Updated: May 12, 2020
2 billion people eat insects every day.
The practice of eating insects, officially known as 'Entomophagy', is conventional in many cultures across the globe.
Yes, it's a rather tricky word, and perhaps not one you've heard before, but it's been a custom embedded in human behaviour for thousands of years.
While insect consumption is not rooted in our Western cultural norms, they are a dietary staple, and even considered a delicacy in countries ranging from Mexico to Thailand. Globally, some of the most commonly eaten insects are beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers, but these are just three of the nearly 2000 edible insects.
A historical breakdown of Entomopaghy
The oldest written reference to consuming insects can be found in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 11:22, Moses dictates that people 'may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper.'
Skip forward to the New Testament, and it's recorded that John the Baptist survived on a 'diet of locusts and wild honey.' Locusts, being an excellent source of protein, fatty acids and minerals, would have abundant in the deserts around Israel, and were a nutritious and convenient food option. Good choice John.
It's not just the Bible that discusses insect consumption. References to entomophagy can be found in texts ranging from ancient China, Rome and Greece. Even Aristotle recorded how delicious he found cicadas, all the way back in the fourth century.
Another incredibly complex and advanced civilisation, The Aztecs, maintained a primarily vegetarian diet, yet relied on insects and their eggs as one of their primary sources of protein.
Entomophagy has been an intrinsic part of our history, with humans relying on insects for their nutritional value and convenience across all corners of the world.
Find out where edible insects are most popular, here.
So how come I've never heard of it?
Here in the West, eating insects is a taboo concept, and there are a number of factors making this the case.
The distribution of edible insects is not spread evenly across the globe. As can be observed in the image below, Europe and North America are significantly lacking in species, compared with Africa, Latin America, and Asia. With 524 species native to Africa, and only 41 in Europe, it's no wonder they haven't yet been utilised as a primary means of food supply.
2. Europe's Agricultural History
Europe domesticated large mammals and crops relatively early on. Reliance on these animals to provide us with protein from meat and dairy meant that the old hunter-gatherer way of surviving was made virtually obsolete.
Additionally, insects tend to be larger, more abundant, and more seasonably available in the tropics, making them a far more reliable food source in these locations, unlike in Europe with its temperate climate.
The reputation insects tend to hold in our society is not overwhelmingly positive. Often labelled as pests, which can bite us, ruin our gardens, and destroy our food supply, has led to the stigmatisation of insects being a nuisance - rather than something to be enjoyed as part of a weeknight meal.
Additionally, our traditional protein sources are typically derived from animals, meaning that most people are unaware of the option of insect-based food.
Do you think you could change your perception of edible insects and get over the 'yuck factor'? If the answer is yes, join us:
So who are the 2 billion people eating insects?
Pretty much every continent across the globe has people relying on insects as a key player in their diet.
Just take a look at South-East Asia, where there are 150-200 species of edible insects alone. Thailand is home to 20,000 registered cricket farms, Cambodians dine on a wide array of maggots, crickets and giant water bugs, and in Vietnam, the Palm Weevil is considered a delicacy when eaten alive with fish sauce.
The traditional diet of Indigenous Australians is comprised of honey ants, moths and perhaps the most famous, witchetty grubs. These insects played a critical dietary role for Aborigines in the Outback, and are still highly regarded due to their immense nutritional value.
Let's move over to Africa, where eating insects is more common than anywhere else in the world. In The Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, Kinshasha, the average family eats 300g of caterpillars per week. Grasshoppers are traditionally hunted and eaten in Mali, and termites (which contain 65% protein), are the basis of porridge dishes consumed in Southern and Eastern Africa.
In these places, where meat is expensive and not readily available, insects are a vital and convenient food source for people, ensuring they are consuming nutrients necessary for survival.
Who is practicing Entomophagy in the West?
The exposure to eating insects in the West is growing - they are appearing on the menus of trendy NYC and London restaurants, and are even present in some large supermarket chains.
Denmark's Noma, which has repeatedly been voted the world's best restaurant, serves up live ants on the menu. The restaurant's owners run a project called the 'Nordic Food Lab,' which aims to develop the potential of insects as food in the west. Similarly, The Economist has taken to the streets of major world cities, handing out bug-icecream and chocolate.
In 2008, in order to cope with a plague of locusts, an Australian town simply rebranded the insects as 'sky-prawns' and created a recipe book, named 'Cooking With Sky Prawns.' In tackling the invasion of locusts this way, the Aussies were killing two birds with one stone - tackling perceptions related to insects, whilst gaining a nutritious food source. After all, prawns are arthropods, and are very closely related to insects. It's just a case of sea vs sky!
So why should I make the switch?
These forward-thinking businesses and restaurants are promoting insects primarily for one reason - to cope with the crisis facing our environment. The UN is intently advocating for entomophagy and has issued statements that switching to farming insects is our best bet to tackle growing food shortages and rising populations.
Insects afford significant environmental and economic benefits – farming insects has a far lessened impact on greenhouse gases than livestock. They are also vastly more feed and water-efficient than meat production, with bugs on average converting 2 kg of feed into 1kg of body mass. A cow requires 8kg of feed for the same result.
Consuming insects is a no brainer. Their excellent nutritional profile, paired with the environmental benefits mean they are undoubtedly the next step in the future of food. Here in the West, it is simply an attitudinal barrier that we have to cross. We just need to look around and take inspiration from the other countries that eat insects every day.
Check out this 7-Day Insect Challenge for inspiration on how to incorporate bugs into your Western lifestyle and diet.
It might take some time for us to adjust, but if that means starting out with an ice-cream containing a few mealworms - it's a start!
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by Erin Banks