Why not eat insects?

This is the title of a tiny book which was first published in England in 1885 and was still in print in facsimile in 1992.  Sheryl has loaned me this 30¢ book sale bargain and asked for some comments. The author, Vincent Holt, presented a case for being much more adventurous in our use of animal-derived foods and offered many precedents for adding “clean-feeding” insects, such as caterpillars, to our diet. He regarded the scavenging-type feeding habits of some of our more normal sources of food  such as lobster, eel and pork, as being much less savoury than those of plant-feeding insects.  He did, however, caution against using insects that feed on poisonous plants.  There is also the consideration that some insects may contain or carry pathogenic organisms which may be harmful or allergenic to humans, or insecticide residues, depending on the circumstances of collection.

Insects that Holt listed as being part of normal diets in non-British societies included locusts/grasshoppers, palm weevils, meal worms, crickets, chafer beetles, toasted moths, the chrysalides of Chinese silkworms, and the larvae of longicorn beetles.  He also mentioned the former use in British folk-medicine of such insects as ladybirds (for colic and measles) woodlice (aperient) and cockchafers (for the plague).  Other insects that had been used elsewhere as food included scale insects, dragonflies, termites, cicadas and caterpillars of butterflies.

A more up-to-date and fact-filled review of some nutritional and economic aspects of “Insects as Human Food” by Gene de Foliart was published in Crop Protection (1992), Vol.11 pp.395-399, and can be downloaded from the internet at:

http://www.food-insects.com/Insects%20as%20Human%20Food.htm

Some general points about choosing insects as foods:

  • There are somewhere between a million and ten million species of insect in the world, with a high but unknown proportion of them still to be recognised, described and named.  Perhaps 1500 species have been recognised as edible and these are mostly used in tropical countries where insect diversity is very high and the availability of nutritious foods is sometimes limited.
  • It is useful to check which insects were used as food (but not medicine) by local aboriginal people and how they prepared them, eg. bogong moths and their larvae. An informative article on this subject by Cherry can be found at http://www.insects.org/ced1/aust_abor.html
  • Cooking is recommended for most insects being used in modern cuisine as novel foods or garnishes, e.g. fried grasshoppers and fried bee pupae. 

Many common foods, such as flours, cereals, fresh and frozen vegetables, and fresh and dried fruits, can contain a few small insects or larvae (dead or alive) insect parts and/or droppings, which we normally consume without noticing. Fruit fly larvae, perhaps?The nutritive and caloric value of some edible insects can be similar to that of plant or animal-derived foods, but of course varies depending on the species and the part consumed – e.g. whether the chitinous exterior is removed. Insects such as termites and caterpillars, locusts and ants which have been eaten in quantity in some traditional cultures can provide extra nutrients such as proteins and fats to what is sometimes a rather limited range of foods.

 

Authored by: 
Elwyn Hegerty