Attendance was a requirement. Eating insects was optional. “But, by the end of it, I’d say the majority—90-plus percent—had tried something. And, for the most part, the reaction was the same: ‘Oh, well, that wasn’t so bad,’” says Richard Zack (’82 PhD Entom.), who organized a Bug Buffet as part of his Entomology 101 course.
He taught Insects and People for about 20 years, growing the famed bug-eating awareness lunch from a small class-time affair to a public event drawing hundreds of people. “I wanted them to realize there are places in the world where eating insects isn’t a novelty,” says Zack, now associate dean for academic programs at WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “It isn’t just chocolate-covered ants or something that’s done on a dare. It’s truly a type of food, a big part of people’s protein.”
Bugs aren’t part of Zack’s day-to-day diet. But, when he’s traveling to Asia, Africa, or Central and South America where people have eaten insects for millennia, he makes a point to try traditional dishes: water bugs in Thailand, termite tacos in Mexico, caterpillars in Congo, and flying ants and beetle larvae in Guatemala. “Kids will dig through rotting logs and eat what we call grubs. They’ll pinch the head off and eat the larva.”
Not only are insects packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and flavor, they offer a sustainable way to eat. Bugs are easy to farm. They require less care and feeding than cattle, pork, poultry, and other farm-raised meats. They also produce smaller quantities of greenhouse gases, particularly methane.
With the world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)estimates that, to feed everyone, sustainable food production will have to increase by 70 percent. Insects, according to the FAO’s 2013 report Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, “are not merely ‘famine foods’ eaten in times of food scarcity or when purchasing and harvesting ‘conventional foods’ becomes difficult; many people around the world eat insects out of choice, largely because of the palatability of the insects and their established place in local food cultures.”
There are nearly 2,000 edible insect species, many of which are staples, even delicacies, in other countries. Commonly consumed insects include beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, and termites.
“Eating a Dungeness crab is not that different from eating a bug when you think about it,” says David George Gordon, aka “the Bug Chef.” His recipe for the childhood snack “ants on a log,” typically made with peanut butter-filled celery stalks dotted with raisins, features actual ants.
His Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, first published in 1998, was revised and re-released the same year as the publication of the FAO report. Since then, the Seattle-based science writer says he’s seen attitudes toward insect-eating slowly start to change. He credits today’s growing “foodie culture” with inspiring more adventurous eaters along with the FAO analysis and television shows such as Fear Factor and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.
Twenty years ago, Gordon would turn to pet supply stores for edible insects. Now, he goes online or to local Asian markets, where many “frozen food sections have fried grasshoppers next to the shrimp.” He also sees more products—protein bars, chips, cookies—made from insects. The trend is expected to grow, with the global edible insect market projected to reach nearly $8 billion by 2030.
This shift is encouraging, Gordon says, especially when you consider a steak. “It takes almost 2,000 pounds of water and about 16 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of steak. It takes about a pound and a half of food to get about a pound of grasshoppers or crickets. That’s a much better deal.
“It really comes down to our role as a species,” he says. “We’re supposed to be stewards of the environment. Intellectually, people understand the benefits of eating bugs. But, emotionally, (Westerners) aren’t ready for it. We basically eat what our parents and grandparents ate. If you didn’t grow up with it, you think it’s weird—take pickled pig’s feet—but in other parts of the world, eating insects is commonplace. Eighty percent of the world’s cultures eat insects.”
The first one you eat is the most difficult. Because of their exoskeletons, they’re often crunchy and intimidating. Powdered forms, such as cricket flour, provide an easier entry into entomophagy.
Gordon recommends cooking them. “You wouldn’t eat raw chicken or pork,” he says. “Don’t eat raw insects. There are some parasites that use insects as intermediators.” Similarly, don’t eat insects you find under the sink or on the sidewalk, which might’ve been exposed to pesticides. And, avoid eating brightly colored bugs. “In insect language, that means, ‘Hey, don’t eat me. I don’t taste good,’” Gordon says.
His bucket-list bugs are palm weevil grubs. “I would love to try them. But they’re agricultural pests so you can’t import them. They’re about the size of little pork sausages and gnarly-looking by our standards. But in Central Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, they’re considered a special food.”
Whether or not you opt to eat them, Gordon notes that insects “play a very important role in keeping our planet going. If they were to disappear, our planet would come to a grinding halt. It really is the little stuff that makes the world go around.”
Bug recipes from David George Gordon, aka “the Bug Chef,” plus a few videos
Cricket chili: A recipe from WSU entomologist Rich Zack