Bugs as a source of food may sound scary to you. After all, many of us are brought up being told either directly or indirectly it’s food for barbarians.
So, are bugs as a source of food viable?
I would have to say, yes it very much is.
Besides the historical evidence of entomophagy, the eating of insects, we also have other motivations to why we should consider bugs as a source of food.
These motivations can be characterized as follows:
- The high nutritional composition,
- Sustainability and the environmental benefits,
- Job creation in rural, urban and poorer section of society,
Now, these are very broad topics but I thought we would at least touch on them to see what we find.
The History of Entomophagy
Except for the almost 2 billion people who regularly engage in entomophagy, how come it’s not part of the lives of people in Europe and its cousin-countries across the world?
Perhaps we can find clues in history?
Agriculture is thought of to have begun in the northeast of Africa and western Asia.
The soil in these places was fertile, this meant food could be grown, and animals were domesticated.
The domestication of animals gave us:
- A lot of meat,
- Milk products,
- Plough traction and,
- Means of transport.
Considering the amount of transportation used by the people of today, it’s not hard to see the benefits it brought humanity being able to domesticate animals.
With an increase of different animals and plants being domesticated, plus the increase in productivity and efficiency, the hunter-gatherer way of life died off.
With this new way of life, food could also be stored and offered stability in food-supply.
It’s not a surprise why this kind of life quickly spread through Europe.
This is the reason to why bugs as a source of food are believed to never have caught on in the West.
After all, a cricket can’t help you plow the field. You could try, but I think it would be in vain.
Bugs as a source of food for The Aztecs
Whenever we see the westernization of a society, some aspects of the old seems to get lost. This is something that’s happened when it comes bugs.
Does that mean eating bugs is a lost cause?
No, that would be a very faulty statement.
Looking at the Aztecs, history gives us further proof that bugs as a source of food are far from fantasy.
Central and southern Mexico, and bordering areas, a place called Mesoamerica, this is where the Aztecs lived.
Now, the Aztecs didn’t have large domesticated animals. Still, without these large animals, they developed a complex society with a high population density.
So, where did they get their protein?
As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, its thought to have come primarily from insects and insects eggs.
And the insect eggs were semi-cultivated in marches and ponds.
Bugs as a Source of Food for The Native Americans
History tells us the Native Americans engaged in entomophagy. Actually, as much as 25-50 percent of the tribes did.
Unfortunately, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the Western culture started to mingle with the Native Americans, their eating habits changed.
Whatever your interpretation of western history and its impact on the word and its populations may be, the fact is the West has suppressed the culture of entomophagy.
The people of the West simply didn’t have the cultural ties to entomophagy. They thought of it as something barbaric.
150 years ago Native American Bugs Saved Lives
Settlers arriving from the east in the late 1800s, in what’s today known as Utah, The United States suffered a bad blow.
Having their crops fail and not enough stored food to eat during the winter they turned to the Native American tribe called Ute.
The Ute tribe gave the settlers food, their traditional prairie cakes.
The prairie cakes were nutritious and high in protein. The cakes were made of:
- Local nuts and,
- Oher local materials.
Apparently, the settlers found them tasty, but did they know about all the ingredients?
It would seem not. One of the main ingredients of these cakes were an insect called katydid. And according to the settlers descendants, once they found out about this, they refused to eat them.
Already 150 years ago, entomophagy wasn’t welcomed. Fortunately, you reading this probably means we are changing this destructive attitude.
By the way, the bug katydid is now called the Mormon cricket.
I don’t know much about Mormons, but if you are one, history tells us you should probably try one.
Mali- A Continuation of History
Native Americans were not the only ones having to deal with the suppression of using bugs as a source of food.
Indingionouse groups in Sub-Saharan Afrika also dealt with modernization and westernization. Here too damage has been done to the culture of entomophagy.
Sadly, this kind of history, as it pertains to bugs, has continued. The West has ruined this nutritious food source, this time in Mali.
You see, western advisors told the cash crop cotton growing people of Mali to use pesticides.
Supposedly in order to bring more economic stability to the area, in this case, the place was Sanambele.
What could possibly go wrong, right?
Cotton fields, a place where the kids of Sanambele usually have hunted grasshoppers to eat as a snack no longer do so.
