Environment

Do you want fried ants with that?

Our sense of disgust of eating insects is largely cultural, and there could be benefits to overcoming our ick

February 22, 2019
Crunchy crickets for breakfast? [Credit: Daniel Anema | personal photo]

My friend and I descend into the dark interior of The Black Ant with a twinge of nervousness and excitement. It’s very early for dinner, just 4 p.m., and we are the only customers in this small restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, but that’s not why I’m a little jumpy. It’s because I’m there to eat bugs.

Instead of conventional Mexican fare, I’m going to try guacamole seasoned with ants and a plate of fried crickets. The task is small but not trivial: I grew up in Russia and always found caviar and kotleti to be more agreeable than anything that walked on six legs. To ease me into this new experience, the waiter brings out a margarita. Rather than salt, though, the rim of the glass is covered with ants. Na zdorovje!  

Insect eating, or entomophagy, is a common practice for over 2 billion Latin Americans, West Africans and Southeast Asians. While there is growing interest in the United States and Europe, for most Westerners merely imagining eating insects is still enough to elicit a strong feeling of disgust — an emotion that is both evolutionarily important and also deeply cultural.

Most evolutionary biologists think disgust evolved as a precautionary mechanism to discourage eating rotten or poisonous foods.

But disgust is also culturally learned, says Samuel West, a clinical psychologist and one of the creators of the Disgusting Food Museum. Young kids, for example, pay no attention to what they put into their mouths until they are taught what to avoid. With time, these cultural boundaries become strongly embedded in our consciousness, influencing our perception of disgust.

The cultural aspect of disgust is well-demonstrated at the Disgusting Food Museum, which opened in Sweden in October 2018.

The museum exhibits 80 foods from all over the world judged to be disgusting by museum curators. Many Americans would be surprised to find out that root beer made the cut.

“We like the food that we grew up with, but not the food that we’re not familiar with,” says West. “We can also put a layer of moral disgust on things. A good example is foie gras. I think it’s absolutely delicious but I can’t eat it because I know how it’s produced.” Considered by many to be a delicacy, foie gras is made out of fatty duck liver, which is grown by force feeding the animal.

It is not clear why Westerners grow up disgusted by insects — after all, they do make an appearance in the Bible, the most read book in the world. In Leviticus 11:22 the rules for eating insects are stated clearly:

“These are the insects you may eat: all kinds of locusts, winged locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers. But all other insects that have wings and walk on four feet you are to hate.”

Nowadays however, nationalities that do not practice entomophagy tend to see it not as a religiously prescribed diet but as a sign of poverty.

“The problem, in my view, is that there is psychological resistance — there is resistance to eating almost all animals,” says Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies food perceptions. “There is nothing that special about eating insects because Americans are disgusted with many animal products in general, and they usually eat only the muscle.”

Part of such unwavering resistance is a categorization problem. Most Westerners lump all insects together under the category of “bugs,” which are associated with unhygienic conditions, rot and decay. These associations remind us of our own mortality, which the human mind tries to suppress, explains Heather Looy, a psychologist at The King’s University in Canada, who researches attitudes toward insects as food.

Even so, insects are a good source of protein and vitamins: 100 grams of crickets contain 13 grams of protein and more iron than an equivalent serving of milk or spinach.

The extraordinary nutritional density of insects could even prove to be an effective solution for feeding a rapidly growing global population. There are 1.6 billion malnourished people in the world, and the number is expected to rise as the world population inches closer to 9 billion by 2050.

Developing countries, in particular, could benefit greatly from introducing insects into their diets. India, with a population of 1.3 billion, will soon have to grapple with insufficient land and water resources. But even though the country is home to 298 species of edible insects, there is neither a lot of push, nor the desired health procedures in place to increase entomophagy, according to a 2018 review.

