Critters on the Menu March 4, 2002
Pass the Bugs, Please
What's on the menu tonight? A pile of thick, slimy larvae is probably the last thing you would expect to see on your dinner plate. But for many people around the world, larvae and other bugs — like grasshoppers and termites — sound pretty appetizing. With critters on the menu, dinner suddenly gets much more interesting.

International Flavor of Bugs
The Japanese have used insects as human food since ancient times. Thousands of years ago, the region had a large human population but a shortage of animal protein. Since the area had an abundance of insects that could provide protein, this food source became important to human survival. The Japanese still use insects in many recipes today. If you were to go into a restaurant in Tokyo, you might have the opportunity to sample a few of these insect-based dishes:

  • Hachi-no-ko — boiled wasp larvae
  • Zaza-mushi — aquatic insect larvae
  • Inago — fried rice-field grasshopper
  • Semi — fried cicada (Japanese Beetles)
  • Sangi — fried silk moth pupae

All of these insects are caught in the wild except for the silk moths, which are raised for their ability to produce silk. The larvae (young moths) produce the silk until they pupate (become adult moths). Once they pupate, they are used for food.

  • Just as moths are used for their silk and then eaten, some animals in Western culture are used for their byproduct, as well for food. Can you think of some examples?

Kwara State, Nigeria
Some people in this region of West Africa are known to feast on termites, crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. In fact, termites and grasshoppers are two of the most eaten insects in the world. So how are they prepared for mealtime? Termites are roasted over a fire or fried in a pot, and after cooking, the wings are removed and salt is added before biting in. Crickets are also roasted over a fire but before eating, the cricket's guts must be removed. There are some taboos surrounding the eating of crickets: many members of the Yoruba tribes living in Africa and in other parts of the world do not generally eat crickets because they worship Ogun, the iron god, who forbids eating animals that have no blood.

In Thailand, mealworms, grasshoppers, water bugs, and even scorpions are roasted, fried, or spiced. The Sakon Nakhon Agricultural Research and Training Centre (SARTC) ships canned bugs worldwide; you can purchase a can of mixed insects for only $4.00 US. Each can contains an assortment of insects, including mole crickets and water beetles, which are pre-cooked, salted, and ready to eat. But if you're looking to purchase the red ant eggs, you may be out of luck — SARTC was sold out when this article was written. (Too bad — we've been told that the eggs are great on toast or in a Thai salad.) SARTC first began shipping canned insects in 1998, with the goal of raising more money for local villagers by selling the local surplus of insects. Insects are preserved in the cans and shipped to faraway villages.

Nutritious Flavor of Bugs
Insects are actually a good source of nutrition: many insects are high in protein, contain calcium and iron, and are low in fat compared with other snacks.

  Small grasshoppers (100g) McDonald's® hamburger (107g)
Protein 20.6g 12.0g
Total fat 6.1g 10.0g

One hundred grams of small grasshopper also contains 35.2 milligrams of calcium and five milligrams of iron.

While there are 1,462 recorded species of edible bugs, many insects are poisonous and should not be eaten. Brightly-colored caterpillars are an example of one insect that should be avoided. And wasps, for example, must be thoroughly boiled to break down their poison and soften the stinger before they are eaten. Cultures that have eaten insects for generations know which bugs are safe and which ones aren't, and how best to prepare them for eating.

  • Be careful! If you're really interested in trying out some insect food, remember that it's not safe to sample bugs from your backyard. Your best bet is to find a restaurant or store that sells correctly-prepared edible insects.

In Western culture, it is not socially acceptable to eat bugs. Why do you think this is the case? Think about some of the following philosophical questions:

  • Why do some people think insect eating is "gross"?
  • Do you think eating insects will ever be widely accepted in Western culture, why or why not?
  • What strategies could be used to increase the social acceptance of insect eating?

What is Entomology?
Entomology is the scientific study of insects. The word comes from the Greek word entomon, for insect, and ology, the study of.

Some say that "entomophagy" is the word for insect eating.

