JANUARY
1994

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-13-94

Insects As Human Food

 

The thought of eating insects isn't a pleasant one to some people. In fact, most people in the Western Hemisphere turn up their collective noses at the suggestion of making a meal out of the most abundant creatures on earth. This attitude is not shared by the rest of the world's population, however. It has been estimated that nearly 80 percent of the people on earth cheerfully consume insects.

It is not easy to understand why we have such prejudice against eating insects. We do consume tons of arthropods, the phylum to which insects belong. However when it comes to arthropods, we have somehow decided that if the creature lives in the sea it is edible, but if it lives on the land it is not. For instance, many of us think shrimp are great. If we can afford it, we love to dine on lobster. Many of us delight in eating crabs, soft-shelled and hard-shelled.

These marine arthropods — shrimp, lobster, and crab — are nothing more than the insects of the sea. They are structurally just the same as insects. They have the same ecological roles as insects. But somehow we view them differently at dinnertime.

One of the insects people would certainly shy away from at the dinner table is the cockroach. Most people cannot picture a more unsavory animal than a cockroach. After all, it is a scavenger. It lives on leftovers. Yet we willingly part with a lot of money to eat lobster. Lobsters are ecologically nothing more than big cockroaches. They just happen to be the scavengers that live on the leftovers at the bottom of the sea.

A number of insects are human food items around the world. A giant waterbug is frequently consumed in Southeast Asia and can commonly be found in markets in this part of the world. Honey bee larvae are eaten in many parts of the world. In Africa, termites are considered a delicacy, and caterpillars also are used as food. Grasshoppers have been a common food item throughout the history of the world. In Africa and the Middle East, grasshoppers, known as locusts in that part of the world, have been consumed since biblical times.

Native Americans also made meals of grasshoppers. In fact, one of the items now featured at a Mexico City restaurant specializing in Aztec food is sautéed grasshoppers. Of course, it was in Mexico that the maguay worm, a caterpillar, became famous because having one in a bottle of tequila was a sure sign of a quality product. Tradition held that the individual who finished the bottle had to eat the worm.

Just think, if we were to change our eating habits in the United States, it would give new meaning to the old joke with the opening line, “Waiter there's a fly in my soup!”

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann