A few years ago, I gave a talk on insect nutrition to the International Society of Sports Nutrition in Las Vegas. Of all the audiences I've ever spoken to, they were the most enthusiastic about edible insects. They all wanted me to alert them the moment an insect protein product of some kind went on the market. Used to a larger degree of skepticism, I remarked on their outpouring of excitement.
"Well," joked one of the attendees dryly, "if you tell a bodybuilder that eating manure will help him put on muscle, he'll go out into a pasture with a fork."
Bodybuilders and extreme athletes tend to be early adopters of nutrition trends. That's why they are precisely the demographic Dianne Guilfoyle, a school nutrition supervisor in Southern California, hopes to capture with BugMuscle, a protein powder made up entirely of ground insects.
"If people see bodybuilders taking it, they might accept it more willingly," says Guilfoyle, whose son, Daniel, is a cage fighter.
There are many benefits to using insects as a base for protein powder. For one, the main existing sources are soybeans and milk whey, both of which cause health concerns for some people.
While insect protein might not be a perfect alternative for those with shellfish allergies, for others it could present an alternative that's healthier for their bodies and the planet than some of the existing options. Previously, whey protein was the only protein powder source to supply a complete amino acid profile: all nine of the essential amino acids required for human nutrition. But guess what else is a great source of these amino acids? That's right, insects.
Whey in its natural liquid form is only about one per cent protein by weight, whereas dried whey is 12 per cent protein. Processed whey protein isolate, marketed as the main ingredient in protein powder, is about 80 per cent protein by weight. In comparison, dried beef is about 50 per cent protein. Dried crickets weigh in at 65 per cent protein. That's in their whole, natural form, without industrial processing, unlike the whey protein isolate. Cricket protein isolate doesn't exist yet, though it has been proposed.
Clearly, we're looking at an interesting possibility here, limited largely by lack of both research and public interest in edible insects.
In addition to being high in protein, many edible insect species are also high in essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3s. Aquatic insects tend to have higher levels of essential fatty acids, though all edible insects contain them to some extent. Many insects, such as crickets, grasshoppers, ants and certain caterpillars, are exceedingly high in calcium. Soldier-fly larvae, used for processing compost, are off the charts in this nutrient.
As you may be aware, the nutrient B12 can only be found in animal sources. Crickets and cockroach nymphs are both impressively good sources for B12. If vegans could accept the idea of eating insects, they could potentially manage their B12 intake just by popping a few crickets a couple times a week.
Part of the reason nutrient levels are so high for certain insects is they are eaten whole, including their exoskeleton and internal organs. Certainly, if more of our livestock were somehow ground up whole and fed to us, we'd get far more nutrition out of them.
Calcium, in particular, may be high because of the fact we ingest the insects' "bones," or exoskeleton. This protective structure is made of chitin, a long-chain polymer of acetylglucosamine. It's the same stuff shrimp, crab and lobster shells are made of, as well as the cell walls of fungi (mushrooms). It is structurally similar to cellulose, which makes up the cell walls of plants, and functionally similar to keratin, which our hair and nails are made of. After cellulose, it is the second most abundant natural biopolymer on the planet and is useful in things such as biodegradable surgical thread, edible films for preserving fruits and vegetables, as a dietary fibre and as a potential absorber of cholesterol.
If you peruse the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's accepted-food-defect-levels website, you'll find pretty much all processed food has a surprising amount of ground-up bugs in it. Processed food, in this case, is anything that comes in a package: bread, cereal, pasta, condiments, candy, and so on.
There are bug parts in peanut butter -- up to 30 insect fragments per 100 grams, in fact. For chocolate, it can be from 60 to 90 fragments per 100 grams. Ground oregano can have 1,250 or more insect fragments per 10 grams.
I like to think of it in terms of a night out at a pizza restaurant. If wheat flour can have 75 fragments per 50 grams, or about a half cup, tomato paste can have 30 fly eggs per 100 grams, or a quarter cup, and hops can average 2,500 aphids per 10 grams, then a meal of pizza and beer could result in... what? A hundred fragments per person? Five bits of bug per bite?
If insects are in all our processed food, that means we've been ingesting them our whole lives since we were babies. Gerber grasshopper and onions, anyone?
In general, insects tend to taste a bit nutty, especially when roasted. This comes from the natural fats they contain, combined with the crunchiness of their mineral-rich exoskeletons. Crickets, for instance, taste like nutty shrimp, whereas most larvae I've tried have a nutty mushroom flavour. My two favourites, wax moth caterpillars (a.k.a. wax worms) and bee larvae, taste like enoki-pine nut and bacon-chanterelle, respectively.
Recently, when I served this grub at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum's Bug Fair Cook Off, one kid on the judging panel said my Alice in Wonderland dish of sautéed wax worms and oyster mushrooms tasted like macaroni and cheese, while the rest agreed that my Bee-LT sandwich tasted like it was made with real bacon.
Arachnids often taste like a light, earthy version of shellfish, crab, and lobster in particular. This makes sense since, from a biological standpoint, bugs and crustaceans are quite closely related.
These examples are fairly tame and recognizable; most people can swallow the idea of nutty mushrooms and earthy shellfish. But there are also flavours in the bug world that can hardly be equated with anything familiar to most westerners. The taste of a giant water bug practically defies description. As one writer enthused after his first time eating them, "There is simply nothing in the annals of our culture to which I can direct your attention that would hint at the nature of [its] flavour."
When fresh, these aggressive beetles have a scent like a crisp green apple. Large enough to yield tiny fillets, they taste like anchovies soaked in banana-rose brine, with the consistency of a light, flaky fish. Their extract is a common ingredient in Thai sauces.
Conservative eaters are likely to prefer to stick to what they know, but if you're anything like me, you'll find this galaxy of mysterious new flavours simply too compelling to resist.
Excerpted from Edible: An Adventure Into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, by Daniella Martin, out now from New Harvest.