“In principle, it is environmentally better to rear insects than to rear cattle and common livestock animals,” says Arnold Van Huis, an entomologist at the Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and a pioneer in studying insects as food. “Rearing insects requires less land and water resources, and it also causes less greenhouse gas formation.”

Growing a kilogram of crickets would produce 2 grams of greenhouse gases — just 0.07 percent of the amount of gases produced from rearing the same amount of cow meat. It would also require just 7 percent of the land and 22 percent of the water resources.  

In his pursuit of making insects more widely accepted, Van Huis co-authored “The Insect Cookbook,” featuring recipes and interviews with chefs.

“The first talk I gave in the Netherlands 20 years ago, nobody knew about insects, and everyone thought I was crazy,” he says. “Now I am invited all over the world to give talks about edible insects and when people see the benefits they become hugely enthusiastic.”

And nature holds even more surprising and sustainable species than just crickets. Take, for instance, the black soldier fly. Its larvae can eat almost any kind of organic matter and turn it into more larvae, says Matan Shelomi, an entomologist at National Taiwan University. “In parts of the world they already use black soldier fly to digest natural waste because they are so good at waste elimination. They are going to be the most sustainable food source until we get algae and in vitro meat!”

Even though edible insects are becoming more widely known and eaten, Shelomi knows there’s a long way to go.

So, aside from educating people on the environmental benefits of eating insects, entrepreneurs have also tried disguising them. Companies like Ento Vida, Bitty Foods and EXO make cricket powder and cricket protein bars. In both products, insects are processed and unrecognizable. But at $49 per pound of cricket powder, they are also not very accessible.

The problem is that there is not enough automatization that would allow insects to be mass-produced, Rozin says.

Aaron  T. Dossey, founder of All Things Bugs, a cricket powder company, agrees.  “It’s too expensive because all the farms are small and doing everything manually. Crickets are housed in cardboard boxes and somebody has to manually shake the crickets off the piece of cardboard. You can imagine that a human shaking 10, 20 or 100 crickets off of cardboard is not a labor-efficient process if you need thousands of them.”

While businesses are figuring out ways to scale up their operations, some have already tried a more personal approach.

Daniel Anema was first introduced to entomophagy during a workshop he attended as a student at The King’s University six years ago. But it was only several years later that he began thinking about sustainability and turned his attention to crickets. He reared the first generation at home in a heated plastic tub filled with dirt where the crickets could lay eggs.

Raising crickets “is not time intensive and it was pleasant at first,” he says, “but inevitably, one escaped, so my wife said that they had to go outside.”

Anema set up a small exchange with his kid’s daycare teacher: She would give Anema school leftovers for his crickets to eat (they are omnivores) and in return she would get crickets for her dog to eat. Soon, Anema was cooking for himself, too. He would grind the crickets into flour or throw them in a frying pan with some butter and garlic. He even served it at a brunch once — to a mixed reception.

You don’t need to go far to make crickets — your oven will do. [Credit: Daniel Anema | personal photo]

Back at The Black Ant in Manhattan, I’m thinking about pioneers like Anema as Chef Mario Hernandez leads me into the kitchen. His restaurant is one of several to serve insects in New York City, and he says that most customers walk in already knowing they want to try something new.

I watch as his hands move with supernatural speed and precision. Within a few seconds, he has fired up a pan and tossed some crickets in it. He tells me that his team travels back to Mexico every few months to harvest more crickets. Soon, a plate of them finished with avocado and sauce is ready for sampling.

Perhaps I did not have time to feel disgusted, or maybe I was just lulled by Chef Mario’s fast moves, but I took a bite without hesitation. The crickets were crunchy and spicy, weirdly familiar — and not the least bit disgusting. Next time I’ll bring my babushka.

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About the Author

Polina is a New York based nerd, interested in nutrition, consciousness, and fashion. Originally from Russia and Latvia, she moved to the US to get a degree in neuroscience from Columbia and live out her Carrie Bradshaw fantasy (which turned out to be just that, a fantasy).

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