The notion of biting into a beetle or crunching on a cricket is a squeamish thought – and the idea of any creepy crawlies in the same cabinet that my food is in is disgusting. Seriously, why would anyone want to eat them? I was in Hong Kong once and saw lollypops for sale with dead crickets inside them, and was astounded. Who on earth would eat that I wondered.
The good, the bad and the squirmy.
Well, it is more common than you think, and it is said that you shouldn’t squash the idea until giving this food some thought. Some 2 billion people around the world in various ethnic groups already eat insects to supplement their diets, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation. The practice is known as entomophagy. Consuming critters is said to help address the pressing issues of food scarcity as the world's population could grow to 9.8 billion by 2050, according to the UN. Insects can provide nutrition, with high protein, fat and mineral contents.
In Western cultures, the practice of eating insects has started to catch on a bit more over the past decade or so as globally more than 1,900 insect species are considered edible, with beetles the most common, followed by caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. Dishes featuring bugs are supposedly becoming more and more popular, as they appear in trendy eating spots across the world (not for me, thank you).
Nutritionally, they are said to promote good functionality of the digestive system, have a high protein content, and are packed with vitamins and amino acids – potentially a superfood. Compared to our regular protein sources, they consume less water, require less food, and release 2000x less greenhouse gases than conventional protein sources. Pretty impressive.
In 2020, a group of college students took part in a taste-test survey of brownies made with either cricket flour or wheat flour, to evaluate attitudes towards insects as food. Interestingly, the study found that students had a taste preference for the cricket flour ones over wheat flour ones, but couldn’t consistently differentiate between the two. I also discovered that although beef is generally considered an excellent source of protein and other valuable nutrients, 100 grams of beef yields around the same amount of protein as 100 grams of crickets.
You have to admit that eating insects must be resource-efficient. Producing just 1 kg of beef also takes a toll on our resources – apparently, the process requires an average of around 15 litres of water, plus more water needed to grow the food for the cattle to actually eat. Raising 1 k of mealworms uses about 4 litres - a full 9 litres less than each kg of beef.
Yes, many farms exist where various bugs are farmed for both livestock and human consumption. Every year, over a trillion insects are farmed - whether for food, traditional medicines, or even clothing (silk, for example). That’s probably more insects consumed in one way or the other in a single year than all the humans who have ever lived: crickets, bees, cockroaches, ladybugs — and more. Although not strictly an insect but a gastropod, snails are farmed here in Portugal for human consumption, and known as caracóis, are a popular item on many a menu.
Yet insect farming is largely ignored by the general population, especially in the West. The average consumer probably doesn’t think about the sustainability or processes underlying the insect farming industry, let alone the ethics. Those who do mind can rest assured that farmed insects live with no fear of predators or starvation. Insect welfare is conveniently easy: while cramped, hot, filthy settings in factory farms are cruel for vertebrates, they are ideal for insects like mealworms that thrive when crowded together.
Open Your Mind, and Open Your Mouth
So feel free to enjoy your chocolate bar with mealworm topping, or ant egg soup. You just have to get past the yuck factor.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.