WATCH ABOVE: Eating insects – From fringe fad to the future of food
TORONTO – Tempura-battered Tarantula. Cricket shish kebabs. Chocolate-covered ants. If they weren’t on the menu the last time you ate out, that may soon change as companies and chefs incorporate edible creepy-crawlies as key ingredients in the North American diet.
Entomophagy – eating insects – is nothing new. People in 80 per cent of the world’s countries munch 1,900 different kinds of bugs, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Grasshoppers are often found in Niger markets; bees and ants are consumed across China and Japan.
The importance of insects as a food source was highlighted in a 2013 UN report that warned food production will need to rise 70 per cent by 2050 as the world’s population grows from six to nine billion people.
“To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food,” the report said.
To meet that huge food need, some argue, it’s time to think small. Really, really small.
An environmentally friendly ingredient
American Chef David George Gordon, known as “The Bug Chef,” has advocated insects as an eco-friendly protein source for almost 20 years.
The author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, Gordon has travelled the world talking about everything from waxworm cookies to deep-fried Tarantulas.
But, Gordon knows the ick factor can be a bit much for some people. So he begins his cooking demonstrations with something simple, like a battered mealworm, before working up to scorpions or spiders.
Another challenge when cooking insects is their availability. While crickets and mealworms are native to North America, some species such as exotic spiders are harder to find.
“One of the biggest challenge is finding a variety of insects and their kin, spiders and scorpions, in sufficiently large quantities to do a cooking demonstration,” said Gordon, who can find crickets and mealworms from domestic growers but has special order other bugs, like centipedes.
And while North Americans may be squeamish when it comes to the thought of eating a cockroach, it’s not so uncommon elsewhere. As the FAO report noted, nearly two billion people around the world, particularly in parts of Central Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, have been regularly eating insects for years.
However, Gordon says not all insects taste delicious. While battered Tarantula may taste like soft-shell crab, the Scolopendra gigantea or giant centipede, has a less than appealing taste and looks like something from a “nightmare.”
“You can buy these giant centipedes 10-12 inches long, from Vietnam or South America. When they are alive their scurrying patterns are frightening,” said Gordon.
Gordon argues eating insects is easier on the environment than raising livestock such as chickens or cattle.
“It takes thousands of gallons of water to get a pound of steak. Some insects don’t even need water: They get water from breaking down carbohydrates,” he said.
According to the Water Footprint Network it can take as much as 15,400 litres of water to produce a kilogram of beef, which has a much larger footprint pigs (6,000 litre/kg) or chicken (4,300 litre/kg).
Insect farms also take up far less arable land.
And according to the FAO, crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep and half as much feed as pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein.
Julie Lesnik, an assistant professor of Anthropology Wayne State University in Detroit, said that one of the reasons you don’t find insects on the menu in Canada or the U.S. lies in the continent’s early ancestors.
“When the peopling of the Americas started happening it was tens of thousands of years ago,” she said. “The entire northern part of our continent was covered in ice, and if you think about finding a food resource at this time insects are not going to be available.”
“If you go south, they may have come across these insects. And that’s why we see in Mexico and through Central and South America we see insect consumption that we don’t see in the U.S. or Canada.”
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Lesnik said that with each insect comes a different nutritional profile, with the greatest benefit coming from the amino acids found in bugs like crickets. However, if you’re thinking about foraging for ants or worms in the backyard Lesnik said to avoid this as wild insects can have highly concentrated levels of pesticides or other toxins.
‘Fly farms’ provide sustainable livestock feed
Vancouver-based Enterra Feed uses larvae from the black soldier fly that feast on recycled food before being harvested and processed into high-protein feed for poultry and aqua farming.
Andrew Vickerson, chief technology officer with Enterra, told Global News the idea for the product came while Brad Marchant, CEO and founder of Enterra Feed, and environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki were bemoaning the lack of sustainable food for farmed fish while on a fishing trip.
“So they got talking about alternative sources for ingredients. And as they were fly fishing at the time they said ‘why not try insects?’”
Vickerson said feeding livestock insect larvae is more environmentally efficient than soybean meal, which is another commonly used feed material.
“We source pre-consumer food waste, food that goes bad between the farm and the market. Or is a by product of a food manufacturing process,” said Vickerson, which can include, fruits, vegetables or breads.
Fly farms have also popped up in other countries around the world including South Africa where the European firm AgriProtein is building a farm consisting of 8.5 billion of flies that will produce tons of protein-rich larvae.
Vickerson said the farms using insects are much more efficient and use less resources than soy bean production which is a main feed used for livestock.
Below is a recipe for deep-fried Tarantula spider from Chef Gordon’s Eat-a-Bug cookbook:
Yield: 4 servings
2 cups canola or vegetable oil
2 frozen adult Texas brown, Chilean rose, or similar-sized tarantulas, thawed
1 cup tempura batter (page 84)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- In a deep saucepan or deep-fat fryer, heat the oil to 350°F.
- With a sharp knife, sever and discard the abdomens from the two tarantulas. Singe off any of the spider’s body hairs with a crème brûlée torch or butane cigarette lighter.
- Dip each spider into the tempura batter to thoroughly coat. Use a slotted spoon or your hands to make sure each spider is spread-eagled (so to speak) and not clumped together before dropping it into the hot oil.
- Deep-fry the spiders, one at a time, until the batter is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Remove each spider from the oil and place it on paper towels to drain.
- Use a sharp knife to cut each spider in two lengthwise. Sprinkle with the paprika and serve. Encourage your guests to try the legs first and, if still hungry, to nibble on the meat-filled mesothorax, avoiding the spider’s paired fangs, which are tucked away in the head region.
1 medium egg
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- To make the batter, beat the egg in a small mixing bowl until smooth. Slowly add the cold water, continuing to beat until evenly mixed. Add the flour and baking soda and beat gently until combined; the batter should be a bit lumpy.
- Let the batter sit at room temperature while heating the oil.