Insect entrees not taking flight on North American menus

Sure they're protein and popular in much of the world, but eating insects as part of the regular diet is not something that North Americans have embraced with culinary gusto, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

The idea of eating creepy-crawly critters makes many Canadian diners bug out

Meal worms are sorted before being cooked Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, in San Francisco. A growing number of "entopreneurs" are trying to persuade consumers that insects are the next super food, a nutritious, low-cost, environmentally friendly source of protein that can help feed a hungry world. But they face a tough job convincing Westerners that crickets, meal worms and caterpillars can be tasty treats. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Call it "consuming insects" or "entomophagy," both come down to eating insects — something that just isn't on the menu here in North America. But that may need to change as the cost of animal protein continues to rise and food and feed insecurity becomes more problematic.

But our insect-aversion isn't the norm in most of the world. From Mexico to Asia, two billion people eat a regular diet of insects says Yde Jongema, an entomologist with Wageningen University.

According to his 2015 article in Popular Science, the majority of those insects consumed are beetles: a smorgasbord of crickets, grasshoppers, wasps, ants and locusts.

One of the greatest concentrations of bug-eaters, nearest to Canadians, is in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, where people have consumed "chapulines" (grasshoppers) for centuries.

The little morsels were a dietary staple long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the scene. Today, Oaxacans toast them with oil, garlic, lemon and salt.

But these aren't everyday grasshoppers you might see leaping around in a sandy lot or by the roadside. The Oaxacan chapulines are "semi-domesticated," collected from managed fields of crops like maize and alfalfa.

They are harvested in the cool early morning, caught in nets while the critters are drowsily sunning themselves. It's said that chapulines that have eaten alfalfa are quite sweet, while maize-grazing chapulines are a touch bitter.

An environmentally-friendly feast

Edible bug producers and world organizations alike claim that eating insects would help reduce the impact we have on the environment.

The process is less intensive, uses less land and water than other protein sources and has huge potential for supplying the world with much-needed protein.

This table compares crickets, poultry, pork and beef as efficient protein sources in the Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in from 2013. (Contributed by: FAO/United Nations)

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ground beef can get you 26 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat, while a little cricket provides 21 grams of protein per 100 grams of cricket.

But the insect industry's biggest obstacle is definitely the fear factor. 

"Feelings of disgust in the West towards entomophagy contributes to the common misconception that entomophagy in the developing world is prompted by starvation and is merely a survival mechanism," wrote the FAO in 2013.

"Arthropods like lobsters and shrimps, once considered poor-man's food in the West, are now expensive delicacies there. It is hoped that arguments such as the high nutritional value of insects and their low environmental impact, low-risk nature (from a disease standpoint) and palatability may also contribute to a shift in perception."

Change may already be on its way. Entomo Farms near Peterborough, Ont., are now producing large numbers of crickets for human consumption — in the order of 100,000 tonnes per year. That's a lot of crunch.

Get your cricket fix in Waterloo Region

In Waterloo Region and southern Ontario, the candy shop chain Sugar Mountain stocks a few bug treats with popular snack flavours like mesquite or honey-garlic. 

And now in its 16th year, the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory is holding its annual "BugFeast" during March Break: March 12-20. 

On the menu are delicacies like "Crunchy Cricket Tacos" and an open-faced grilled cheese with mealworms called the "Ento-Melt." You can wash all of that down with a blended tropical fruit beverage that's made with insect protein power (which, in my opinion, sounds like the best way to get your daily cricket intake). 

Finish all that off and you'll probably never have felt better in your life. 

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.

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