Oro Valley resident Irving Olson took this photo of an insect cavorting on a cactus.

Will our diets include bugs in the foreseeable future? Anthony Bourdain, the late TV chef, would eat anything, but how about the rest of us?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published a report in May 2013 extolling the value of eating insects as a “healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish.” The FAO has been extolling entomophagy— “ento” means “insects” and “phagy” means “to eat”— as a healthy, sustainable, and environmentally sound practice.

 Many insects are high in protein, calcium, iron and zinc and in many cultures worldwide, insects are big part of the daily diet. More than 3,000 ethnic groups in Asian, African and Latin American countries consider insects as part of a normal diet and they eat insects at various stages of the bugs’ lives, from eggs to adults. More than two billion people in the world eat insects, but most Western consumers have yet to adopt “eating bugs” as a culinary practice.

There are environmental advantages to raising and eating insects. Livestock produce tremendous amounts of greenhouse gasses. Only few insect groups, such as cockroaches and termites, produce methane, a leading contributor to global warming. The ammonia emissions associated with raising insects is much lower than livestock such as pigs. Forests do not need to be cleared to raise insects. Insects are very efficient at converting feed into protein. They are cold blooded and require much less food themselves. For example, crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep and half as much as chickens and pigs to produce the same amount of protein. Insects also can live on organic waste.

Across the globe, there are economic advantages as well. Raising and/or harvesting insects can be a low tech and low capital investment that offers livelihood to even the poorest people including those with little land. It can also become a high tech and sophisticated business if the investment is there. And when the concept shows it to be lucrative, the investments will certainly come. 

We tend to not think much about insects except when we are bothered by them. (Think mosquitoes on the patio and ants at a picnic!) Actually, insects are vital to our own human survival. Roughly 98% of more than 100,000 identified plant pollinators are insects. They play an essential role in waste biodegradation. Flies, ants, dung beetles and termites (among others) break down organic matter such as dead plants, manure, and animal carcasses. The nutrients and minerals in the dead organism are then recycled into the soil for use by growing plants. 

And they give us many other things we really do not think about. Bees give is about 1.2 million tons of honey per year, according to the FAO in a 2009 study. Silkworms produce over 90,000 tins if silk every year. Resilin, the most elastic material in nature, is a rubber-like protein that enables insects to jump. It’s used in medicine to repair arteries.

Though considered somewhat repugnant to many, maggots are sometimes used to clean the dead matter from infected wounds. Carmine is a red dye produced by insects in the Hemitera order that is used to color textiles, foods and pharmaceuticals. Beeswax has many uses, including candle making, and is a base ingredient in many cosmetics.

An insect as food is not a new concept. Insects have been a staple in the diets of many for millennia. Beetles are the most common. (“Beetles” contain about 40 percent of all known insect species.) Caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, cicadas, locusts, crickets, termites and dragonflies, are commonly eaten in many parts of the world. 

Most Westerners have yet to become accustomed to ingesting insects and have considered entomophagy a means of survival against starvation in Third World countries. This is not true—eating insects has been a healthy way of life in many places for many years. 

The “disgust factor” needs to be overcome by the recognition of their high nutritional value and low environmental impact. Arthropods such as shrimp, crab and lobster were once considered “a poor man’s food” and are now expensive delicacies. 

Perhaps our feelings toward insects as food will evolve as well. The perception is showing signs of change in Europe. Noma, in Denmark, has been polled as the world’s best restaurant for three years and is famous for using ingredients like ants and fermented grasshoppers.

There are cookbooks devoted to insect gastronomy. “Creepy Crawly Cuisine” (1998) by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy and “Eat-A-Bug Cookbook” (2013) by David George Gordon are both available through Amazon.

It may be a while before we embrace beetle burgers or grasshoppers in the pasta. But we ought to keep an open mind because entomophagy could be the future. Maybe at next year’s county fair, the culinary attraction will be deep-fried caterpillars on a stick!

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