Crazy as it sounds, you may soon be popping back bugs with your craft beer. The Mandarin Oriental, a luxury hotel in Tokyo, now serves insect snacks at the bar: grasshoppers and larvae simmered in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, and sugar.
The menu item is actually not so unusual in Japan – in Nagano, grasshoppers and stonefly larvae are considered delicacies. Even star chef Rene Redzepi of Noma forages for wood ants to add to steak tartare.
Research shows that more than 3,000 ethnic groups around the world eat insects regularly. During anthropological fieldwork in the Yucatan region of Mexico, Daniella Martin learned that the Mayans traditionally ate insects in order to add protein to their diets. Now her site Girl Meets Bug promotes both the environmental and culinary benefits of eating bugs.
No less an authority than the United Nations promotes insect consumption as a way to reduce global hunger and pollution. Insects contain healthy fatty acids like linoleic acid and omega 3 fatty acids and are easily grown in all kinds of climates. They are complete protein sources, meaning they have all the amino acids humans need to get from their diet. Some species like crickets have more protein per 100 grams of dry weight than cod or beef.
Bugs are also an environmentally sustainable source of animal protein, unlike most of the other sources we tend to eat. Seventy percent of the agricultural land on this planet is used to raise livestock. And aside from the sheer amount of space required, factory farming of mammals and birds carries a variety of negative environmental consequences, including methane emissions, high water consumption, and pollution.
Insects are far more ecologically efficient to produce, in terms of the space and food they require and the waste they output. There is an incredible diversity of insect species to choose from — the United Nations says that the number is at least 1,000. And their life cycle is short and prolific. Finally, the likelihood of a pathogen jumping from insects to humans is quite low, thanks to the biological gap between us. In a world with mad cow and H1N1, that’s not insignificant.
All of this sounds a bit intense, for sure. Yes, other cultures eat bugs and have for years, but we have the option not to, for now anyway. But as countries become richer, they consume more animal protein, and wealth is growing quickly in populous nations like India and China. Meanwhile, we’re already eating more than our fair share of meat here in North America: the average American consumes 12 ounces of protein a day from meat, well above the recommendation of five to seven ounces from all sources. Right now it’s a trend, but insects on your plate might be closer to reality than you expect.