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Go Eat A Bug

The movement to encourage consumption of insects -- and to make it not weird, but a common practice (as it already is in other parts of the world) -- is clearly underway. Among the signs:

  • A 2013 United Nations report says insects can feed the world's growing population, with less effect on the environment than other foods.

  • More and more, restaurants are featuring insects, sometimes as gourmet items, and social and educational events are bug-centered. Researchers in anthropology and other areas are hosting research conferences.

  • Orders for crickets meant for humans to eat are a small but growing part of the business at Armstrong’s Cricket Farm in West Monroe, LA, says owner Jack Armstrong. Products such as cricket powder tortilla chips and protein bars are heavily promoted, becoming more common, and viewed as the easy entry to insect eating.

  • Researchers are finding that insects can be nutritious and digestible, and allergies are rare.

  • Even insect-eating fans admit there's an “ick” factor to overcome, but they have suggestions to ease that.

Insects as a Solution to Food Shortages

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a lengthy report, "Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security." In the foreword, the authors say: “It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people." In 2018, the total is 7.6 billion. "To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double." The report details how edible insects may be a solution.

Crickets get the attention... [but] there are about 2,000 species of insects known to be edible.

“Crickets get the attention," says Gina Louise Hunter, PhD, an associate professor of anthropology at Illinois State University in Normal, who is writing a book for consumers about edible insects. While some, like crickets and mealworms, are raised in captivity, “the majority worldwide are wild harvested.”

Insects as Protein: Easy on the Gut

"Insects provide a high-quality protein source," says Hunter. Insects are also often a complete protein, Lesnik says, providing all nine essential amino acids.

The amount of protein varies by product. According to the maker of Chirps chips, with cricket powder, a 1-ounce serving (generally about 10 or 15 chips) has 4 grams of protein. A 2-ounce Exo Cricket Protein Bar in apple cinnamon flavor has 10 grams, the company says.

Earlier this year, researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey debunked the prevailing wisdom that digesting insects may be a problem because mammals can't produce an enzyme that breaks down an insect's outer shell, or exoskeleton. They found that most primates, including people, have at least one working copy of a gene, CHIA, the stomach enzyme that breaks that shell down.

In another study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Madison found that cricket protein may improve the gut's natural bacteria (microbiome) and ease inflammation. They fed 20 volunteers cricket protein (put into muffins or shakes) for breakfast for 2 weeks, then switched them to a breakfast without cricket powder.

The researchers took stool and blood samples at the start and end of the study. The cricket powder improved the growth of good gut bacteria and lessened an indicator of inflammation.

As for risks, Lesnik says that the only one she is aware of are people who may have an allergy to specific insects.

Squashing the ‘Ick’ Factor

"The disgust [from many people] is a very real thing," Lesnik says. "It gets placed in us when we are very young."

She says: "Think of a 2-year-old who will put anything in their mouth." A caregiver's reaction is: "Don't do that! Dirty!" Of course, Lesnik says, "you don't want your kid to put a bug in their mouth when playing outside."

Her advice: "Start thinking about tempering that reaction," thinking differently about insects meant as food than those found on the ground. "If we can start talking about them differently, we can train the next generation," she says.

Easy ways to ease into insect eating, she says, are trying chips made with cricket powder and getting cricket powder to add to foods. "A lot of my colleagues throw a cube of cricket powder into a smoothie," she says.

Bauer, the ice cream-with-crickets lover, suggests starting with a protein bar made with cricket flour. "Once you get past the idea this is a bug, you actually don't notice," she says.

Shaking the mental image is key, according to Armstrong, the cricket farmer. "There is this mental image that crickets or any insects are bad," he says. "It can't be good for you to eat." But, he tells people, "Commercially grown insects are totally different than what is out in the wild."

At parties, "I have a little bowl of mixed bugs," Bauer says. She puts it right next to the mixed nuts, but she labels the bugs so guests will know what's what. "About half try it, and about half say 'That's gross!’ ”

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