A Crash Course in Entomophagy

by Jasper Colt for USA Today

One of my fondest foodie memories of junior year is eating freeze-dried crickets with a fellow Penn Appetit foodie, Katherine Ku, in our Intro to Human Evolution class. While our classmates squirmed and looked at us with a mixture of disgust, fascination, and awe (perhaps I’m giving Kat and myself too much credit), for us, the experience was really quite bland. I recall the texture of the cricket piece as dry with a bit of a spicy kick to it.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Professor Julie Lesnik speak about entomophagy at Penn Anthropology’s Food Colloquium lecture series. Prof. Lesnik is an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University who uses an interdisciplinary approach to investigate the role of insects in the diets of hunter-gatherers and our nonhuman primate cousins. Throughout her talk, Prof. Lesnik covered a swathe of material, but to give you a teaser, I’ll focus on the possibility of insects as a sustainable food source. 

Since 2013, the UN has proposed eating insects as a way to address hunger, malnutrition, and other food-related problems facing the world today. Creepy-crawlers are actually nutritional and environmental superstars. 

On the nutritional side, insects compare quite well against cultivated animals. (Yes, they are considered an ‘animal’ food source.) They’re excellent sources of protein and contain micronutrients. Who would have known that eating crickets provides a good dose of calcium? Additionally, because they’re an animal food source, insects contain the complete set of amino acids that are necessary for basic bodily functions such as muscle repair and building. 

In regards to environmental sustainability, insects are also stand-outs. It takes two hundred square meters of arable land to produce one kilogram of beef. In comparison, only fifteen square meters is required to produce one kilogram of an edible mass of crickets. Additionally, unlike cows, chickens, and pigs, crickets naturally like dark, cramped spaces, so Lesnik suggested that insects could be farmed vertically using abandoned warehouses in rust belt cities.

Since 2013, other clinical studies have highlighted the benefits of insect-eating. A 2018 study by Stull et. al found that cricket-based protein powder improved gut health. 

However, as Lesnik pointed out, there are still many basic things that we do not understand or know. The majority of studies have examined crickets and termites, which means we don’t know much about the nutritional contribution of other insects. At this stage, insects are not a viable solution to solve socio-economic problems — they’re about $50 a pound! However, there’s potential for self-farming and possibly commercial farming. 

For all the supposed benefits insects offer, a significant stigma still surrounds entomophagy in North America. Let us know what your thoughts are! Would you be willing to give insects a try?