An Introduction to Entomophagy - Eating InsectsEdible insects prepared by a Mexican chef. ©fitopardo.com / Getty Images
Insects are an important food source in many parts of the world and are gaining popularity and acceptance in countries that traditionally shunned them. Why eat them? Insects are abundant and nutritious. They are high in protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. How they taste and their nutritional composition depends on what they are fed, the species, the stage of development, and how they are prepared. So, an insect that might taste like chicken in one situation could taste more like fish or fruit under different circumstances. If you've eaten an insect before and didn't like it, consider giving them another try. If you've never eaten them, here is is a list of good ones to try.
Key Takeaways: Edible Insects
- Eating insects is called entomophagy.
- Insects are high in protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins. They are normally cooked before eating them to kill potential parasites.
- Edible insects include grasshoppers and crickets in the order Orthoptera.
- Only a few moths, butterflies, and caterpillars (order Lepidoptera) are edible. These include the maguey worm, silk worm, mopane worm, and bamboo worm.
- Other edible insects include ants, bees, mealworms, and palm grubs.
- Brightly-colored or strong-smelling insects and other arthropods are the ones most likely to be toxic.
Grasshoppers and CricketsGrasshoppers and crickets are nutritious and readily available. Patrick Aventurier / Getty Images
There are about 2000 edible species of insects, but grasshoppers and crickets are among the ones most commonly eaten. They may be eaten fried, roasted, boiled, or sauteed. In some countries, they are raised to be ground up to make edible protein powder. Grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, and locusts belong to the order Orthoptera.
Mopane CaterpillarMopane worm (Gonimbrasia belina) eating leaves of mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane), Mapungubwe National Park, Limpopo Province, South Africa. Andy Nixon / Getty Images
Pretty much any species of cricket or grasshopper is edible, but the same cannot be said of caterpillars. Caterpillars are the larvae of moths and butterflies (order Lepidoptera). Like their adult forms, some caterpillars are toxic. The mopane worm (actually a caterpillar) is one of the edible species. It has an especially high iron content of 31-77 mg/100 g (compared with 6 mg/100 g dry weight for beef). The caterpillar is an important food source in Africa that's becoming increasingly popular elsewhere.
The maguey worm is another moth larva that's edible (commonly found in agave liquor), as is the bamboo worm (larval form of the grass moth) and silk worm.
Palm GrubsPalm tree weevil larvae. Rick Rudnicki / Getty Images
The palm grub or sago grub is the larval form of the palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus). This tasty treat is especially popular fried in its own fat. The grubs are especially popular in Central America, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The cooked grubs are said to taste somewhat like sweetened bacon, while the raw ones are prized for their creamy texture. Sago grubs are tropical creatures, native to southeast Asia. While originally found wild on palm trees, indoor cultivation is underway in Thailand.
MealwormsMealworms are readily available as food for human consumption. Patrick Aventurier / Getty Images
Western countries already feed mealworms to birds and other pets, plus they are gaining acceptance as a human food source. Mealworms are easy to grow in temperate climates, as opposed to many edible insects that prefer the tropics. When raised as a food source, the larvae are fed a diet of oats, grain, or wheat bran, with apple, potato, or carrots for moisture. Their nutritional profile is similar to that of beef. For human consumption, mealworms may be ground into powder or served roasted, fried, or sauteed. Their flavor is more like that of shrimp than beef, which makes sense because mealworms are the larval form of the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor. Like shrimp, beetles are arthropods. Other types of beetle larvae (order Coleoptera) are edible, too.
AntsChicatana ants are known to make an excellent salsa, but are challenging to catch because they are aggressive and sting. ©fitopardo.com / Getty Images
Several species of ants (order Hymenoptera) are highly prized delicacies. The lemon ant of the Amazon jungle is said to have a lemony flavor. Leafcutter ants are usually roasted and said to taste like bacon or pistachio nuts. Honeypot ants are eaten raw and taste sweet. In Western society, the most common edible ant is probably the carpenter ant.
Adult ants, their larvae, and their eggs may be eaten. Ant eggs are considered a special form of insect caviar and command a high price. The insects may be eaten raw (even alive), roasted, or mashed and added to drinks.
Wasps and bees belong to the same insect order and are also edible.
Other Edible Insects and ArthopodsYes, even spiders are edible. Design Pics / Ron Nickel / Getty Images
Other edible insects include dragonflies, cicadas, bee larvae, cockroaches, and fly pupae and maggots.
Earthworms are annelids, not insects. These edible worms are high in iron and protein. Centipedes are also not insects, but people eat them.
Although they aren't actually insects, people tend to group scorpions and spiders into the same category. Like insects, these arachnids are arthropods. This means they are related to crustaceans, like crab and shrimp. Spiders and scorpions taste somewhat like earthy shellfish. Lice are also edible (although eating them in front of others might earn you some strange looks).
Bugs, while not insects, are also arthropods and are edible. Species you can eat include pill bugs (isopods), water bugs (said to taste like fruit), stink bugs, June bugs, and even dung beetles!
Getting Started With Entomoaphagy
If you decide to taste these creatures, make sure you eat insects meant for human consumption. Wild-caught insects could be contaminated with pesticides or parasites, plus there's no way of knowing what they ate for food. Edible insects are sold at stores, online, and at some restaurants. You can raise some edible insects yourself, such as mealworms.