ramen Obsession and Ramen for Beginners. A food writer, recipe developer and food photographer, she is the creator of the food blog All Ways Delicious, where she shares easy recipes for the best dishes from around the world.

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