Hey, America: Edible insects just might be the next tasty taboo headed for your plate.
Walk into a high-end restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico, and you might see chapulines, or grasshoppers, on the menu.
In Mexico and many countries around the world, it's not unusual to see a variety of bugs on the menu. Chapulines can be served casually, as bar snacks, or as street food, but they also make appearances in more upscale cuisine.
"Plenty of high-end restaurants, especially in Oaxaca, serve chapulines," said Myles Snider, an American cook who trained in Mexico City and has worked in restaurants in Tulum.
The attitude toward serving insects as food there differs from the United States.
"It's far more normalized here," said Snider. "I think people acknowledge that it's an insect, so they know foreigners might have reservations about eating it, but mostly people just realize that they're delicious."
In the U.S., most of us aren't used to encountering insects on the menu. Could — and should — they become part of our normal fare?
If you're like me, the mere mention of eating bugs triggers an instant reaction of disgust. But what is it about eating bugs, exactly, that we protest?
Disgust is a response that our body uses to prevent us from doing things that are bad for us. We've been taught since we were children that bugs are "yucky," so the idea putting them in our mouths is something that our body naturally rejects.
So it follows that in Western culture, entomophagy (as the pros call it) has developed a stigma associating it with poverty and poor living conditions, since we assume that cultures relying on what we consider "yucky" as a primary source of food must be doing so out of desperation. But that's not so!
The reality is that insects are a regular part of the human diet all over the world, not only in lower socioeconomic strata. They just haven’t really broken the boundary onto the palate of the American people — yet. Insects have a lot to offer, though, so it might be worth considering adding them to your grocery list this week!
Here are 14 things edible insects have going for them, in the U.S. and abroad.
1. It's much easier to farm crickets than it is to farm cows. While livestock require land, feed, and equipment — all of which cost quite a bit — insects are scavengers and can basically subsist on their own.
2. Insect farms can be scaled to any size and can consist of as little as a breathable container, a damp towel, and food scraps or compost. That means that anyone can be an insect farmer, no matter their financial status.
3. Since geography isn't as much of a factor in insect farming, the growth potential for it as an industry isn't limited by location. A boom in insect farming could benefit cities as much as rural areas.
4. Since the food industry is often able to remain relatively stable in times of economic crisis, insect farming could bring increased job reliability to areas that aren't conducive to traditional farming.
5. Adding insects to the global diet could help solve world hunger. Insects are a nutrient-rich source of protein that can be grown locally in any environment — no other livestock product or crop provides the same benefits at such a low cost of maintenance.
6. Insect farming is environmentally friendly. Since insects require so little to thrive, they place significantly less strain on finite global resources like grain, water, and real estate.
7. Meat production puts a huge strain on the global water shortage; one pound of beef requires nearly 2,000 gallons of water. By contrast, cricket farmers like Big Cricket Farms assert that producing a pound of crickets requires only a single gallon of water.
8. The water footprint of crickets is so small, in fact, that some places like Bitwater Farms are finding it can be met with rainwater alone.
9. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's major report on the topic, insects require less feed than any other animal protein, like cattle and pigs. (This fact has been contested specific to crickets, as a 2015 study found that the feed-to-meat ratio can vary greatly based on crickets' appetites.) Feed-to-meat conversion rates as reflected by the FAO estimate one pound of edible beef requires about nine pounds of feed, while one pound of edible cricket meat needs only about one and a half pounds of feed.
10. Greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower in insects than in livestock. In a study of farmable insects (mealworms, crickets, locusts, cockroaches, and sun beetles) the insects were found to produce proportionally less carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia than cattle or pigs. By contrast, producing beef has been noted by several scientists to be more harmful to the environment than driving a car. The World Bank calculated in 2010 that producing one kilogram of beef is equivalent to driving 49 miles in a car.
11. Certain types of crickets can have about as much or even up to twice as much protein content as beef, usually with much less fat.
12. Insects can be beneficial as food without ever making it to the human plate, too. Switching to insect-based animal feed to sustain livestock would cut down on the strain that grain production places on land and water resources.
13. It's possible to incorporate insects into meals more subtly than simply chomping down on a cicada. Crickets can be ground into a protein flour that can be used in a variety of ways, including baking, as a dietary supplement, or to replace other protein sources like soy.
14. Insect protein has the interest of the start-up world. In 2014, cricket protein bar company Chapul scored a $50K business deal with investor Mark Cuban on "Shark Tank." Other investors are following suit — earlier this year, a similar energy bar company called Exo raised $4 million in its first round of funding.
Insects may be on their way to conquering the world markets, but there's one drawback: Right now, insect protein is still cost-prohibitive for widespread use. Since the number of people farming crickets is still relatively few, the market price of a pound of harvested crickets is still pretty high: A pound costs manufacturers about $4-5. That price would need to fall by about half to make it competitive with livestock meats, soy, and other protein substitutes.
So does this mean our Instagram feeds will soon be full of delectable cricket and grub food creations?
It's possible! Insects aren’t the first food source that were once considered taboo in our country. Raw fish used to strike Americans as disgusting, too — until the sushi craze hit in the 1960s. The exact cause for its rise is unclear, but it’s likely that it had to do with the whirlwind of change that was overtaking a nation ripe for trying new things. The restaurant Kawafuku opened in 1964 and quickly became a Los Angeles hot spot. As celebrities began adopting the “healthy food” trend, sushi appeared in metropolitan cities and eventually made its way across the country.
Could the same thing happen with insects? There's nothing stopping it. Specialty restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago already serve dishes like fried grasshoppers, ant egg salads, and silkworms. And though you won't find them here at street stands or in bars (yet), you don't need to travel to Mexico to get your hands on a chapulín, either — many authentic Mexican restaurants serve the Oaxacan dish stateside.
So while insects still have a ways to go before they conquer the United States, they're definitely gaining traction. Anyone with an adventurous palate and a desire to be ahead of a trend would do well to head to their local entomophagist eatery and try them out. It could be only a matter of time before insects are the next must-have dining experience.