From Pest to Protein: The Incredible Edible Bug
Chapulines, a crunchy snack popular in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, are a little sour and salty and sometimes spicy. They are added to eggs, mixed into chorizo, used as a taco filling and salad topping, and eaten alone as a finger food. As Oaxacan restaurants have grown in popularity in the United States, more Americans have been exposed to these crunchy treats, prompting sales of pre-packaged chapulines. Of course, anyone not already familiar with chapulines might be surprised after ordering them to receive an order of toasted and flavored grasshoppers. We spoke with Wendy Lu McGill, founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, to dig into the origins of edible insects in the United States.
The rising popularity of entomophagy – the act of eating insects – has been in large part led by those who are concerned about the environmental impacts of our current eating habits. Domestically raised meat products have a dramatic impact on the environment, and overfishing is a major issue with our seafood supply. In comparison to traditional livestock, raising insects is more environmentally friendly, requiring less land area, feed, and water to raise equivalent amounts of protein. The ability to produce more food with fewer resources is especially important as the planet’s population increases.
“I worked in a bunch of foreign countries outside the United States, and I had just hadn’t really come across it except as sort of a novelty food,” explains McGill. “I started to do more research and I got super excited about the idea of farming insects because they are such a sustainable way to provide a really nutritious food. I got so excited that I actually organized a bunch of events for an organization called Little Herds, which I’m now on the board of. As I was doing events, I kept looking for people in the US, in Colorado specifically, that were working on this, and I couldn’t find anybody. Eventually it bothered me, because Colorado has this amazing food scene now and we have a real focus on sustainability, and it just seemed like the right place to be working on it.”
Insects also have the benefit of not requiring arable land, leaving those resources free for growing crops and raising livestock. Most insects can be raised in a very small footprint and can often be fed food scraps, which provides a way of recycling the abundant food waste we produce. In fact, some insects can be raised in such a small space that even those who live in urban settings can raise their own insects in their kitchens with the proper equipment, a huge benefit as urban populations continue to grow.
The Gateway Bug
The crickets used in chapulines are called by many the “gateway bug,” as they comprise the first edible insect most people are exposed to. However, there are nearly 2,000 known species of edible insects in the world, with some of the most common including ants, mealworms, and cicadas. The industry has also been working to make insects more palatable to the general public, with protein bars, candy, and cricket powder, which is essentially ground crickets that can be mixed with protein powder or with flour.
“I’ve seen a real shift in the number of people who even know about [edible insects],” says McGill. “When I first started, there were more people who would say, ‘Bugs, for people? Really?’ and now more people will say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of this; it’s good protein, right?’ and that’s a really good starting point, to be able to talk about the nutrition.”
Most supporters of entomophagy point out that the cultures that eat bugs far outnumber those that don’t, making the addition of insects to our diets purely an issue of mind over matter. McGill has certainly seen that shift as she works to change the perception of edible insects at events in and around Colorado.
“The ick factor, a lot of people will say to me, ‘I totally get it, it’s sustainable, it’s nutritious, but I just can’t get around the thought of eating a bug.’ And that’s super legitimate, this is not part of our culture as a food,” she explains.
When people first try bugs, McGill explains, they often have to work up their courage.
“You see their whole bodies get a little tense and you’ll see that they’re really scared. Then they’ll toss, let’s say, a roasted cricket that has some salt or some flavors on it in their mouth, and their shoulders go down and they really relax, and you’ll see that they realize that it wasn’t scary, it doesn’t taste weird or gross.”
However, it’s also a matter of legalities, as right now there are no federal standards to hold edible insects to. While it is legal to sell farmed edible insects, they cannot be classified as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” which makes many restaurants and retailers reluctant to offer the products. However, groups of insect-eating advocates are starting to come together to lobby Washington for implementing regulations. One of these regulations will likely be an allergen warning label, as people who are allergic to shellfish are also likely to be allergic to insects.
“What we have from the FDA is a Standard Letter of Response that they send to companies that have made inquiries,” explains McGill. “It says good things, like insects are food as long as they’re produced following the common good manufacturing processes, and they should be labeled with shellfish allergy warnings, and they should be produced just for human food. What that means is that when each company goes to their local or state health department, they’re really at the mercy of that institution to make a decision. In some ways, having a product that’s not prohibited is good, because it gives you a lot of wiggle room and I think the industry is being good on self-regulation. The down side, of course, is that it’s hard when you’re at the mercy of local authorities, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“I think that, as long as the industry continues to grow, at some point we’ll hear from the FDA and the USDA. I think mostly that is positive, because we need to have regulation.”
Bugs on the Menu
While entomophagy advocates have been pushing for the Western world to expand its collective palate since the 19th century, only recently has the practice begun to really take off. Fine dining restaurants in Europe have added insects to their menus over the last few years, and American restaurants are starting to follow suit.
“A trend I’m noticing is higher-end restaurants that are focused on being very innovative, and also ones that may be innovative and really focused on sustainability or local food; those are the ones that come to me and are my clients when I’m dealing with restaurants,” says McGill. “For people who are foodies or adventurous eaters, this is just another exciting thing to try. We don’t often get a lot of opportunities to try new foods, because so much is out there. That part, I think, can be really fun, and I’ve seen that joy with chefs.”
Aside from the excitement of having something new on the menu, McGill also points out that the current focus on the edible insect industry can be of benefit to restaurateurs brave enough to put bugs on the menu.
“I’m still really surprised by how much press edible insects get,” says McGill. “For restaurants or anyone in the food industry who is daring enough to try something and not worry about it defining their whole business, they have an opportunity to really get a lot of recognition, and that can be really helpful for driving sales. I think that’s a fun aspect of being adventurous with insects, is that you can get some recognition and maybe bring some more people in to dine.”
If the spirit of adventure isn’t quite enough to spur a menu change, you might also consider current trends.
“Insects align with current eating trends. Part of it is a focus on international food, and also it’s done really well with paleo and, to a certain degree, gluten-free,” explains McGill. “On top of the nutrition and sustainability aspects, it’s also done really well with natural and organic. That’s how I’ve seen restaurants that I work with frame it.”