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Incredible, Edible Bugs: Will Meals of Mealworms Catch on in U.S.?

May 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Most Americans would squirm when even thinking of eating a grasshopper or locust. But a movement is afoot to encourage insect eating with advocates praising bugs' low fat and high protein. Spencer Michels tasted wax moth larvae tacos and crispy mealworms over ice cream to prepare this report on efforts to put bugs on U.S. menus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, just in time for dinner, something new on the menu. It’s a source of food that’s readily available and sustainable: insects.

The very thought might make you squeamish, but NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has tried them, and produced this story, together with the Quest science program at KQED-San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: When you pick a restaurant for a special occasion, the last thing you anticipate is bugs.

But here at trendy Mosto in San Francisco’s hip Mission District, that’s just what’s on the menu tonight. Monica Martinez, an artist and a cook, has pioneered the gourmet preparation of mealworms and crickets and the occasional grasshopper, which she prepares in the restaurant’s kitchen and serves up to an upscale clientele.

MONICA MARTINEZ, Insect Chef: A lot of people have run away. Some other people, I think they have been waiting for it. And they — they don’t even ask questions. They are just like ready to eat.

SPENCER MICHELS: On her menu are wax moth larvae tacos and salted crickets tostadita.

Why didn’t you want to have one at first?

WOMAN: It’s the idea. It’s just kind of gross.

SPENCER MICHELS: But you finally succumbed, huh?

WOMAN: Peer pressure.


WOMAN: Not bad.


WOMAN: Not much substance. it doesn’t really taste like anything unique.

MAN: Not too much flavor in these, but they were fun to try. I think Americans are still not quite ready for it, but it’s mind over matter. So, once you start getting used to it, it’s not that bad.

SPENCER MICHELS: Martinez may be a little early, but she is certainly on to something; 80 percent of the world’s population eats insects on a regular basis, though, in the United States and most of the developed world, they are not quite there yet.

Martinez premiered her creations from a food truck at San Francisco’s Street Food Festival, trying to turn a fad into a habit, the eating of the most abundant animals on Earth.

And that’s also the goal of Brian Fisher of the California Academy of Sciences.

BRIAN FISHER, entomologist, California Academy of Sciences: I’m not only an entomologist. I’m an entomophagist. What is that? That’s somebody who eats insects. In fact, I want everybody to eat insects. In fact, I want McDonald’s to sell the McCricket, you know, where you go in there and you just crunch into a nice juicy cricket sandwich.

SPENCER MICHELS: The supplies shouldn’t be too hard to procure, Fisher says.

BRIAN FISHER: Scientists have documented about 1.1 million species of insects. Insects run the gamut from cockroaches all the way to butterflies to termites to ants.

We know there’s about 1,700 species that are edible. That means they’re being eaten by local cultures around the world. In Madagascar, these are the most common insects eaten. These are the locusts. They’re huge. They’re usually super-abundant and they’re very good to eat. I prefer them barbecued.

SPENCER MICHELS: Martinez hasn’t yet put locusts on her menus.

Some of the bugs, maybe not the mealworms, but some of the others look kind of scary. Are you comfortable with that?


MONICA MARTINEZ: You know what? It’s definitely — I’m not saying it’s an easy thing. The psychology of it is definitely — it has a lot to do with culture. So, some of them, they look scary. To me, crickets, they look scary. But, for other people, crickets are more friendly than worms and larva. It’s like. Come on, you look at cow or like a pig, they could look scary too.


SPENCER MICHELS: The most used argument for increased insect consumption is health. They’re loaded with protein. In fact, gram for gram, pound for pound, there’s as much or more protein in insects than in a comparable amount of hamburger. There’s also less fat. A six-ounce serving of crickets has 60 percent less saturated fat than the same amount of ground beef and twice as much vitamin B-12.

A six-ounce serving of mealworms has more protein than ground pork and half the fat. In addition, argues Cal Academy’s Fisher, the need for protein is increasing, while producing it is becoming more difficult.

