The Ever-Growing Case For Eating Insects

The tide began to shift ever so gently the moment I noticed cricket flour at my neighborhood grocer. Cricket flour is exactly that—a gluten-free protein powder substitute with an earthy aftertaste made from ground crickets, which could be used to bake cookies, muffins, and the like.

Insects-as-foodstuff has in recent years been upgraded from Fear Factor challenge to novelty. You still might not indulge in a "chocolate chirp cookie" (as some cricket culinarians say), but in my mind it no longer feels vulgar and bizarre. We're still a ways off from picking up rotisserie bee larvae from the supermarket, but the fact that some restaurants have dipped its gastronomic toes into the insect waters illustrates how our minds are changing about eating bugs. (That being said, Mexican restaurants in the U.S. have been serving chapulines—grasshoppers—for years. A concession stand at Safeco Field, home of baseball's Seattle Mariners, has been selling out of grasshoppers.)

Phaidon's On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes might be the most authoritative book to explore the science, ethics, culture, and increasingly popular gastronomy of insects. The book grew out of research at the Nordic Food Lab, the nonprofit founded by Noma head chef René Redzepi, and it's an engaging bug-munching journey that travels from Peru to Uganda to Thailand and beyond. We spoke with one of the book's co-authors, Josh Evans, about the tastiest (and least tasty) insects and how best to incorporate them—should you decide to—into our diets.

The Takeout: Of all the arguments for consumers to start eating insects, what's been the most compelling reason for you?

Josh Evans: First, I don't necessarily think we all should. One thing we hope to do with the book is to get us to take a step back and say, "If we do think we should start eating insects, why might that be? How good are these different arguments?" But to answer your question, the main reason for me is food diversity. It's less about insects themselves and more about rethinking how we can learn to re-diversify our diets, which have become, in many cases, very monotone. That's dangerous for a whole variety of reasons—taste, diet and health, ecology. So I think diversity is really what it's about.

TO: What will it take for a culture, say the U.S., to collectively change its mind about the very idea of eating insects?

JE: It would take a lot, but we should also note that no culture is homogeneous! Every country where we did fieldwork, there were regions and communities where certain insects were normal and others where they were not. So just given that, it is unlikely that the U.S. as a monolithic culture would ever wholly change its mind.

But generally it takes a lot of different kinds of actions at different levels. For example, in Europe, where I've been based for most of this project, there's a growing movement at the grassroots level among lots of different people—chefs, consumers, activists—using lots of different kinds of approaches. One of the biggest barriers right now is at the legislative level. More and more people say, "We want to have access to this food," and either it's in this legal gray area or it's covered by outdated legislation that isn't responsive to how times have changed.

But probably the biggest thing that can make a difference is taste. And that's what the book and project aimed to look more deeply into. It's all very well to pursue these arguments around sustainability and health, and they are powerful, but when we look at other examples when there have been attempts to change human eating behaviors at a large scale, all those arguments are really not worth much unless there's also this element of pleasure. There needs to be attention to how we can make new foods delicious and enjoyable for people and in culturally appropriate ways.

TO: You talk about steering insect newcomers toward its "delicious potential." So what is its potential for deliciousness?

JE: It really depends on the insect. There are so many flavors and textures that are out there. In Denmark, there are these red wood ants, which are quite small and have a really potent sour flavor because they produce formic acid as a defense. They also produce different aromas, in addition to an electric sour taste, like if you had cooked lemon rinds on the grill. Those ones we used primarily as a spice.

On the other hand, there's bee larvae, which we use a lot in our experiments at our Copenhagen lab, because they're really versatile. They're 50 percent protein, 20 percent fat. They're really luscious and soft and they can be fried until they're crisp and puffy, or blended and used to make mousseline or custard. They can be poached so they're plump like caviar. This diversity was really something we wanted to celebrate, to use and to make insects into relevant foods in lots of different ways.

TO: Before reading this book, I presumed insects—by virtue of their size—were meant more for snacking and flavoring, not for satiating. You've found this to be false.

JE: Part of what's exciting is that they can do both. Depending on what sort of chemical composition, aromas, or flavors they have, they could be used for different culinary purposes. Many of the insects we encountered were really filling, because many are either rich in protein or in fat or both, so they often have a really rich flavor, and often that means you can't eat huge amounts of them because you get satiated.

TO: Like wagyu beef. You eat 10 bites and you're pretty full.

JE: One of the insects we found in Uganda and Peru are palm weevil larvae. It's a beetle that lays its eggs in palm trees, and after they hatch, the larvae eats the entire inside of a palm tree, and they turn really fatty. Many of them are easily larger than my thumb. One of the tastiest ways you can cook them is you gut them, then stew [them] in a large pot. Their fats render and their sugars start to caramelize in the pot, and it sort of becomes like caramelized bacon. They're really tasty, but you can't eat a lot of it. Well, you could, because they're so delicious, but even just a few are quite satisfying.

TO: Do you see people in the Western hemisphere eating insects as inevitable, or will it never fully catch on?

JE: It's hard to say. It could be both, as we discussed. It's possible that it will continue to grow. It's also possible that by certain segments of society, it won't ever be seen as something that's worth eating. And that's totally fine! It would be weird if everyone on Earth ate any one food.

