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Entomophagy

Healthy, tasty, and high in nutritional value-- insects are a viable option for many people’s next meal choice. Though some may find it hard to believe, much of the world’s population regularly indulges in eating insects. The practice of consuming insects is referred to as entomophagy. In the United States, just the thought of someone choosing to eat insects is many times met with a reaction of disgust and incredulity: What would compel anyone to want to eat a bug?! Suffice it to say that entomophagy is rarely practiced within the US but, in other parts of the world, insects are an edible delicacy!

Entomophagy is a popular practice in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. More specifically, Thailand, Japan, and Mexico are all well-known for their consumption of insects. Such cultures see insects for their high nutritional value, as these critters are great sources of both protein and fat (among other nutrients). The custom of incorporating insects into one’s regular diet is engrained in many cultures, as it has been practiced and passed down through the generations. Incorporating insects into one’s diet can have a positive impact on the environment, as insects act as a sustainable food source. People across the world supplement diets lacking in meat with insects, specifically for the protein that these bugs can provide. Somehow, despite the health and environmental benefits, many Western cultures still struggle with getting past the taboo of eating insects.

Despite Westerners’ queasy stomachs, more than one thousand different kinds of insects are eaten regularly throughout the world. Popular insects eaten around the world include (but are in no way limited to): crickets, ants, grasshoppers, mealworms, caterpillars, beetles, locusts, and scorpions. Many regions and countries are specifically known for insect dishes that they have perfected. Casu marzu, meaning “rotten cheese,” is a popular dish served in Italy. The cheese is left outside, to be taken over by a type of cheese fly. The females lay their eggs within the cheese, which soon turn into maggots. Ultimately, the maggots eat through parts of the cheese, and the acid which is left behind acts to advance the fermentation within the cheese. Casu marzu is eaten while the maggots still inhabit the cheese. Found mostly in Mexico, tacos de chapulines (fried grasshopper tacos) is another international insect dish. In Japan, hachi no ko is a dish consisting of wasp larvae that have been cooked to taste. Lastly is the example of chocolate-covered insects, which come in a fairly wide variety (ants, crickets, mealworms, etc.) and have even recently begun to infiltrate the American market. 

Despite its popularity in many parts of the world, the appeal of entomophagy still eludes many Americans. But, it may come as a surprise to many Westerners that they already eat insects regularly without realizing it! Insects can be found in a variety of food items that are bought frequently at the supermarket. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually allows specific quantities of insect remains to be present in manufactured foods. Along with these allowances, some companies actually intentionally use insects as food colorants. The presence of insects as colorants within food is denoted by the presence of such terminology as “cochineal,” “carmine,” or “carminic acid” on food labels. If more Americans were aware of the frequency with which they consume insects (along with the health and environmental benefits), they might have a whole new opinion on entomophagy. 

For more resources concerning entomophagy, the following links are available:

  • Bug Bytes: A podcast from Texas A&M University, taking a stance for entomophagy, despite many Americans’ revulsion at the mention of eating insects.
  • Entomophagy in India: A research paper about the insect-eating habits of peoples within India, along with how insects are used for medicinal purposes as well.
  • Introduction to Entomophagy: A high school site with general information regarding entomophagy. This page introduces readers to the practice of eating insects, lists some edible insects, and also includes some insect recipes.
  • Use of Insects by Australian Aborigines: An article outlining the history of entomophagy among Australia’s Aborigines.
  • Eating Bugs is Only Natural: From National Geographic, this article outlines the many benefits of an insect-abundant diet, as well as the cultural aspect behind entomophagy.
  • Edible Insects: A detailed look at entomophagy, this article describes the history of eating insects, and also argues for a future of insect-eating.
  • Locust Soufle, Anyone?: A New York Times’ article detailing modern efforts which are geared toward promoting entomophagy in Western cultures. This article shows how entomophagy is making its grand appearance within the US.
  • Recipes with Real Insects: A compilation of insect recipes, geared toward parents with children who wish to experiment making and eating their very own insect dishes.
  • Nutritional Value of Various Insects: A chart from Iowa State University, outlining the various nutritional benefits of different insects.
  • Critters on the Menu: An informational piece containing background on diverse international dishes. This piece also describes the nutritional value inherent within insects, as well as mentioning the ways in which we unknowingly consume insects.
  • Bugs You Can Eat: A Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) slideshow with personal accounts of first-encounters with international insect dishes.
  • Entomophagy, Anyone?: From Auburn University, this piece follows a Ph.D. student’s encounter with entomophagy, and his opinion on where the future of insect-eating looks like.
  • Taste Test: An example from Yale of efforts to promote a more positive reaction to entomophagy.
  • Defect Levels: Guidelines on the allowable ‘defect levels’ within foods, according to the FDA. This resource shows the amounts of insect remains which are allowable within foods manufactured and sold within the US.
  • Entomophagy Reconsidered: From the Entomological Society of America, this site includes several videos of talks concerning entomophagy, which took place during a 2010 symposium located in California.
  • Been There: An audio clip outlining the demand for insects as food in countries outside of the US.
  • Eating Bugs: A Time Magazine article on entomophagy. This piece describes the benefits of including insects within one’s diet, and even includes a short video on how to properly cook an insect.
  • Food Coloring: A short article describing the use of insects within foods as colorants, as well as some obstacles which companies have come across through including such ingredients in the past.
  • Bug Info: A brief history, by the Smithsonian Institution, on entomophagy throughout the world.

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