What Will It Take to Get You to Eat Bugs?

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Are you ready to dive into Tarantula Tempura? The Smithsonian Channel thinks you are. (Photo: Smithsonian Networks)

I started off my phone interview with Megan Miller of Bitty Foods by telling her of my first cricket eating experience. Once the cracker the bug was placed on dissolved in my mouth, I was left with a chewy cricket that got stuck in my teeth. It took a while to chew up the bug, and all the while, I'm thinking to myself, "Just keep chewing, just keep chewing!"

That experience, Miller said, is a great way to introduce what her company does.

"What we're doing at Bitty Foods is trying to find ways to lower the barriers to trying edible insects," she said. "They can be delicious, but for westerners they are so foreign to our palate and we're not used to them."

Bitty Foods removes the visual and mouthfeel barriers by dry roasting, dehydrating and grinding crickets into a powder that's used like flour for salty snacks and baked goods.

Miller used her cricket flour to make Tropical Delight Cookies for the first of episode of the new short-form series "Bug Bites," which is airing on the Smithsonian Channel.

Getting past the visual barrier

Turning crickets into cookies removes those barriers. It's an inviting way for the Smithsonian Channel to introduce the new series, which in a few episodes will demonstrate how to make Tarantula Tempura (pictured above), a dish that has distinctively more of a visual barrier to overcome.

Although whole insects are eaten in many cuisines throughout the world, Americans have been resistant to normalizing them. It's understandable. Culturally, we're conditioned to believe bugs are culinarily taboo. I'll be honest; I'm completely on board in theory with eating insects, but that photo of the fried tarantula above makes me queasy.

Queasiness aside, there are good reasons for getting past the cultural taboo of eating insects.

"Insects are really high in protein and healthy fats," Miller says. "They're a very low-impact way to get protein and pretty much the eco-friendliest protein source on the planet. They beed quickly and use hardly any land or water to grow them."

You can have a small insect farm in areas where you can't raise animals or grow plants for food.

"They're perfect for drought conditions," Miller says.

Starting with crickets

Megan Miller, Bitty Bites
Miller bakes with cricket flour, a palatable way to begin adding insects into your diet. (Photo: Jon Snyder/Bitty Foods)

"We're trying to get the average American to think this is food," says Miller, and starting with crickets makes sense. First of all, there's the fact that they can be ground into a nutty-tasting flour to add to baked goods we're already familiar with. Miller suggests starting with banana bread or chocolate chip cookies.

Then, there's the fact that crickets are, in her words, "a super food."

Scientific research on the health benefits of crickets is new, but the findings from recent research is promising.

"It's now coming out that the chitin (exoskeleton) is a prebiotic. If you're eating crickets along with probiotics, you're giving your gut a boost," Miller says. "Crickets are also anti-inflammatory. They contain a compound that helps to turn off the inflammation molecule that causes rheumatoid arthritis."

Add to those health benefits the high amount of protein, omega 3 fatty acids and the iron in crickets (including cricket powder/flour) and the cricket's super food status becomes more clear. That's a smart way to get Americans comfortable with taking the next step — getting over the visual barrier to eating insects in their original form.

Miller says so far many Americans are receptive to Bitty Bites cricket flour and snacks. Many of the company's customers are people from all over the country willing to try edible insects from an environmental or health perspective, or people who come from countries where insects are already familiar culinary ingredients, plus those in the Crossfit community looking for protein sources. She's surprised but pleased to see that a bulk of Bitty Bites sales are from Midwest moms looking for healthier snacks for their kids, but she's hoping even more people will start considering edible insects.

"Everybody should give insects a chance and check them out," Miller said. "They are not scary. We eat shrimp, crabs and lobster and those are delicious. They're very closely related to crickets. If you can wrap your head around other crustaceans, you can wrap your head around crickets."

If you'd like to wrap your head around eating insects, "Bug Bites" is a good place to learn about the various ways you can prepare them. "Bug Bites" is now streaming on Smithsonian Earth and the Smithsonian Channel.

You can also learn more about why Miller has become a champion of edible insects from her 2014 TED Talk.