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The Plate

Bug Off: Why Insect Eating Is More Gimmick Than Reality

Bugs are the hottest new trend in food!

Sound familiar? It should. Almost two years ago, in the wake of a FAO report on edible insects, National Geographic, along with everyone else, was writing about how bugs could save us all. Even before that, in 2010, Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke gave a famous TED Talk and co-wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal advocating for entomophagy (a fancy word for bug eating).

Look around.  Is everyone eating fried mealworms?

I didn’t think so.

I’m a bit conflicted about insect consumption. I will freely admit to being a little squeamish about anything worm-shaped and wriggly. But crickets? Specifically the enormous, invasive camel crickets that terrorized me as a child (and, to be honest, still terrify me now)? Grind every last one of them into flour, and I will put it in everything, just out of spite. Besides, we’re already consuming trace amounts of insects in most of the things we eat: cinnamon sticks can legally be up to 5 percent insects. The average American eats a pound or two of bugs every year, hidden away in other food.

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A hawker sells scorpions, starfish, sea horses and silkworm cocoons for adventurous customers at a market stall in Beijing. Photograph by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

To be clear, entomophagy is common in 99 countries around the globe. Let’s face it, many people around the world eat more adventurously than we do (See Photo Gallery: Street Foods).

In the United States, you find it wherever you find immigrants from entomophagous countries. For example, 96 percent of Oaxacan migrants to the U.S. settle in Southern California, so it makes sense that there are enough places in L.A. serving chapulines, a kind of grasshopper long prized as a summer delicacy in Oaxaca, to generate “best of” lists.

In D.C., Spanish chef José Andrés (whom you might recognize from this blog) serves grasshoppers year-round at his Mexican restaurant, Oyamel. Although—word to the wise—the legs do get stuck in your teeth. You can find katydids in Waltham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston known as “Little Kampala” for its large Ugandan community.

Still, in most Western places, insect eating remains more of a gimmick than a way of life, largely because of cultural attitudes toward insects. In the northern reaches of Europe, from whence the colonizers sprang, large game was readily available, and bugs didn’t get very big. Why bother with beetles when you can hunt bear?

There are a few reasons why that’s an unsustainable attitude.

Since food associations are deeply ingrained—both in individuals and in society as a whole—in parts of the world where meat is not only widely available but also dirt cheap, eating bugs is a last resort, something for those seen as too poor to access more “acceptable” foods.

So instead of offering roasted crickets at concession stands, the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans offers samples of bug dishes at a café named Bug Appétit. Grub Kitchen, a new restaurant opening this summer in Pembrokeshire, Wales, bills itself as the U.K.’s first insect restaurant, but will also serve noninsect dishes.  Hotlix, located in Pismo Beach, California, specializes in scorpions and worms inside lollipops.

Disgust plays a big role in making entomophagy more “bizarre foods” than breakfast. While disgust is a universal emotion, we learn, based on social cues, what to find disgusting. That’s why rotting shark meat might strike me as gross, but rotting milk, in the form of smelly, runny cheeses, does not. Insects provide a lot of these cues—we can associate them with death (maggots), decay (centipedes), or disease (flies and cockroaches); they can resemble other disgusting things (like feces or mucus); and several of them even have the ability to physically invade our bodies (think ticks or mosquitoes).

You probably felt a little icky reading that, right?

That hasn’t stopped a few dedicated souls from trying to take bugs mainstream. Edinburgh Napier University student Courtney Yule created the Entopod for her school’s product design degree show. The insect shaped plastic pod contains a grinder for making flour, containers to heat food, and utensils that double as skewers for insect fondue.  I asked Yule why the Entopod is so comprehensive: “Consumer acceptance is the main problem [with entomophagy],” she said, “I wanted to create a starter kit that would give you the basic skills and understanding.” Mealworm macaroni and cheese is one of her favorite bug-based dishes, with insect pesto running a close second.

Lucy Knops and Julia Plevin, then students at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, created Critter Bitters, a line of insect-infused bitters in 2013. Its goal: to “normalize entomophagy through alcohol” (sign me up!). Other projects include Chapul, a cricket protein bar, Chirps cricket chips, and Next Millennium Farms’ cricket flour.

And then there’s the granddaddy of the movement, David George Gordon, who wrote the first version of his Eat-A-Bug Cookbook back in 1998.

Given the uproar over cochineal dye, a red food dye made from tiny scale bugs, the Western world is still a long way from entomophagy. (It’s worth noting that the original users of carmine were several Mesoamerican tribes, including those in what is now Oaxaca.)

With the growing population and the extreme environmental demands of commercial meat production, the questions increasingly looks to be “when” we’re going to eat bugs, rather than “if” we are. (Here are Three Recipes That Could Help End World Hunger.)

Maybe bugs just need some rebranding. After all, crab, shrimp, and lobster are arthropods too. Land shrimp, anyone?

Nicole Washington works in the maps, art, and graphics department at National Geographic. She has strong feelings about barbecue (Lexington style) and cupcakes (cake is better). You can find her on Twitter.