Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Eat Like an Aardvark: How Entomophagy Just Might Save the World

The world we live in is becoming an increasingly crowded place. As of this article, there are about 7 billion people living their lives; and by 2050 the number is expected to be as high as 9 billion. On one hand, that means that there will be more opportunities for making new friends, but on the other, it means that those of us who are already here are going to have to get better at sharing.

Most of us already know about the inequality that exists on Earth to some extent. This is especially apparent in the disparity of food available to the average westerner compared with the average villager in Sierra Leone. We are going to have to rapidly get better at solving problems like that one because we have 2 billion people coming for dinner and the cupboards are starting to look bare.

Fortunately, there is an untapped nutritional resource on our planet that is basically all around us. As many as 2 billion people outside of the western world already chow down on this delectable food source intentionally, and the rest of us indulge in this fantastical food without even knowing it. I am of course talking about the 6-legged creatures that make up 80% of all the animals on Earth: Insects.

If you don’t think you already eat insects, you are just in the segment of people who doesn’t know any better. Food guidelines in the United States - one of the most food obsessed places on the planet - make allowances for munching on bugs (scientifically known as entomophagy). Chocolate is allowed to contain 60 insect “parts” per 100 grams, peanut butter is allowed 30 in the same serving size, and pasta noodles can hold a surprising punch of extra protein with 1 insect part per gram of food. That’s basically one bug part per macaroni noodle. Trust me, you eat bugs.

So why should we bother to make the leap from accidental indulgence to purposeful insectivorous ingestions?  Well, it turns out that producing bugs for people to eat may be one of the simplest and most efficient ways to tackle the upcoming food crisis. Say you want to raise yourself some meat. You have 100 pounds (45 kg) of grain to feed to your animal of choice, in order to make it grow big and strong. If you give your grain to a cow, you will get (at most) 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of beef. That may be one heck of a steak, but consider the fact that the same allotment could get you more than 40 pounds (18 kg) of crickets!

On top of the added output per unit of input, insects require less water to live, less fuel to transport, and are better for your health than conventional meat. A 100 gram serving of your newly raised crickets would provide your body with 13 grams of protein,  75.8 milligrams of iron, and only 5 grams of carbs! If you chose to raise caterpillars instead, you would get an almost inconceivable 28 grams of protein per 100 gram serving, not to mention loads of vitamins B1 and B3. For comparison, 100 grams of steak provides you with 26.9 grams of protein.

The problem with eating insects is all in our heads. We are programmed by evolution to be grossed out my anything we weren’t fed by our mothers. Fortunately, we may be able to overcome what our parents and countless episodes of Fear Factor have taught us about eating bugs. Professor of Hygiene and Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Valerie Curtus, points to the example of lobster as a lesson in making the unpalatable, palatable.

In the late 1800’s lobster was not seen as food by the average westerner. Lobsters were so abundant and unusual that they were considered a poor man’s meal. 100 years a little reverse psychology later, and lobster is the most expensive dish on many restaurant menus. All we need are a few more chefs like London’s Shami Radia, whose restaurant “Grub” has experimented with dishing out gourmet insect meals for over $60 a plate to rave reviews.

There are certainly obstacles to overcome on the road in making insects a main course, but they are nothing new in the history of human diets. All it will take is the need to push things along, the right recipes, and a bunch of snobby foodies telling us we can’t afford it, before you find meal worms next to the chicken breasts at your local grocery store.