The "Fear Factor" of Bugs
More and more, reality T.V. shows like Fear Factor and Survivor are serving up insects to their contestants to test their limits, while keeping us coming back for more. In Fear Factor, participants compete against one another for a $50,000 dollar cash prize. There are six competitors and three challenges. If any player refuses to take a challenge, or fails to complete it they are eliminated.

In each episode, there is one "gross-out" challenge — for example, in one show, contestants had to eat live, hard-shelled, crunchy beetles. The beetles were very feisty, as producer Rich Brown explains: "You could feel them grab on to your hand. We didn't want them going down through the contestant's system partially alive." To prevent this, each contestant was required to chew the beetle before swallowing it.

You may remember that contestants in Survivor: The Australian Outback were given the challenge of eating various aboriginal delicacies including mangrove worms, crickets, grubs, and cow brains. CBS Survivor spokeswoman Colleen Sullivan told, "Appropriate individuals are consulted in advance to determine what is safe and edible within the natural environment." In addition, "the bugs eaten on Survivor did possess an inherent nutritional value," said Sullivan. Regardless of their apparent dietary benefit, contestants on Fear Factor and Survivor understand the importance of gulping down the insects in order to win their fortune. And somehow, it makes for compelling TV.

Are Bugs a Part of Your Diet?
You may never have deliberately eaten an insect, but according to Aletheia Price, who has studied insects since she was 13, "you could consume over a pound of insects in your lifetime without even knowing it." Price explains that insects infest granaries and are "milled along with the grain, finally ending up as tiny black specks in your piece of bread." It is almost impossible that you have not ingested insects in one form or another during your lifetime. "But don't worry," states Price, "it probably did not harm you, but instead did you some good by providing extra protein in your meal!"

The University of Kentucky's Department of Entomology agrees that "many foods we eat have insects or insect parts in them that we don't see." It is impossible to grow crops in open fields totally free of insect infestation, or what are known as "natural defects." Chemicals or "pesticides" are sometimes used to control insects, but exposing consumers to chemical residue can be dangerous. The United States Food and Drug Administration's Food Defect Action Levels ensure that chemicals and insect infestation are limited, but they can still be present in the food we eat. For example, in 100 grams of apple butter a defect of four or more rodent hairs or an average of five whole insects will result in legal action against the product and its removal from the market. That means that apple butter with three rodent hairs and four whole insects could find its way into your kitchen and onto your toast!

Here are other examples of food products that are legally allowed to contain insects or insect parts, so long as they do not exceed the Food Defect Action Levels:

More Links
Learn interesting insect trivia from the Floriday Pest Management Association.

Here is a great recipe for Banana Worm Bread compliments of Kathy Gee and Julie Stephens from Iowa State University Entomology Club.

Product Action Level

Maraschino, fresh, canned, or frozen

Cannot contain an average of 5% or more cherry pieces that were rejected due to maggots
Ground cinnamon Cannot contain an average of 400 or more insect fragments or an average of 11 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams of cinnamon
Chocolate Cannot contain an average of 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams of chocolate

  • How do you feel about the FDA's policy that some of your food may be contaminated with insects? Which would you prefer: higher pesticide use at the risk of environmental pollution, or insects in your food? Provide reasons for your answer.
  • Would you prefer that we hadn't told you about food contamination levels? Think how the public must have felt when Upton Sinclair published his book The Jungle. The story made people aware of practices in the meatpacking industry. The public reacted so strongly that legislation was passed to put new standards in place for the industry.
  • Do you think there is a difference between eating shellfish (such as shrimp, crab, and lobster) and eating insects? Explain your answer.

— by Yael Sucher of the Harvard Graduate School in Education's "Technology in Education" program

Related Activities
Spider Xcursion
For middle school students: Spiders aren't insects — they're arachnids. Find out more in this Internet field trip.
Bug Medicine
As well as making a healthy snack, certain bugs can be used for healing. See how insects are used in medicine in this Riverdeep article.
Important Insects
For teachers: Insects play an eminent role in the ecosystem. Investigate with your students using this "Teaching the News" article.
To Bee or Not to Bee
Read all about these fuzzy, striped creatures in this Riverdeep archive article.