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Why not eat insects?

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Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 11:46 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

Would you eat ant larvae, deep-fried scorpions or grilled palm weevils? Most people turn their noses up at this kind of thing, some get an overwhelming sense of nausea, and one (usually very cool) BBC channel controller ran squealing across the room when I dropped a roasted giant water bug into his hands. This is a pretty normal reaction here in the UK, where our entomophagy is restricted to munching the regurgitation of bees (honey), cochineal bugs (pink-purple food colouring E120) and the involuntary munching of insect fragments in flour. But I think that insects have been given a bad press by I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (few people eat them uncooked, for starters) and I’m going to try to change your mind about bug-munching. Here goes:

There are some surprisingly delicious bugs around. My favourites are dry-fried Burmese bamboo grubs, which have an extraordinary enlivening sweetness similar to Jerusalem artichokes. Next best are Mexican chappulines (grasshoppers roasted with chilli, salt and lime), which make a fantastic sour-spicy snack to eat with a cold beer. Fat-bottomed ants are available in the UK as a gimmicky snack, but they pack a fantastic pungent taste similar to smokey bacon.

Woman eating a fly

Save the planet?
Insects are tremendously efficient at converting vegetation such as leaves (much of which we can’t get any nutritional value from) into edible protein. The ratio of energy intake (usually in the form of grain) to protein output for beef is up to 54:1 compared to 4:1 an upwards for insects, and that grain is grown on land that could, theoretically, be used to grow more resource-efficient food for humans. As the world population heads towards nine billion by 2045, entomophagy could be a potential solution to some of the worlds food issues.

Much of the world already eats insects
Insects already have a long and noble history as foods in many places around the world. When you venture past the cosy borders of the UK you find that they are available in markets from Thailand to South Africa and across much of Central and South America. They command a high price in Mexico, where edible flies and ant eggs are highly prized.

They are healthy
Most insects contain little fat, lots of protein and oodles of iron and calcium.

You’ll eat them eventually - may as well start now
Insect protein is cheap to produce. Animal protein will become more expensive as it begins to better reflect the cost of production and the load it makes on the planet’s resources. Eventually we’ll see bug-burgers in the shops and you’ll buy them not because you prefer them, but because a bug-burger will cost £5, while a beef burger costs £25. Oh, and they are likely to become the food of choice for spacemen.

And the downsides? Well, some religions forbid the eating of some insects, with kosher rules being some of the most explicit (although Leviticus famously points out that locusts and grasshoppers are OK). In the UK, edible insects are calorie-neutral (it takes more energy to collect a bucket of bugs than you gain by eating them). In the future, though, we could farm them in the UK or offer poorer countries an income from exporting them.

So would you? Have you? And why shouldn’t we eat insects? 

P.S the title of this piece is taken from Vincent M Holt’s wonderful book of recipes and notes on insect-eating. Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think Heston Blumenthal in the Graham Norton show a couple of weeks ago said that insects are the food of the future, pointing out that there are about 40 tons of nutritional insect fodder available per person right now. So, Stefan, I'm with you - insects are go!


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