I have a confession to make….I’ve eaten mealworms. Not once, but twice. The first time was accidental, when I was four years old. I was halfway through my bowl of Rice Krispies, when I noticed that some of my krispies were moving. The second time was intentional, when a friend
tricked me talked me into sampling the goods at the Audubon Insectarium’s “Bug Appetit” cafe. “Do it for your blog. Do it for science!” And so I did. I ate insects in the name of science.
I eased my way in with the chocolate-covered crickets. It seemed the least-intimidating place to begin, not being able to see the insects themselves. They may as well have been gummy bears hiding underneath that chocolate shell for all I knew. I then progressed to the chocolate chirp cookies, crickets baked into the top of a cookie. This time there was no chocolate exterior to hide what I was about to eat. I nervously bit into the cookie. Not bad. But did I have the guts to eat an insect on it’s own, without the edible security blanket of chocolate or baked goods? It was time to find out.
I worked my way through the oven-roasted insects– the Crispy Cajun crickets, the Cinnamon Bug Crunch, and the Southwest Waxworms (which tasted like Hot Fries), and found they were all satisfactory snacks. The final test was what I refer to as the “wet” bug dishes–the Hoppin’ Herb Dip, Mango Chutney, and the Six-Legged Salsa. It was here that I met my old foe, the mealworm, and also my limit. And while it wasn’t the last time I chose to eat insects, it was probably the last time I will eat them in a “wet” preparation. But don’t let my aversion stop you from eating mealworms. A new study in the journal PLoS One recently compared the environmental impact of meat production on mealworm farms to traditional animal farms, and found that mealworms may be the best choice for sustainable eating.
For each kilogram of edible protein produced, mealworms required less land and resulted in lower green house gas emissions than chicken, pork, beef, or milk. As the global population grows, it becomes increasingly important to feed all those mouths, and do so in a sustainable way. Add climate change to the picture, and the need for sustainable agriculture becomes paramount. Currently, the livestock sector uses about 70 percent of all agricultural land and is responsible for about 15 percent of the total emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases; and the demand for animal protein is expect to rise by 70 to 80 percent between 2012 and 2050. Clearing land to make room for expanding agricultural practices is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and one of the largest contributors to global warming. What we chose to eat impacts more than just our waistlines– it also impacts our planet.
While mealworms may be the latest insect to undergo scientific analysis of its sustainability, the idea is not new in itself. From the Spanish conquest to the present, over 100 species of edible insects have been tested for their sustainability for over 500 years in Mexico. The practice of eating insects, known as entomophagy, is neither new or uncommon. Humans initially had an insectivorous diet, and evolved into the omnivores that we are today as we added fruit, vegetables and meat to our diets. Entomophagy may be unfamiliar to western society, but it is a widespread practice in other parts of the world, driven by dietary preferences rather than necessity. Over 1,500 species of edible insects have been recorded in over 100 countries around the world. Insects are a large source of animal protein, as well as fats, lipids, vitamins and minerals.
While there has been a change of attitude in the developed world towards eating insects, it is mostly driven by curiosity or the desire to be trendy. If entomophagy is to become more widespread, first it is necessary to get over the “ick” factor – the psychological aspect that includes the rejection of insects from cultures in developed countries. But liking food is something that we learn to do over the course of repeated exposure and a sense of familiarity. How is western society to change if they’ve never eaten insects before? Ah…..but they have! Most people in western societies inadvertently consume insects through levels permissible in food products. In the United States, the amount of insects allowed per 100 grams of processed food products are 60 insect fragments for peanut butter, 80 insect fragments for chocolate, 100 insect fragments for macaroni and other noodle products, and 150 insect fragments for wheat flour. Take a moment to digest that.
Okay, so you’re ready now? GREAT! You’re on the path to sustainable protein consumption. The first thing you’ll want to do is go out and collect some insects, or for the sake of convenience, you can order them through one of the following suppliers:
Fluker Farms 1-800-735-8537
You have your insects…now what?
Don’t feed them for a day or two (or feed them foods with flavors that you know or like). This purges their system of anything nasty that you might not want to ingest. Next, you’re going to freeze them. When you’re finally read to cook them, you should rinse them gently with warm water and a strainer to remove any dirt or debris.
How do I cook them?
Really, there are lots of options. You can roast them, poach them, simmer them, boil them, sauté them, or stir fry them. Here are some tips from the Audubon Insectarium:
- Waxworms are easiest when poached, boiled, or fried in oil. Toss them in chili powder and taco seasoning for Southwestern Wax Worms. Or if you have a sweet tooth, toss them in cinnamon and powdered sugar for Cinnamon Bug Crunch.
- Crickets should be oven roasted at about 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes (but after 20 minutes check on them for crunchiness) and can be placed on top of cookie dough for Chocolate Chirp Cookies.
- Mealworms should be oven roasted at about 275 to 300 degrees for slightly less time than the crickets. Throw them in some salsa to add a little protein boost. (One standard mealworms contains 46.6% protein, 25.3% fat, and 6.7% fiber.)
Oonincx D.G.A.B. & de Boer I.J.M. (2012). Environmental Impact of the Production of Mealworms as a Protein Source for Humans – A Life Cycle Assessment, PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051145.t002
Yen A.L. (2009). Entomophagy and insect conservation: some thoughts for digestion, Journal of Insect Conservation, 13 (6) 667-670. DOI: 10.1007/s10841-008-9208-8
RAMOS-ELORDUY J. (2009). Anthropo-entomophagy: Cultures, evolution and sustainability, Entomological Research, 39 (5) 271-288. DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-5967.2009.00238.x
YEN A.L. (2009). Edible insects: Traditional knowledge or western phobia?, Entomological Research, 39 (5) 289-298. DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-5967.2009.00239.x
Bäckström A., Pirttilä-Backman A.M. & Tuorila H. (2004). Willingness to try new foods as predicted by social representations and attitude and trait scales, Appetite, 43 (1) 75-83. DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2004.03.004