Since the incorporation of pesticides to the cotton fields, the mothers of the kids in Sanambele has warned them not to eat grasshoppers.
The mothers are, rightfully so, concerned about the exposure to pesticides.
It must be said that this is very unfortunate. See, 23 percent of these children had or were at risk of a protein-energy malnutrition.
This was in 2010, a very recent history.
Thankfully, today, we are heading in the right direction and people not only in the West but all over the world have started to embrace the idea of Using bugs as a source of food.
We have a long way ahead of us but at least we have begun the change.
The History of Insects in Religion
It doesn’t matter what kind of religion you belong to. No matter if you’re a Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist or a believer of any other religion. The fact is religion has influenced food practices.
Once such instance is in the tropics where missionaries saw the eating of winged termites as a heathen custom, and highly non-christian.
Another would be in Malawi, a country in Africa, where researchers found that devout Christians react with disdain to entomophagy.
Sadly, research on entomophagy in Afrika has been affected by the western view that insects are not proper food. The contribution of insects as a source of food and nutrition has thus been sporadic.
Research in Afrika on Bugs
Concerning the religious influence, I would like to add the fact I personally have read studies coming out of places like Nigeria.
Studies are being done in Afrikan countries. We can see organizations such as the United Nations together with the nation-state in question collaborate on the benefits of entomophagy.
Not too long ago I wrote an article on the protein quality of crickets. It was called “Four Reasons To Eat Crickets starting Today“.
One of the sources for that article was actually a study conducted by the Department of Biochemistry, Federal University of Technology in Nigeria.
Furthermore, it’s my personal opinion things are heading in the right direction. The world is finding out more and more about the nutritional benefits of eating bugs.
Bugs in the Ancient Times
I like history, and most of the time I find we learn nearly nothing from it. We need to cherish history and see what it has to offer us, the people of the world today.
I sometimes hear “this was just something some old dude said ones”. Whether or not statements like this are true or not, we still have to acknowledge the profound teachings some of “these old dudes”, and what they claimed.
I thought it would only be fitting to see what Aristotle, the Greek philosopher (384-322 B.C.), had to say about bugs as a source of food.
Aristotle’s contributions are seen in, logic to biology to ethics and aesthetics, he was obviously a man of many talents.
Aristotle wrote a book called “Historia Animalium“, and I’d like to share a few words of his from this book:
“The larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken [i.e. before the last moult]”
With the risk of sounding gross, he also said that, between the adults, females teste best after sex because they are full of eggs.
It seems like he was a man who lived by the words “practice what you preach”.
Not only can we see bugs as a source of food in Europe, Greece talked about by Aristotle, we can see it in other places too.
For example in the Middle East where it’s thought to have been seen in the eighth century BC at the palace of Asurbanipal (Ninivé), where locusts on sticks were carried to the palaces’ banquets by servants.
Yet another place where eating insects in ancient times have been recorded is in China. From the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) we find Li Shizhen’s “Compendium of Materia Medica”.
This book is about Chinese medicine during the Ming Dynasty. In this book, you’ll find a record of all foods, and guess what, it includes insects.
Not only does it include insects, but it also points out the medical benefits of the bugs.
Eating Bugs as Pest Control- Observations from the 1800s
It’s a good thing we’ve had people who’ve been willing to go the extra mile in life and explore the world. Often times we learn something new.
In this case, we’ll see what some of the explorers of Africa has had to say about bugs as a source of food.
German explorer Barth Heinrich, in 1857 tells us in his book “Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa” some of the observations he made.
Surely he must have made a great deal many observations, however, one that interests me, and hopefully, you too is the fact he tells us those who ate bugs “enjoy not only the agreeable flavor of the dish, but also take a pleasant revenge on the ravagers of their fields”.
Apparently, pest control was also on his mind.
Then we have the “explorer of insects” if you will, entomologist Charles Valentine Riley, first State Entomologist for the state of Missouri, appointed in 1868.
Between 1873 and 1877 Rocky Mountain locusts invaded a lot of western stated in the US.
To deal with this plague, the aforementioned bug expert Charles Valentine Riley, advocated they could be controlled just by eating them.
He himself found the locusts to be palatable to eat once they were prepared.
