MARCH
2012

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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03-08-12

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Insects: Could They Be What's for Dinner?


Back in biblical times John the Baptist was a participant. Long before European settlers showed up in the so-called New World, so were Native Americans. Ditto the ancient people living in the Orient. We're talking about entomophagy - eating insects.

Yes, according to Old Testament biblical accounts, John the Baptist wandered in the wilderness and chowed down on locusts and wild honey. I suppose one could argue that John didn't have much in the way of food choices available so he had to make do. Locusts, called grasshoppers here in the U.S., would have been plentiful. These insects were so common and numerous as to constitute one of the biblical plagues inflicted on the Egyptians of the time.

On occasion, Native Americans were also said to have engaged in the eating of insects. It was the massive emergences of periodical cicadas that attracted the gustatory attention of these people. Periodical cicadas, by the way, were misnamed locusts by the European settlers, who were unfamiliar with the insects that are found only in North America.

On the other side of the world, silkworms have been part and parcel of Oriental civilizations for centuries and not just for the silk they produced. Many silkworms ended up between chopsticks as a food item. The pupa of the silkworm is the stage that is eaten. This is because the pupa is formed after the caterpillar has spun the silken cocoon. The cocoons are boiled to collect the silk. After the average of 1,000 yards of silk from each cocoon is harvested, the cooked pupae remain.

Despite the historical precedent for using insects as a food item, the practice is not currently widespread in some parts of the world. Modern people, in general, seem to have an aversion to eating insects. Why is not totally clear. However, most people seem to enjoy eating the insect cousins that live in the sea. I'm referring to shrimp and lobsters. These sea creatures and insects are both arthropods, animals with an exoskeleton, antennae and jointed legs. So we shun eating the land-dwelling arthropods but pay good money to dine upon the arthropods of the sea!

At least we do not, like many other animals such as birds and frogs, intentionally eat insects. Intentionally is the operative term because most people do consume insects on a regular basis. The weak of stomach and insect haters may want to stop reading here. As it turns out, foods of plant origin may include insects or insect parts.

So much so that years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began publishing a document called "The Food Defect Action Levels." This document lists the maximum "levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use that present no health hazard." Here are a couple of examples. Peanut butter: average of 30 or more insect fragments in per 100 grams. Tomato juice: average of 10 or more fly eggs, or 5 or more fly eggs and 1 or more maggots, or 2 or more maggots in 12 subsamples of 100 grams. These are the defect action levels; anything below that is OK to eat.

It is apparent we eat pieces and parts of insects on a regular basis. So why don't we intentionally consume insects? It might be a general disdain for insects, the idea that such food is dirty or just that we have never done so.

As a food item, insects are high in protein and low in fat, and contain fiber and vitamins - nutritious food by any measure. Consequently, some people have promoted insects as a human food source and a way to provide more human food.

Books on this subject date back more than a half century. In 1951 A. S. Bodenheimer wrote the book "Insects as Human Food." In 1971 R. L. Taylor authored "Butterflies in My Stomach," complete with recipes. Two more recent titles are "Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects" by Peter Menzel and "Eat-a-Bug Cookbook" by David George Gordon.

Professor Gene DeFoliart started a food insect website. Insect festivals around the U.S., including Bug Bowl at Purdue University, have incorporated insect-cooking and -eating demonstrations as part of the festivities.

Some people have even suggested that insect cultures might be a way to provide a continuous food source for future space travelers. Just another reason, I'm sure, for astronauts to complain about the food!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox