What if I told you that there is an excellent source of protein that one-quarter of the world’s population eats on a regular basis (according to The New York Times), but you’ve probably never even tried? It’s even been called the “protein of the future.” Oh, and it’s a sustainable choice, too. Sounds exciting, right? That’s something you’ve got to get your hands on!
Now what if I told you that amazing protein source was … bugs? Does that change your opinion and willingness to add them to your diet? The practice of eating insects, called entomophagy, may sound strange to those of us in Western cultures, but is commonplace in other parts of the world. Many cultures even consider bugs a delicacy. In some parts of Africa, almost 50 percent of the residents’ dietary protein comes from bugs, notes an article in Nutrition Bulletin.
Given that eating bugs is not part of the culture where I grew up (in the United States), I had never really considered adding bugs to my diet in the past, but the more I read about the benefits of this protein source, and the more creative (and delicious-sounding) ways I see bugs being consumed, the more I have to think about insects as not only a potential addition to my plate, but an important part of a healthy and sustainable diet. Let me tell you more about what I mean.
Eating Bugs Is Good for Your Health
As mentioned, bugs are an excellent source of protein, with the nutrient accounting for between 20 and 76 percent of their dry weight, according to a study published in ScienceDirect. By comparison, 90 percent ground beef is 20 percent protein by weight, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s not all — a study published in January 2021 in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that bugs are also a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including several that Americans are commonly deficient in, including vitamin B12, iron, zinc, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. At the same time, bugs are low in (or free of, depending on the species and preparation method) nutrients that it is generally recommended to limit, including unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium.
Eating Bugs Is Good for the Environment
One of the main criticisms for eating meat has been its disastrous environmental impact. A study published in September 2021 in the journal Nature Food (PDF) found that animal-based foods produce double the greenhouse gas emissions as plant-based ones. And meat ranked near the top of 57,000 foods in terms of environmental impact, according to Oxford University researchers, who published their results in Environmental Sciences in August 2022.
Raising edible bugs has significantly less of an impact on the environment than raising other livestock, as the American Heart Association points out. Pound for pound, edible bugs produce significantly fewer greenhouse gasses than meat, according to Time. When you take into consideration the negative effects of overfishing, as well as the greenhouse gasses, water, and land use that result from traditional farming practices, edible bugs are definitely a sustainable alternative.
What It’s Like to Eat Bugs
Given all this information, I felt compelled to give bugs a try. But where to start? A quick internet search showed that crickets are a popular choice, and are available whole, as flavored snacks, ground into powder, and even in ready-to-eat protein bars. I’m also familiar with mealworms, because I feed them to my chickens as a way to increase the amount of protein in their diets. If it worked for them, I figured it could work for me, too. I had also seen an episode of one of my favorite travel and eating shows that was filmed in Mexico, and featured tacos and fresh guacamole garnished with ants. I had to give them a try.
If, like me, you’re interested in trying bugs, I cannot stress enough that you find a supplier of food-grade edible insects. Do not forage for your own bugs, as you have no idea how clean they are or what they have eaten. Bugs that are intended for human consumption are raised and prepared safely.
And regarding safety: Proceed with caution if you have food allergies. Many bugs are arthropods (just like lobsters and shrimp). As a result, there seems to be a link between an allergy to shellfish and bugs, according to one systematic review. If you have food allergies, be sure to check with your doctor before eating bugs.
Here are the results of my taste test:
My first impression: Salty and crunchy, these guys are good if you can get over the fact that they’re bugs. I can definitely see why these are popular!
What they taste like: Nutty, slightly smoky
Nutritional benefits: Protein, antioxidants, and fiber
How to enjoy them: As a crunchy snack, ground into baked goods, in a protein bar
My first impression: These were definitely not the most appealing at first glance. However, they tasted surprisingly wonderful! To be honest, these ended up being my personal favorites. Their bright flavor makes ants the perfect protein-packed topping and I can see why they’re so popular in other cultures.
What they taste like: Bright and citrusy
Nutritional benefits: Protein, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, and polyphenols
How to enjoy them: On guacamole, on tacos, on celery with peanut butter (literal ants on a log!)
My first impression: At first bite, I can definitely see eating these again. I picture them sprinkled on top of tacos or fried rice. They would add a depth of flavor and a nice crunch to the top of any dish. If you’re up for giving bugs a try, mealworms seem like an approachable “starter bug.”
What they taste like: Nutty, salty, slightly sweet
Nutritional benefits: Protein, fiber, and polyphenols
How to enjoy them: On top of tacos or fried rice, ground into a smoothie
Well, what do you think? Are you up for adding bugs to your diet? It may seem far-fetched at first, but opening your mind and your plate to new opportunities is well worth the effort. As I always say to my kids when they say they don’t like a given food (after one glance), how do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it?. Why not bugs? It could bring a whole new meaning to “grabbing some grub”!