We love it when edible insects feature on mainstream media. Australia’s public broadcaster ABC TV have produced a series of programs examining the food we eat in Australia and how we can possibly manage the sustainability challenges of population growth and climate change while still maintaining a nutritious, diverse and delicious food supply. By 2050 we will have another 15 million people to feed in Australia. The first program in the series ‘Feeding Australia’ was titled Foods of Tomorrow. Among talk of modular farming without soil, barramundi farming and using avocado stem cells to speed up production, talk soon turned to eating bugs. Insects are a protein source that requires much less water, less food, less land and produce less greenhouse gases than beef. Co-host Dr Noby Leong invited a few of his friends around to try a few insect based dishes. Firstly, they tried bread made with cricket flour (check out our recipe for bread on our Recipes page), but they weren’t told there were crickets in it beforehand. They thought it tasted like rye bread and were very surprised to learn it contained crickets. This reinforces our own experiences of secreting insect ingredients into foods and offering it to our friends and family! We agree with Noby that people don’t mind eating insects if they don’t know about it and underlines the fact there is a ‘yuk factor’ in play in Australia. Next on the menu was mealworm tacos. While the flavour was OK, the fact the mealworms were whole was a visual turn off. Next, was a cricket stir fry with whole roasted crickets on the side. This was quite confronting with one of his guests saying “I can’t crunch the legs, the legs are just dancing in my mouth”. Again, this whole scenario matches up with our experience. We believe that in order for insects to become mainstream in Australia, we need to use them as ingredients in commonly eaten foods. This is happening overseas and will happen here too. And we’re here to help.
ABC TV is tackling the challenge of feeding Australia in the future, including insects
We love seeing edible insects and entomophagy getting prime air time. We’ve been really enjoying a series called ‘Back in time for dinner’ on ABC TV. The show follows a family of five- The Ferrone family – as they experience life over the past 60 years by living an entire decade in a week. Even their home décor changes week-by-week, as do their roles in the family and society, their clothes, their kitchen and of course their food. My favourite aspect of the show is how it views the past through the lens of food. Tripe in the 1950s, the emergence of Chinese food in the 60s, TV dinners and fondue in the 70s, nouveau cuisine in the 80s, kangaroo steaks in the nineties, and beef sliders and kitchen gardens in the 2000s. The final episode addressed what the food of the future might look like, and insects came up as a nutritious and sustainable food source. As they opened up the box from the Edible Bug Shop and realised that these were insects (crickets, mealworms and ants) and they were being asked to eat them, their reactions were comical; the faces they pulled! Admirably, they tasted them but they weren’t that impressed. Dad of the family, Peter, said he liked the mealworms more than the crickets (and I’m inclined to agree). The kids liked the marshmallows but got quite a shock when they found ants inside! Mum, Carole, said the satay flavoured crickets were a bit like chips but she disliked them and couldn’t wait to have a drink to wash the taste away. We weren’t surprised by their reaction, as we’ve introduced insect foods to the public and seen it up close. But its not all bad, many people are pleasantly surprised by the taste of insects and almost always understand the environmental benefits. They are typically surprised that insects are so nutritious.
The Ferrone family with restaurateur Matt Moran from the “future” episode of Back in Time for Dinner (Australia)
Our view is that roasted crickets, mealworms and ants are acceptable to us Westerners (not used to eating them) because of their texture: they are crispy and not gooey. And there are many products that are pleasantly flavoured with herbs, spices and garlic, for example. The insect foods of the future will not be whole but rather used as ingredients in more familiar foods like bread, pasta and biscuits. One of the conclusions made by the ‘future food’ episode is that food of the future will be healthy, delicious and sustainable. Insects as human food tick the healthy and sustainable aspects; the challenge to the insects as food industry to make insects delicious as well.
One of the many continents in the world that have traditionally eaten insects (and still do) is South America. In the mountains of Peru they enjoy long white stringy tayno kuro worms that grow in arawanku plants, cooked in clay pots with corn. Or the bright orange waykjuiro worms that feed on tayanka trees, fried with chillies. On lower ground they wade through streams to harvest chanchu chanchu, which are larvae of fish flies and eaten alive after removing the head. In the forests, fallen trees provide the perfect home for chiro worms, or longhorn beetle larvae that can grow up to 15cm long. Chiro worms are fried whole and taste like sausage. Palm grubs are also gathered by villagers and eaten raw.
Pictured above: Maguey worms (gusanos de maguey) in a Mexico City restaurant
Venezuela is the place to crunch large tarantulas, including the world’s largest Theraphosa leblondi that can be as big as dinner plates. They are prepared by roasting them whole in a fire. These giant arachnids have muscle-like white meat in their legs and abdomen and taste like crab.
