Insects are a nutritious, sustainable food enjoyed across the world. In light of the current climate crisis, is it time for the West to embrace insects?
Writer: Clara Wilkinson
Editor: Dan Jacobson
Artist: Olivia Bowen
Despite their frightening appearance, edible insects provide many health benefits. They are a rich source of protein and easily meet the human bodily requirements of essential amino acids. Insects also contain vitamin B12, iron, and fatty acids. Their crunchy exterior contains chitin, which is abundant in fibre and thought to boost immune function. These creatures, often associated with dirt and disease, are actually surprisingly good for us.
Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, is also beneficial for the environment. Producing 1kg of cattle uses 3000 times more water than the equivalent amount of crickets. Insects also require less space and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, insects do not require large amounts of feed. Grain, which is currently fed to cattle, could be used to feed the growing human population. After all, why should high-quality food be wasted on cattle so that a small minority of people can devour hamburgers whilst the majority face growing food insecurity?
The advantages of eating insects are so obvious that you might be wondering why our fridges are not full of insects already.
In fact, insects have been a part of the human diet for many centuries. In Ancient Rome, edible insects were considered a delicacy. The famous scholar, Pliny the Elder, described the aristocracy’s love of “beetle larvae reared on flour and wine”.
Nearly 2 billion people across 130 countries still include insects in their diets today. Chapulines, a species of grasshopper, are a popular snack across Mexico, particularly in the Oaxaca region. These are harvested in the rainy season and cooked with lime juice and chilies. Across much of southern Africa, the mopane caterpillar is widely consumed and generates up to $85 million a year in trade in South Africa alone.
In Europe and the United States, however, insects are rarely thought of as food. In the westernised mind, an insect is a disease-carrying, crop-destroying pest. It is most certainly not dinner.
As the climate emergency escalates, we must become more flexible as a society. Diets in the West have already changed drastically in recent years due to the growing popularity of veganism, with supermarkets and businesses designing new products to match it. Nearly 600 new vegan products were released in UK supermarkets in January 2021 alone. This makes veganism more accessible and lures even more consumers towards plant-based diets.
Similar projects to make insects palatable to Western tastes are already underway. Horizon Insects is a small farm in West London that offers a range of products, from grow-your-own mealworm kits to cookery courses preparing cricket bruschetta. These courses are sold out for the rest of 2021. Another example is Eat Grub, a UK-based company whose mission is “to convince the West to embrace insects.” Their bright-coloured packaging and mouth-watering recipe collection help to make edible insects appetizing and accessible.
On a recent visit to the Mexican restaurant Wahaca, I was offered their special starter of cricket salsa. This being my first experience of entomophagy, I was understandably nervous while taking the first bite, with images of crickets leaping around my mind. I was pleasantly surprised by the flavour and the plate was soon scraped clean. I look forward to a time when seeing insects on the menu is not so unusual.
This process is not going to happen overnight; we are not going to wake up tomorrow to see Costa serving chocolate mealworm cupcakes. Yet there is little doubt that bringing insects into our diets is healthy and sustainable. So, the next time you bake brownies, why not use cricket flour? Or when you head to the gym, why not enjoy an insect-based protein shake? The ways to incorporate insects into our diet are endless. If we are all prepared to make these small changes, insects have a chance to be the future of food.