Bugs as a source of food and as pest control at the same time are by no means something that’s unattainable.
Actually, I’ve written about bugs as pest control in the article “THE FUTURE OF FOOD IS IN THAILAND AND ITS CRICKET FARMS”.
Being able to use bugs as a source of food while at the same time it works as a pest control must be considered one of the more intelligent ways of approaching food.
Furthermore, we can see this intelligent way of approaching food by yet another entomologist, British V.M. Holt.
In his book “Why Not Eat Insects?” published in 1885, he argued eating insects could be used as a pest control.
His train of thought was to let the poor eat the insects. This way the farmer could get rid of the insects eating the crops.
Moreover, V.M. Holt brought up an interesting observation. That is, he knew bringing up entomophagy would bring up the argument “Why should we imitate these uncivilized races?”.
Obviously, he wasn’t wrong in that observation. Sadly, this view of entomophagy is still here. Fortunately, it’s less so every day.
Another observation he made is something most interesting.
He found the people of the so-called uncivilized world to be more particular when it came to food than the British themselves.
From Pest Control to Conservation
What’s a pest and what’s not a pest can be historically proven to be attributed to perception.
This can easily be seen in the case of the cockchafer bug. This insect was considered a pest, something undesirable.
In France, this pest was to come under the law which called for its destruction, together with other agricultural pests.
However, the law was countered (thankfully). Instead, French senator Tesselin published a recipe for the cockchafer bug, a soup “esteemed by the gourmets”. Now called the “cockchafer soup”.
Apparently, it worked well. Nowadays there are those who want to protect the species and its habitats.
Efforts in the complete opposite of the very reasons why perceptions were changed from the very beginning.
Going from a “pest” (quotations due to the fact that in this case, a pest is a matter of perception) to a delicacy soup, comparable with lobster soup to then have efforts to protect the bug is amazing.
Surely, this example carries validity when looking at the food situation in today’s world.
Pesticides and insecticides, something our food is drowning in, and the need for it could be mitigated.
Saving crops and the environment is something which could be done if people started taking notes of the past, like the cockchafer bug case.
Needless to say, perhaps manual collection of “pests” is something we should think of moving forward, at least to those in the food business.
Thoughts on Observations of the 1800s
Apparently, we’ve had forward-thinking people in the past. Sadly, way too many backward thinking ones, this conclusion by deduction.
If this wasn’t the case, there’s no way entomophagy wouldn’t be something everybody engaged in.
We see bugs as a source of food were thought of as working as pest control at the same time.
Bug expert V.M. Holt argued the poor should eat the bugs. When I first read this I thought to myself “how sad, the first thing he thought of was bugs as a second-grade substance”.
Astonishing, here I am, dedicating all my time to studying, writing and promoting bugs as a source of food. For all people. Still, those negative preconceptions about entomophagy must have been hiding deep down in my mind.
How else would my first thought be to get angry about a guy wanting the poor to eat bugs?
He clearly states the less civilized cared more about their food than his fellow countrymen did. He clearly saw entomophagy as something to be desired.
Again, this worldview is still prevalent(less so every day), where its seen as a second-grade food.
Comparing “Observations of the 1800s” with Today
In many ways, humanity still faces the same situation entomologist V.M. Holt did.
People in poorer countries, many times, spend more time and energy, care if you will, into what they put in their bodies than many of us in the rich part of the world do.
And many of these poorer countries do not have enough food, hence they are suffering from malnutrition.
But here’s the kicker, people in the rich part of the world, many of which are overweight, go through the”drive through” at McWeAllNowWhatKindOfPlaceI’mReferingTo getting all the food one could want in minutes, sometimes seconds- And they still suffer from malnutrition!
Many of us in the rich part of the world do not eat food, rather “assisted suicide”.
The comparison between the 1800s and today, which I’m referring, to lies in the fact people in those days, in Britain, at that time considered rich, had poor people needing food.
If they needed food, they most likely suffered from malnutrition.
The conclusion must then be, both rich and poor people in the world suffer from malnutrition.
With the risk of sounding like a walking virtue-signaling cliché;
We need to start to consider the nutritional composition of food and take off our glasses consisting out of silly preconceptions, bias, and most importantly lack of knowledge.