In Mexico, they have an annual festival called Jumil Day in which they harvest and eat jumiles, which are a type of stink bug. These are very much an acquired taste (very strong flavour with distillate and medicinal notes), made more palatable ground in a paste with tomatoes and chillies. More pedestrian and better tasting are grasshoppers (chapulines), which are eaten all over the country, typically pan-roasted with lemon, salt and garlic and often served in tortillas. Mexico is the home of tequila made from the agave cactus that is also home to the famous agave worms, both red and white. But the worms you sometimes find on your tequila or mezcal bottle are not agave worms at all but maguey worms, the larvae of giant skipper moths that also feed on maguey cacti used to make mezcal. These are often served with refried beans, cheese, sour cream and guacamole in corn tortillas. Ant larvae and pupae are also on the menu of some restaurants, called escamole.
While insects are an important food source and eaten by necessity in some traditional rural communities, they can also be highly prized and offered to special guests.
Acknowledgements to Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio and their book Man eating bugs- the art and science of eating insects (Material World Books)
As dietitians the most common question we get asked is, why entomophagy? Of all the interests you could have in the field of food and nutrition, why choose insects? Our first response is to say it just makes sense. We are both committed nutrition professionals who want people to be as healthy as they can and enjoy a nutritious diet. We are also scientists and understand the many threats posed by environmental degradation and the contribution we are making to this degradation through what we eat and the way we live. There must be a better way. The food we eat plays a significant role in our total ecological footprint so each of us can do our bit in what we choose to eat. Insects offer a significantly more sustainable protein food source than other animals, especially red meat. We wouldn’t go so far as to say we should stop eating meat, but many people in rich countries could eat less, and insects represent a nutritious alternative. Moreover, insects represent an opportunity to achieve food security for those in poorer countries. Variety is the spice of life, and insects can add to the amazing variety of foods we can choose from.
Some may baulk at chomping on whole insects in all their leggy glory, however we believe the future will look more familiar. Insects will take their place as high protein ingredients in popular food formats, as we’ve seen in other countries in the form of cricket pasta, crackers, crisps and snack bars. We’d like to help the emerging food-as-insects industry by providing nutrition expertise in all aspects including nutrition research, product development, recipe development and nutrition communications. While eating insects is not new or unusual for 2 billion people, it is new in Western countries and we’d like to help spread the word- dare we say create buzz- about what insects can offer in both good nutrition and better environmental sustainability. If that sounds interesting to you, please be in touch.
What do insects taste like?
Asking what do insects taste like is akin to asking what vegetables taste like; there are so many and they’re all different. It really depends on the insect species and life stage. There are thousands of edible insects and even the same insect can taste different at different life stages. You can eat insect eggs, pupae, larvae and adults and their flavour and nutritional composition varies. Ants are probably the most strongly flavoured due to the presence of formic acid – that familiar dead-ant smell you get when you squash them gives a zingy sensation on the tongue. Crickets when dry roasted are more textural than flavoursome, giving a soft crunch and an experience a bit like chewing peanut skins. They also have an earthiness that comes through when cricket powder is used as an ingredient in baked foods. They take on flavours like garlic, herbs and spices easily and flavoured crickets are an intensely savoury sensation with some crunch that is well suited to a snack-in-your-hand, dare I say with a beer! Mealworms have a little more fat and this gives them a more nutty taste and texture. The deep-fried moth pupae we tried in Bangkok (a typical place Westerners have tried insects) was sprayed with vinegar and again offered a very savoury sensation akin to salt and vinegar chips. If you’ve tried others, please let us know what you thought.
A selection of insect dishes (and refreshing beverages)
How do you eat them?
Insects are very versatile and in traditional insect eating cultures they have been enjoyed in casseroles, soups, stir fries, omelettes, salads, pies, cakes, rice dishes, desserts and drinks Roasted flavoured crickets and roasted mealworms are good for snacking just as they are. Cricket powder is a versatile ingredient you can add to smoothies and baking. Ants are great to use in small quantities as a colour and flavour ‘pop’, as many high-end chefs have done. You can also buy tea with ants. Insect products also include snack bars and confectionery. In overseas markets there are loads more ways to enjoy insects such as in pasta, crispbreads and cookies. Top-end restaurant chefs are doing marvellous things with insects on their menus, such as Barangaroo House in Sydney (save up for this dining experience), while Mexican restaurant El-topo also in Sydney offers a more affordable and authentic Mexican starter of crickets with chilli, garlic and lime.
Meal worm quich
Where do you buy them?
Most insects and insect food products are for sale online in Australia (such as The Edible Bug Shop), although they are available in supermarkets in more insect-advanced countries, such as Finland, Spain and The Netherlands. Some retailers are starting to carry cricket protein bars but they’re not yet as easy to find In Australia (this will change). You can buy plain whole frozen crickets or dry roasted plain or flavoured crickets. You can also buy cricket powder that is simply ground roasted crickets. Other approved insects for sale are roasted meal worms and black tyrant ants, and various other products from time to time when retailers have special permission to produce sell other species (scorpions anyone?). As the market grows and develops, the availability of insects will increase, and we can’t wait!