You bite into a piece of candy and find a cricket leg. Eewwww. Or notice that raisin in a bowl of cereal has legs and wings. Bam, down the disposal it goes. Such filth in foods is supposedly illegal, but the Food and Drug Administration's actual tolerance is far from zero. FDA rules allow up to 60 insect fragments on average in a composite of six 100-gram chocolate samples. For peanut butter, it's OK to have up to 30 insect pieces per 100 grams. Grossed out yet?
In the industrialized world, most people find the idea of eating insects repugnant. Processed foods containing bug bits tend to reflect poor sanitation. Because bugs can host disease-causing germs, insects tainting the food supply pose a health risk.
Yet in many parts of the world, diners actually desire insects. Youngsters in central Africa may down ants or grubs while at play. Urbane snack-seeking consumers throng street vendors throughout Southeast Asia to buy fried crickets. Even car-driving Aborigines in Australia's outback may motor a couple of hours to find, and then picnic on, a cache of honey ants.
Residents of at least 113 nations eat bugs, says Julieta Ramos-Elorduy of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. This practice, known as entomophagy (en-toh-MOFF-uh-jee), makes sense, she says, because insects tend to be quite nutritious. Indeed, many scientists around the world have put insect eating on their research menus. It was also the focus of a February United Nations conference in Thailand, where researchers discussed insect-eating trends and evaluated the nutritional value of bugs and the environmental aspects of entomophagy.
"We're not going to convince Europeans and Americans to go out in big numbers and start eating insects," concedes conference organizer Patrick B. Durst. However, fostering respect for entomophagy could do a lot to maintain health and environmental quality outside the industrial West, argues Durst, a senior forestry officer with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's regional office in Bangkok.
He holds out hope that Westerners may become more accepting of insect protein--especially if they "don't have to look the bug in the eye as they're eating it." Dutch researchers are working on just such a development--biotechnology to produce insect cells, minus the insects, as an inexpensive source of edible protein.
Almost 125 years ago, Vincent Holt published a 99-page tract in Britain titled Why Not Eat Insects? It failed to catalyze a bug-eating revolution. David Gracer, a community college writing teacher by day, has now taken up Holt's cause outside the classroom. Not only does Gracer travel the lecture circuit, he also holds cooking demonstrations so that Americans can sample insect-based snacks and bug-laced entrees. His company, Sunrise Land Shrimp, in Providence, R.I., supplies frozen and dried insects to chefs and other individuals.
Grilled cicadas are more likely to elicit a "yikes" than a "yum" from most Europeans and North Americans. "But why?" asks Gracer. "Most of these people are happy to eat crab, lobster and shrimp--the ocean equivalent of insects."
Shrimp, other crustaceans and insects are all arthropods--members of the largest phylum in the animal kingdom. When people appear squeamish about tasting a grasshopper or beetle larva, Gracer points out that despite lobster's prized status, crustaceans tend to "eat trash and dead things" whereas most insects dine at nature's salad bars.
A matter of taste
Edible insects fill a rather small niche market in the United States, Gracer concedes. Throughout most of the developing world, by contrast, dining on bugs is not only a time-honored tradition but often a treat.
That's something biologist Gene R. DeFoliart has explored for 33 years, first as chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's entomology department, and more recently as host of the food-insects. …