The Buzz Around Eating Insects
Eco-friendly and good for you
James Traniello not only studies bugs, but he’s eaten them, too.
“I’ve had dips made with crickets and ate a honeypot ant in the Arizona desert,” says the College of Arts & Sciences biology professor. The culinary experiment, “sort of a ritual” for ant researchers like himself, delivered this verdict: “The cricket dip was unremarkable; the honeypot ant was sweet, as these workers store sugary secretions.”
While Traniello’s tastes might seem dangerously adventurous to many, he’s not alone. No less a body than the United Nations is among a growing crowd of experts endorsing the nutritional, environmental, and gustatory joys of entomophagy, or insect-eating.
Last fall, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization created a foodie website to plug the bug. The UN says 2.5 billion people worldwide consume insects, which are dietary staples in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The media have jumped on the bug-wagon, with recent stories in the New York Times, Time magazine, and the Boston Phoenix, the latter even offering recipes and a recipe website.
The consensus among BU experts: nutritionally and environmentally, eating insects is a home run. But convincing bug-averse Americans to dig in will be a near-certain whiff, even though some who’ve savored our arthropod friends say squeamishness is unwarranted.
J. Tyler Wiest (SMG’14), a member of BU’s Outing Club, munched green ants during a three-month wilderness trek last year in Australia. “They tasted wonderful,” he says. The trip’s goal was to teach Aboriginal lifestyles, Wiest says, and Aboriginals not only use the citrus-tasting ants for food, but as a way to induce their babies to breast-feed by rubbing the citrus-flavored ants’ bodies on their nipples.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, Joseph Anzalone (SPH’92), a School of Public Health administrator, tried termites. “To my surprise, they tasted like bacon bits,” he says, “crunchy, a little greasy, though gritty. I went for more.”
The nutritional lowdown starts with the fact that insects are packed with protein. “The protein content is comparable to that of conventional meat,” according to the UN site. “The essential amino acids are often present, but the protein quality of each insect should be considered.…The fiber content (chitin from the exoskeleton) is higher than in conventional meat but comparable to that of cereal grains.” More than 1,000 species are eaten around the world, the site goes on, providing “a significant source of short-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, a good source of iron, calcium, and B vitamins.”
The body processes insect protein more efficiently than it does plant protein, says Caroline Apovian, a School of Medicine associate professor; for example, eating protein-rich legumes by themselves won’t necessarily give you needed proteins. “You’ve got to have beans with your rice to get the complement of amino acids,” she says. “It’s helpful to have a protein source with the full complement of amino acids, which bugs do.”
There’s another benefit: in our era of global warming worries, bug-growing is more environmentally benign than raising livestock, an industry that contributes almost one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Time. It takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef, versus much less for the same amount of grasshoppers.
Yet for all these advantages, you don’t want to go digging in the grass for a meal just yet. Time warns that those with shellfish allergies should avoid insects, which are biologically related. Also, not all insects are edible; the UN website links to the report “Edible Forest Insects,” which lists the varieties that are safely consumed globally. Even those that can be eaten might come, in this country anyway, from fields that have been treated with pesticides. (Pesticides in Brazil have cut the catch of queen ants, a delicacy among Brazilians and also enjoyed, chocolate-dipped, in Europe.) The U.S. government doesn’t regulate insect production for food safety, cautions Sarah Butler (SAR’06,’11), a registered dietitian at Sargent College’s Nutrition and Fitness Center.
For all the pros, adds Apovian, “the obvious elephant in the room is, so what? If you grow up not considering them to be something to eat, then that’s a problem.” Of course, as head of Boston Medical Center’s Nutrition and Weight Management Center, urging patients to get off the couch and eat right, she preaches against other, culturally ingrained habits. Yet she’s dubious that she could successfully expand her message of eating your fruits and vegetables to include bugs, given many Americans’ revulsion at the notion.
“I don’t think Americans would ever eat bugs unless they were tricked,” says Wiest. (Some advocates suggest making insects into flour, patties, or other forms that might make eaters less squeamish.) Butler says that if environmental sustainability is the concern, it would be more palatable for many people to replace one or more meat meals a week with vegetarian ones.
Insect-eating poses an intriguing question for vegetarians tailoring their diets to avoid animal suffering. “I suppose the jury is still out, but I have not read any convincing arguments that insects feel pain,” says Kathryn Gardner, a lecturer in the College of Arts & Sciences biology department. She points to a 1984 University of Queensland review of the research that concluded that the balance of neurological evidence “does not appear to support the occurrence in insects of a pain state, such as occurs in humans.” The science persuaded even Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, a vegan and founding guru of the animal rights movement, who is unperturbed by killing insects.
But others may feel differently. “I am not sure that the vegan moral logic is quite so discriminating or scientific,” says Rachel Black, a Metropolitan College assistant professor and coordinator of the gastronomy program, who is not a vegetarian. “I think that many vegans do not want to see any living creature come to harm. There are also religious beliefs that declare that all animals have a soul or life force.”
Traniello raises another concern: bugs are small. How do you breed enough to produce appreciable volumes of food? Countries like Thailand have commercial insect farms; a 1992 paper by a University of Wisconsin entomologist put the harvest of mopane worms (a caterpillar and key food source in Africa) in southern Africa at $85 million and 10 billion bugs a year, although he acknowledged that insects would be a “small-farm production” industry. The New York Times notes that most countries where insects are a staple still suffer from hunger.
In the end, Traniello says, the ick factor trumps all. “A lot of people are entomophobic,” he laments, and you can talk all you want about nutrition and sustainability, “but whether or not you could convince people that grubs are related to lobster and shrimp and could be a similar delicacy in a butter sauce at Locke-Ober—I think that’s another question.”
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments