Monica Martinez has always cared about where her food comes from — so much so that she once considered raising her own cow. She ultimately decided against it, but only because it wouldn’t fit in her tiny backyard.
So the San Francisco-based artist scaled down and began raising mealworms. She then built a series of Bauhaus-style hutches for people to farm their own mealworms as a low-cost, protein-rich food source. In 2010, she signed up to display her Wurmhauses at a Brooklyn gallery. To generate buzz for the show, she asked a nearby restaurant to host a smorgasbord of insect-based dishes. It was hugely popular — even more so than the show itself.
Westerners may have no choice but to stomach the critters.
“Then something clicked in me,” Martinez said. She had snacked on sun-dried fly larvae as a child in Mexico, and raising edible mealworms felt like the natural thing to do. But before her Western audience could consider farming insects, they had to think of them as food — and serving up tasty-looking insect dishes had made them do just that. A few months later, Martinez opened Don Bugito, a food stand whose bestsellers include smoky-flavored wax moth larvae tacos and caramelized mealworms sprinkled over vanilla ice cream. Many who sample the worms are surprised to find that “they taste very nutty, and they’re really crispy,” Martinez laughed.
With eateries like Don Bugito cropping up across the country, some insect-eating enthusiasts believe bugs could begin appearing regularly on Western menus and supermarket shelves in as little as five years. In fact, a report released by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last May suggests that Westerners may have no choice but to stomach the critters. As oceans are overfished and farmland grows scarcer, the report urges Westerners to open their minds and mouths to the 10 quintillion insects that are buzzing, wriggling and crawling at any given moment. This May, the FAO will host an international conference in the Netherlands to promote insects as human food and animal feed in the fight against world hunger.
But even those who find the U.N.’s argument compelling might struggle to overcome the “ick” factor. There is some reason for optimism, though. Thanks to a burgeoning extreme foodie movement, insect dishes have begun to creep into ethnic and high-end restaurants. For the less adventurous, some startups are sneaking insects into protein bars by grinding them into flour. Others are building a supply infrastructure by designing DIY insect farming kits.
“The tide is almost turned,” said Daniella Martin, host of the Web series Girl Meets Bug and author of the recently released Edible: An Adventure Into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet. ”We’ve reached the apex.”
Some worms have four times as much protein per ounce as beef, while four crickets pack as much calcium as a glass of milk.
Others are skeptical. Coaxing squeamish Westerners to eat their bugs “is going to be an uphill battle,” argues entomologist Mark Hoddle of the University of California, Riverside. He believes insects will remain a gourmet novelty in the U.S. and Europe.
While most Westerners still shudder at the thought of entomophagy — the technical term for the practice of eating insects — 2 billion people around the world consume insects as a delicacy or dietary staple. How did our palates diverge? “It really boils down to availability,” Hoddle said. Few insects can survive Europe’s cool climate. In contrast, the tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and South and Central America host a diverse array of insects that are available year-round.
But Western attitudes may soon shift, thanks to an international push to “raise the status of insects” to deal with an exploding population and dwindling environmental resources. According to the U.N. report, insects often contain more protein and other nutrients than traditional livestock. Some worms have four times as much protein per ounce as beef, while four crickets pack as much calcium as a glass of milk. And unlike bacteria and viruses that infect livestock, insect pathogens differ vastly from human pathogens, making them less likely to harm us.
…insects as exotic gourmet fare, such as fried crickets in buckwheat and bavarian cream topped with worms…
That’s to say nothing of entomophagy’s environmental benefits. As cold-blooded invertebrates, insects require far less feed to maintain their body temperatures. For example, 10 pounds of feed produces only 1 pound of beef — but yields up to 9 pounds of insect meat. Insects also require much less land and water. In fact, raising mealworms takes up only about 10 percent of the land needed to produce the same amount of beef.
The extreme foodie movement has played an even more pivotal role in making entomophagy en vogue. Devotees feel the need to distinguish themselves by scarfing down food that nonfoodies wouldn’t dare touch. Restaurants have followed suit, serving insects as exotic gourmet fare, such as fried crickets in buckwheat and bavarian cream topped with worms at L’Aphrodite in Nice, France. The obsession with novelty also comes with a hunger for authenticity, making ethnic dishes like Don Bugitos’ similarly trendy.
Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis, co-founders of cricket-based energy bar company Exo, have devised a craftier workaround. To make the insects more palatable, they grind them into a flour, which tastes faintly like almond meal. Next month, Exo will begin selling its cacao nut, PB&J and ginger cashew-flavored bars on Amazon, as well as in NYC gyms and vitamin stores — places that attract fitness buffs, who will often try anything that offers some health benefit.
Some entomophagists don’t see consumer palates as the problem. “The problem is getting enough raw materials to supply the market,” said San Francisco-based software engineer Daniel Imrie-Situnayake. To address the lack of large-scale, food-grade insect suppliers, he designed the Open Bug Farm, a DIY insect-farming kit that he hopes to make commercially available in the next few months. Open Bug Farm could make a big impact on the developing world, where limited road access can make transporting insects from a single, large-scale producer difficult.
But in the West, Hoddle thinks consumers will probably go only as far as “indirectly” eating insects. At best, they might accept insect-based livestock feed. “I doubt you would ever go to a supermarket and see steaks and sausages next to beetle larvae and giant water bugs,” he said.
Although it’s not clear whether insects will become as mainstream as Costco free samples, Martinez believes that conditions are ripe for change. “I think people are ready,” she said. “We’re ready for the next protein alternative, the next protein on the market.”
Why you should care
Because the insect-eating revolution is not a matter of if but when.