China is building on its Bug-Eating History
One of the many countries in the world where they’ve started to take off those glasses is China. They realize edible insects is the way of the future. Not just something to be studied from the past but to actually build on and move forward.
According to the website, worldometers.info, the current population of China, using data from the United Nations, is 1,416,894,549.
With this absolutely massive number in mind, exploring other ways of feeding the population doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Bugs as a source of food are one of the ways forward in that endeavor.
With its more than a 2000 year history of eating bugs, this is clearly not a new idea.
Actually, due to its long history of eating bugs the people of China have a high level of acceptance to entomophagy. This is great, one less, massive hurdle to get over in order to reach food security.
As we can easily see, humans have accumulated knowledge in the best ways of feeding our selves.
Now, in the book, “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security”, from where most of the information in this article comes from, they list six characteristics that a species must have to allow for domestication.
The list in question arises from the fact there’s 148 large terrestrial mammalian omnivores and herbivores, all weighing over 45 kg, but only 14 of them have been domesticated.
Now, they make it clear the list is for mammals and not insects. Nevertheless, this list will provide us with bullet points for the reasons the aforementioned 14 species were selected for domestication.
Intrinsic biological factors of the animal are what’s at heart of this list.
Let’s see what it says, together with my clever observations:
An adequate diet (herbivores are easiest and most efficient to keep as a source of food).- Crickets can feed on organic side-streams like manure and compost.
A high growth rate (it is cheaper and more worthwhile to invest in fast-growing animals).- This is very interesting considering the feed conversion ratio of crickets, which is very high. Crickets are far superior in converting feed into edible weight. Compared to cattle, crickets are 12 times more efficient in converting feed into an increase in weight.
The capacity to breed in captivity (some animals simply refuse to do so).- Not a problem when it comes to bugs, at least not for crickets. Just in Thailand, you have about 20 000 cricket farms.
A domesticable disposition (e.g. the domestication of horses succeeded but the domestication of zebras failed because of their aggressiveness and tendency to bite relentlessly).- Again, Thailand with its 20 000 cricket farms. No issues there.
Relatively calm behavior (animals with tendencies to panic create dangerous situations).- What can I say, in China, you have a long tradition of cricket fighting…
A clear hierarchical social structure (allowing the human to assume the role of leader). Have you ever seen a bug? Assuming you have, you know who’s the boss.
Insects are not mammals, hence this list isn’t foolproof when we are to check for the possibility of domesticating an insect. Nor will all insects submit to domestication. However, Thailand is a prime example of what is possible, after all, they have those 20 000 cricket farms I’ve mentioned before.
If the people of Thailand can use bugs as a source of food, why can’t the rest of the world?
Well, the simple but yet true answer is we can, we just have to get used to the idea to see bugs as a source of food.
The High Nutritional Composition of Bugs
So, we’ve seen some of the histories of bugs as a source of food. We’ve seen people advocating eating them. History tells us they have been eaten for a long time. It also reminds us this is a perfectly valid food.
Moreover, the history of entomophagy gives us empirical evidence bugs are nutritious. Why else would people have bothered eating them?
At least, this is my train of thought.
The fact insects are nutritious might surprise you, however, I assure you they are.
Bugs- What makes the Nutrient Content vary
You’ll be able to find the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates as well as the micronutrients minerals and vitamins as well as fiber in insects.
The content of these nutrients varies due to a lot of factors.
Some of them are:
- What kind of insect it is,
- Which metamorphic stage it’s at,
- What season it is,
- Where they live,
- And what kind of diet they have.
I’ll give you an example, one including grasshoppers in Nigeria and their diet.
- When fed with bran, they have almost double the protein content compared with those fed on maize.
In other words, just like conventional livestock.
Furthermore, something many of us tend to forget about is a foods processing and preparation.
Just like with all other food, how it’s prepared effects nutrient composition.
Most of the time we heat our food and when we do that we could lose some of the nutrients. (This isn’t always the case, some foods should be heated in order to get the most out of it).
Of course one can eat many of the different insects as they are, meaning raw, but many times they’re either:
- Boiled or,
Needless to say, insects in this regard are just like any other kind of food.
For example, let’s take the case of the mopane caterpillar and its protein content.
- When dry roasted, it contained 48 percent protein.