A common comparison people make is with sushi. People say, "Well, just look at sushi. A few decades ago, it was totally weird and now you can buy it at train stations." Yes, this is true, and it speaks to how quickly food cultures can change. But in a more specific way, it's not completely analogous to insects. With sushi, what was novel wasn't the food itself, but the fact that the food was served raw. All the cultures in which sushi was new already saw fish as an edible thing. The thing that was weird to them was eating it without cooking it. Whereas with insects, it's not just that we consider insects edible only if they're cooked—it's that for many of us, we don't see any species of insects as food at all. So the sushi comparison, I think, while well-meaning, is more complicated than that.

Put it this way: If a huge percentage of the population in Western countries starts eating insects and sees them as food, that will be fascinating, but it won't in itself solve the problems we want to solve.

TO: What are those problems?

JE: The main reason why a lot of parties say we should eat bugs is the supposed food shortages, hunger, overconsumption of meat, and all of the environmental fallout this kind of food system has. The reason I don't think eating insects will fix those is because those are problems with food systems and not problems with one organism or another. There's nothing inherently unsustainable about a cow—but if you raise millions of cows in a small area of land, then you'll have problems. Similarly, there's nothing inherently sustainable about a cricket—it's the system we build around these organisms that determine whether they allow flourishing ecologies or whether they become destructive.

TO: What's the most accessible way to start incorporating insects into my diet?

JE: Probably the most accessible way right now is to go online. There's quite a few small-to-medium scale farms, especially in the U.S., which are selling things like whole crickets or cricket powder. That's probably the easiest way. And in some major cities you might find similar products in brick and mortar stores.

TO: I've seen cricket flour in places like Whole Foods. What other insects will be a good gateway bug?

JE: Crickets might be the most accessible, but I think one of the best places to start might be bee larvae. One of the things I find exciting about bees is in many places they are a by-product of beekeeping. Beekeepers are keeping bees all over the world, and many are removing these male bee larvae, or drone brood, as a strategy to reduce the population of this parasite called the Varroa mite, which many scientists think is one of the contributing factors to colony collapse disorder.

At first it might require investigation to find a local beekeeper who practices drone removal, but if one does, it's a really tasty insect that is locally available, already part of the ecology, and currently wasted. Like honey, it can reflect different tastes depending on where in the world it is, what's growing around, what the bees are harvesting at any given time of the season. Many of the recipes in the book are focused around bee larvae, because that's something we're excited about using.

TO: One of the more intriguing dishes from the book is bee bread.

JE: I'm so excited about bee bread. Aside from this insects work, when I was with Nordic Food Lab, most of my work was with fermentation. And bee bread is fascinating because it's this intersection of insects and fermentation. Bees take pollen they gather from flowers—their protein source—and they ferment it to preserve it. If they didn't do this, because of its high protein and moisture, and the inside of the hive is quite warm, it would mold very quickly.

To solve that issue, the bees have evolved this practice of essentially pickling it. When they're processing pollen, they get their saliva over it as they pack it into the honeycomb. Their saliva has lots of lactic acid bacteria in it, the same family of bacteria that's in sauerkraut and yogurt and sourdough bread. So they pack the pollen together, seal the comb with a drop of wax, and the bacteria ferments the pollen and makes it sour, lowering the pH to a level where fungi can't grow. It keeps the pollen viable to eat for weeks and weeks. And it transforms the flavor in amazing ways.

The bee bread has a pretty big range of tastes because they're collecting pollen from all different kinds of flowers around. Like honey, you can get all kinds of flavors. I've tasted ones that are really light and floral, ones that taste like mango, guava, passionfruit. I've tasted ones dark and brooding like chestnut honey. It's really remarkable.

TO: Where is the global gastronomic capital for insects today?

JE: It's hard to name just one. What's interesting is, in many ways, Western countries are the exception to the rule, in that we don't eat them. For many cultures in the world, it's a totally normal thing. Thailand is a hot spot. Many Thais love eating them in a big way. Also because of tourism there, it's become this visible place for tourists to see that culture firsthand. The sheer volume of insects farmed and harvested from the wild there is enormous. But it's hard to say that's the capital because if you look at a place like Mexico, there are hundreds of different species documented as eaten in Mexico alone. Similarly with China, it's huge, with so many different ecosystems, and there's a lot of insects known to be eaten there.

TO: What insects have you found to have tasted best and worst?

JE: As for most delicious, one that I come back to often is the termite queen. She's a total delicacy. She's many times the size of her fellow termites—her abdomen is this extremely fatty egg sac, which my colleague once called "god's handmade sausage." When you're cooking her, the aroma is really nutty and beautiful, and the texture when cooked is this soft, spongy, luxurious thing. Very reminiscent of sweetbreads and foie gras. There's many, many more: escamoles in Mexico, the palm weevil larvae, all sorts of species of ants like the green tree ant in Australia taste like kaffir lime.

Most of the insects I tasted, I thought, at the very least they were edible. But one of the few that I wasn't present for during our fieldwork, which my colleagues said were not pleasant at all, was called awiwa, in northern Peru. It's like this large caterpillar that is red-and-black striped and apparently quite abundant. From one tree they got a huge pail of them. They said unfortunately it tasted like muddy and stagnant pond water. In some ways I was upset I didn't get to taste them from a research point of view, but from a gastronomic point of view, it was okay I didn't.