In our first weekend in North Carolina, we could not miss the BugFest at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
This annual event celebrates insects of all kinds through many activities and, above all, features ‘Café Insecta’, where the bravest can sample buggy dishes prepared by local chefs and get their own taste of entomophagy (the practice of eating insects).
Eating insects sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? However, we do not hesitate to eat other related Arthropoda, like lobsters, crab, or shrimp.
In any case, we have all already eaten many kilos of insects in our lifetime. Most of us don’t realize that we eat the equivalent of 500gr of insects per person, per year. This is because many insect fragments slip into processed food, fruit and vegetables. In the USA, the “Food Defect Action Levels” states the maximum amount of insect bits that food can contain and still be fit for human consumption. For example, in the case if wheat flour, an average contamination level below 150 insect fragments per 100gr is not considered to pose an inherent health hazard. Insect impurities may even be good for health. People in rice-eating regions typically ingest significant numbers of rice weevil larvae, and this has been suggested as an important source of vitamins which are absent from rice.
Many people all over the world eat insects and other arthropods out of choice, both as a delicacy and as a staple food.
Overall, more than 1900 insect species have reportedly been used as food, the most commonly consumed insects being beetles (31%), caterpillars (18%), bees, wasps and ants (14%), followed by locusts and crickets, cicadas, termites, dragonflies, flies and others species. In short, something for everyone!
As indicated in a recent FAO report, as global food demand grows, edible insects offer a cost-effective means of feeding people and could be a promising alternative feed for the conventional production of meat and fish.
The benefits to eating insects are numerous. Most insects are a cheap, highly nutritious and healthy food. Furthermore, their use as food has ecological advantages over conventional meat, as they requires less feed, land and water than cattle or pigs, and emit fewer greenhouse gasses.
For example, the production of 1 kg of crickets requires as little as 1.7kg of feed while typically 1 kg of live animal weight requires the following amount of feed: 2.5kg for chicken, 5kg for pork and 10 kg for beef. But the advantage of eating insects becomes even greater when figures are adjusted for edible weight (usually the entire animal cannot be eaten): up to 80% of an adult cricket is edible and digestible (100% in its nymphal stage), compared with 55% for chicken and pigs, and 40% for cattle.
One of the main limitations to establishing markets for insects is the lack of clear international regulations on farming and selling insects for human and animal consumptions.
However, acceptance by the consumer remains the largest barrier to the use of edible insects as food in the Western societies. The emotion of disgust can be very hard to change. As elegantly put by the FAO, the promotion of the practice of entomophagy would require tailor-made communication strategies and educational programs that address the ‘disgust factor’.
My bet is that, if ever, entomophagy chez nous will start with ground-up insects in processed food. Grinding them up will make them look more palatable or maybe invisible and therefore more acceptable.
Pending that, the use of insects as animal feed – particularly in aquaculture – seems to be much more realistic and promising. Surprisingly, little has been said about the opportunities insects offer as feed source. In 2011, world feed production was estimated at 870 million tons. FAO estimates that production will have to increase by 70% to be able to feed the world, with meat and fish consumption expected to double. At present, around 10% of global fish production goes to fishmeal and this is mainly use in aquaculture, the fastest-growing animal-food producing sector. Insects have a similar market to fishmeal and represent a more sustainable and cost-effective dietary fishmeal substitute for fish feed.
Back to the Café’ Insecta, I confess I did not manage to finish the selection of insects preparations I had in my plate. The Chocolate ‘Chirp’ Brownies went down well: the roasted insects looked like chocolate chips (and vice-versa), only delicate emerging antennae reminded me about the actual ingredients. I draw a very definitive line on the red jelly including full body insects, and I brought home the rest of the creatures in a doggy-bag, which is now resting in peace in the pantry together with boxes of salt and vinegar flavoured crickets, BBQ Larvets and chocolate covered mixed insects.
I guess I need to work more on my disgust factor.