- However, when just dried, it contained 57 percent protein.
Another example would be of the termite and its protein content, per fresh weight.
- A raw termite contains 20 percent protein,
- When fried it’s 32 percent and,
- 37 percent when smoked.
The reasons why the raw termite contains less protein when raw has to do with the difference in water content.
Bugs and Protein
I work out at the gym, and I’ll be honest with you, I do it because I want muscles, so I need a lot of protein. That it makes me healthy is a massive bonus though.
Many times, people who know I like to get my protein from cricket powder, among other places, asks me; “sure you’re getting enough protein”?
We’re so hammered with the fact protein comes from chicken, beef, fish etc, some people are naturally stunned when you tell them; “yes I get enough protein from bugs”.
And as stated before, the nutrient composition of insects varies, hence the protein content does too.
However, If one needs a lot of protein, crickets are the way to go.
There’s a lot of factors determining the quality of proteins. Crickets fit the bill of good proteins, which I wrote about in the article “FOUR REASONS TO EAT CRICKETS STARTING TODAY“.
Basically, the article brings up the fact;
- There are 2o amino acids, 9 of which are essential.
- Crickets (Gryllus assimilis) contained both the essential and non-essential amino acids.
- The way to get those 9 essential amino acids is through your diet. The 9 amino acids, when found in food, in an adequate proportion, is called a complete protein or whole protein.
Some of the reasons why we need protein include the formation and repair of;
- Muscles (that’s why protein is always talked about when it comes to body-building),
- Skin (fun fact; it’s the largest organ you have),
- And cells.
Needless to say, you need protein and getting it from crickets or cricket-based products isn’t a bad idea.
Bugs and Fat
That’s right, insects do contain fat, the most energy-dense macronutrient, of which edible bugs are a considerable source.
The molecular makeup of fat consists of;
- Triglycerides with,
- A glycerol molecule plus,
- Three fatty acids.
There are three kinds of fatty acids;
- Saturated fatty acids (fat solid in room temperature),
- Unsaturated fatty acids (fat liquid in room temperature),
- And essential fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids are something we have to get from our food since the human body can’t synthesize them.
One example is the cricket (Gryllus assimilis), it’s a good source of essential fatty acids.
Unsaturated fatty acids are considered better for you than saturated fatty acids.
Another example is Austrailia’s witchetty grub, they are very rich in omega-9 mono-unsaturated fatty acid.
As a matter of fact, the witchetty bug was a staple food for the of the aboriginal women and children.
Moreover, the Aborigines see them as a high-protein and high-fat bug. Again, providing us with the empirical facts bugs as a source of food to be more than valid.
Once again we see the potential of bugs as a source of food. Needless to say, fat doesn’t need to come food such as the basically toxic Norwegian farm-raised salmon… – Something I highly suggest you read more about.
Bugs Vitamins & Minerals
As I’m sure you’re well aware of by now, bugs as a source of food are the way to go, it’s where all the goodies lie. However, I do feel a need to lightly touch on the subject of some of the micronutrients in insects.
After all, micronutrients are something many people, including myself, sometimes tend to forget about.
Micronutrients are of importance because of several reasons, for example, a lack of them could cause;
- Impairment in growth,
- Impairment in Immune function,
- Mental development, As well as
- Physical development.
So yeah, pretty important stuff, wouldn’t you say? I think you would.
Bugs and the Vitamin B12
For instance, take the much talked about vitamin B12. I wrote about this vital vitamin in connection to crickets in the article “DO CRICKETS CONTAIN VITAMIN B12?“.
In this article, I go over some of the side effects of a vitamin B12 deficiency, among them are;
- Muscle weakness,
- Intestinal problems, as well as
- Nerve damage and mood disturbances.
In fewer words, you’d do well by making sure you’re getting enough of it through your diet.
A simple note on this subject would be that a B12 deficiency can develop slowly, so make sure you’re getting all you need.
Bugs and the Micronutrient Iron.
Now, I don’t know where you, the reader is sitting, it might be in Germany, Nigeria or the United States or any other place.
The reason to why I bring this fact up is because we tend to think selfishly, myself included. There are those who really need what source of nutrients bugs can offer, such as the micronutrient iron.