BRIAN FISHER: Now the problem is, can we have all seven billion people on Earth going shopping and buying hamburger? That’s not going to happen. There’s not enough land to produce the soy or to graze the cattle on Earth.

SPENCER MICHELS: Insects, he and others say, could be the answer. For years in class, at food fairs like this, and at conferences around the world, Florence Dunkel has been singing the praises of eating insects. She is associate professor of entomology at Montana State University, and editor in chief of The Food Insects Newsletter.

FLORENCE DUNKEL, associate professor of Entomology, Montana State University: You get more for your efforts because you can eat almost 90 percent of the insect, if not 100 percent.

And in a cow, of course, you’re eating — you’re only able to eat 44 percent of the cow. Reproduction is very rapid, very, very rapid. One month, and you have an adult insect, starting with an egg. With a cow, well, you have nine months gestation and then you have a couple of years before you harvest the cow.

SPENCER MICHELS: Dunkel says insects will save money, land, water, energy, and more.

FLORENCE DUNKEL: It also makes sense to use insects as high-quality feed, instead of going into the oceans and harvesting fish or using difficult-to-produce alfalfa.

SPENCER MICHELS: And there’s another advantage, especially with recent outbreaks of mad cow disease, contends Brian Fisher.

BRIAN FISHER: We do have concerns about disease jumping from animals, like pigs and cows, to humans. But there are no worries about a disease jumping from an insect to humans. The more evolutionarily distant we are from our food source, the less danger there is. Insects share very little DNA with humans, so it’s much safer in terms of diseases than eating cows or a pig, for example.

SPENCER MICHELS: One challenge for edible insect advocates is getting them. Unlike markets in Asia, Americans can’t usually buy bugs at their grocery stores. There are no federal rules on inspection and approval for human consumption, which makes mass distribution questionable.

So people like Monica Martinez can orders from suppliers, or grow their own. She has her own mealworm farm. They hatch from eggs laid by darkling beetles, and fatten up on an all-veggie organic diet.

MONICA MARTINEZ: All they need is the bran and the carrots to get a water source. And then I clean them once a week. They don’t need much attention. I can raise 500 mealworms in like three months.

SPENCER MICHELS: Cooking them is not complicated. Martinez first freezes her crickets, which kills them, and then pops them into the oven.

MONICA MARTINEZ: I like to make roast them until get a little crunchy.

WOMAN: Today I’m making seared figs with sauteed grasshoppers and bee larva, which are kind of like the, you know the, bacon of the insect world.

SPENCER MICHELS: Daniella Martin is another edible insect advocate. And she too tries to combat the biggest problem: getting the public to embrace or at least eat them.

WOMAN: How many people here think it’s weird to eat bugs?

SPENCER MICHELS: Kids are taught from an early age that bugs are not only dirty, but dangerous. She tries to combat that, and sometimes it works.

WOMAN: Right here’s an example of something that looks really, really, really scary, but is in fact harmless. So, okay, we’re going to put this bug on Anna.

Anna, how old are you?

GIRL: Four and three quarters.

WOMAN: Four and three quarters. No big deal. All right, insects are not necessarily just our enemies.


SPENCER MICHELS: Martin uses the environmental arguments as well.

WOMAN: How many gallons of water does a cow need in order to produce one pound of beef? A thousand gallons of water. Guess how many gallons you need for the same pound of protein from crickets?


WOMAN: One is correct.

SPENCER MICHELS: But science doesn’t always prevail when it comes to eating bugs. Most Americans will have to be persuaded one by one that what you eat won’t eat you back.

MAN: Like a nut, yes.

MAN: I didn’t expect it to be like this. This is pretty good, once you get over the fact that they’re actually bugs.

SPENCER MICHELS: No one knows how many Americans are eating bugs or how many bugs, but the topic is creating quite a buzz.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, that’s a tough story to follow.

But, online, we’ve posted more about insects you can eat. Spencer tackles the yuck factor in a blog titled “Bugs For Dinner.” And one of our colleagues at KQED-San Francisco offers another called “Finger-Lickin’ Grub.” Enjoy.