Cricket snack bars and love bug salads
Jacky Chung, co-founder of Ento, can foresee a time when hungry office workers regularly reach for one of his company’s ready-made bento boxes for lunch, or dip into one of its healthy, protein-rich snacks during long afternoons. He realises that some of us might take some persuading, but he’s certain that the health benefits, and most importantly the taste, of Ento’s food cubes, pâtés, seasonings and more will win many of us round eventually.
“We want to be very honest with our foods to consumers in that they are predominantly made from insects, but we try to present it to them in a way that is culturally acceptable in the western diet, thereby redefining insects as a food and not as an animal,” says Chung.
Eat insects, save the planet
It seems that the idea of eating insects is creeping up on western society like a mosquito in the night. Many societies around the world eat insects as a matter of course, but westerners have long had a squeamishness about consuming anything they’d normally shoo out of the window. It’s a squeamishness we may have to get over, if a growing band of experts are to be believed. In the not-too-distant future it may be a case of eating insects or eschewing meat altogether.
We may be well advised to get over our distaste for creepy crawlies sooner rather than later, says Pat Crowley of Chapul, an American company that makes a range of snack bars based on a protein-rich flour milled from crickets.
“The majority of our freshwater resources worldwide go to agriculture, with the majority of that used for livestock production. Insects, however, are incredibly efficient at converting plant matter into a very healthy source of protein for humans, while emitting very few greenhouse gases and not requiring nearly as much land resources.”
And closer to home, Bug Grub is a UK site that sells specialised snacks, bars, dips and flour in its quest to get us eating insects.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t just the view of extremists and cranks. Last year the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation weighed into the debate in a comprehensive 200-page report.
“It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host nine billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double,” reads the report.”We need to find new ways of growing food.”
The report estimates that insects already form an important part of the diets of two billion people worldwide. There are very good reasons to believe that they will have to form part of the diet of many more in the next few decades.
Insects are good for us
One reason is that it takes 10lbs of feed to produce 1lb of beef, and the same amount of feed to produce 8lbs of edible crickets. In an increasingly thirsty world, it’s also worth noting that 100 gallons of water produces 19g of protein from chicken, and 71g from crickets.
On top of that, insects may not be appealing, but they are healthy. They tend to be low in fat, high in protein and a good source of vitamins and minerals. Put it all together and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that insects would be a very good food source indeed, if they weren’t – well – insects.
Which is where companies like Ento and Chapul come in. They’re not simply trying to get us to fight back the gag reflex and swallow crickets, beetles and meal worms as a kind of personal and environmental medicine. They’re convinced the little blighters can be made to taste nice, too.
A marketing problem
In fact, Chung believes that the problem is one of marketing and packaging as much as anything else. Britons have learned to love sushi, after all, and 30 years ago eating raw fish wrapped in seaweed was seen as a similarly exotic foreign eccentricity that would never catch on.
“Insects are delicious, with each insect possessing their own unique flavours. For example, honey caterpillars taste like a combination of milk and pistachio nuts when roasted,” says Chung. “From a culinary standpoint we believe insects offer many new and exciting opportunities – it’s just a matter of making this more accessible and approachable for people so that they can begin to appreciate these excellent ingredients.”
Insects are also starting to creep and crawl onto restaurant menus. Archipelago in London has been serving them for a number of years. The restaurant’s Love Bug Salad features pan-fried locusts and crickets seasoned with chilli and garlic. Its Bushman’s Cavi-Err dessert includes caramel encrusted mealworms.
Meanwhile, the fashion for insect cooking is catching on in the home of gastronomy. Le Festin Nu in food-loving Paris offers palm weevils with beetroot and truffle oil, water scorpion with preserved peppers and black garlic, and grasshopper with quail eggs. The menu of Aphrodite in Nice features mealworm and crickets.
In fact, in terms of flavour, texture and cooking there is no reason not to enjoy insects, say those in the know. Grasshoppers and crickets are said to impart a satisfying crunch, and are great for taking on flavour when roasted with garlic, lime juice, chilli and salt. Witchetty grubs – a favourite torture for jungle-bound celebrities – actually taste like almonds, while their skin when cooked takes on the texture of roast chicken. Termites can be enjoyed steamed, smoked or sun-dried. Mealworms are comparable to beef in terms of protein content, but have a greater number of healthy, polyunsaturated fats.
If you’re still not convinced, the good news is that you don’t have to eat them whole. Like Chapul bars and Ento grasshopper pâté, it could be that our first introduction to insect eating will come in heavily disguised form. The consensus, though, is that whether whole, powdered or in some other way processed, eating insects may soon be all but unavoidable.