50 percent of women in developing countries and 40 percent of preschool children are believed to be anemic.
The outcome of this lack of health include;
- Poor pregnancy outcomes,
- Impaired physical development,
- Impaired cognitive development and,
- Increased risk of morbidity in children.
As with so much of what is wrong in this world, this too, we could help to prevent. This by including bugs in the diet, since they are a rich source of this vital micronutrient.
Actually, most edible bugs contain the same or higher levels of iron compared to beef, not too bad I would say.
For example, take the case of the mopane caterpillar and let’s compare the iron status to beef. Here we find that;
- The iron content of beef is that of 6 mg per 100 g of dry weight.
- Meanwhile, the content of iron in the mopane caterpillar is 31–77 mg per 100 g of dry weight.
Evidently, this stuff never stops surprising you.
Bugs and the Environment
Something we all need to deal with and is the environment. With an increasing world population, an increase in food is to be expected. As a matter of fact, by the year 2050, the world population is projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050. That’s no small number of people.
An increase in food needed, unless done sustainably, will take its tow on then environment.
Fortunately, we do have something to help us with the food supply, while at the same time being more sustainable. And if you haven’t guessed it already, bugs as a source of food is something which could help with that.
Now those are just statements and if you don’t know anything about the environmental benefits of entomophagy you’re right to be suspicious.
That’s why I thought I would drop some facts to support the matter of bugs being a sustainable food.
Actually, this is a subject of which I’ve written about before in the article “WHY YOU SHOULD EAT CRICKETS“. I’ll give you some easy to remember bullet points from that article proving the fact entomophagy is the way to go.
I mention in the article something that most people never think of. That is, how much of said animal can be eaten?
Well let’s look at the numbers;
- Conventional livestock lands at 40-50 percent,
- Meanwhile, the number for edible insects lands at 80-100 percent.
Now, these points are on behalf of the cricket, my personal favorite insect:
- 12 times less feed than cattle,
- Four times less feed than sheep,
- Half as much feed as is needed for pigs and broiler chickens
And those numbers are based on the production of the same amount of protein.
Meat is a source of protein, with that in mind, while we clear valuable forests in order to make space for farmland, wouldn’t it be a good idea to pick another source of protein if there were one?
Yes, of course, it would, and there is one.
So here we go, from the article: If we were to replace 50 % of the meat we eat globally with crickets and mealworms, farmland would be cut by a third.
I realize these are just a few examples to why entomophagy would be more environmentally friendly. However, I do feel like they make a good case in demonstrating the power of bugs as a source of food in the eyes of the environment.
Bugs and Job Opportunities
Here too I thought we would lightly touch on the subject of jobs in relation to insects.
Many times insect production or gathering comes from poorer countries. And many times when you buy insect-based products such as cricket powders, you support that economy.
Just as a side note, that’s not to say you shouldn’t buy products made in the West. If you do that, you still contribute to the spirit of entomophagy, whereby eventually everyone benefits.
Anyway, here too, I thought we would see what the article “WHY YOU SHOULD EAT CRICKETS” tells us about cricket based food.
Afterall it’s got some pretty good easily digestible bullet points when it comes to insect-rearing such as;
- Rearing insects can be low-tech or high-tech.
- It doesn’t require a high-capital investment.
- With a low capital investment, you can start out small and then grow your business.
- It doesn’t require a lot of space.
- Have a higher demand than supply.
- The reproductive rate is high.
- Just a short period will give you a high inflow of cash.
- A high to even higher financial returns in many cases.
- Are fairly easy to manage.
- Are easy to transport.
- Are easy to do and doesn’t require specialized training.
Rearing crickets can be done in urban areas. I bring this up because the process of urbanization has been going on on a massive scale. Uran living is simply the way of the future.
Consider the following:
- In 1990 the world had 10 mega-cities, cities where you have 10 million people or more.
- The year 2014 the number of mega-cities had reached 28.
- By the year 2030, it’s projected we’ll have 41 mega-cities.
I think you get my point.
First of all, thank you, you’ve spent a considerable amount of time learning some of the histories regarding entomophagy, the nutritional benefits, bugs as pest control, as well as the environmental and job-related advantages of bugs.
I hope by now you will become part of a growing, worldwide movement which focuses on health and sustainability for all.