Insects are nutritious, delicious, and good for the environment. They might also prove key to helping feed an increasingly hungry planet.
"I always said I would never eat a bug,” Carnie Wilson said, scrunching up her face, her voice catching in her throat. Wilson, a contestant on a celebrity edition of the Food Network show Chopped, had just been challenged to create an appetizer with salmon, avocados, sweet tea—and flour made of ground-up crickets. She looked at the bag of light brown powder with horror.
Soon, though, she was thinking of ways to work with it. “If I combine this with a little brown sugar and a little cayenne pepper,” she said, “it might be good.”
Crickets, mealworms, and other insects are slowly edging their way into American diets: as the stunt ingredient in a TV cooking show, as avant-garde snack foods, even as a pantry staple for forward-thinking home cooks. But proponents of entomophagy—the formal name for bug consumption—are happy to point out that the United States is actually behind the times. Two billion people around the world eat insects, and have for thousands of years. With good reason: Insects tend to be high in complete protein, low in saturated fat, and are good sources of vitamins and minerals.
But while insects hold the promise of being a superfood, there is a lot we still don’t know. That’s why Joel Mason, a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts, recently convened a working group of experts from academia, industry, and government. They’ll work together to outline the most pressing research questions on insect nutrition and the role they should play in the American diet. “It is true that insects have been used by many cultures as food stuffs for millennia,” Mason said. “But we really know very little about the health impacts of insect-based foods.”
Six people from the edible-insect industry signed on to Mason’s group, called the Tripartite Organization for the Promotion of Insect Consumption, as did six academics from Tufts and other universities, and six scientists and governmental managers from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The group’s agenda includes looking at cricket husbandry, processing, and regulations; “barriers to acceptance”—in other words, the “yuck” factor—and, most important of all, what eating crickets long term does to a person’s health.