Why Don't You Want to Eat Insects?

CC BY 2.0. wnhsl -- Grasshopper tacos, or tacos de chapulines, in southern Mexico

As usual, history plays a role.

For all the protein hype these days, people are oddly reluctant to add insects to their diet. Something about the squirmy, multi-legged, armored bodies -- or perhaps the lack of legs and soft wormlike bodies -- turns us off, triggering knee-jerk reactions of disgust.

This is a relatively new response to insects, argues Julie Lesnik. She is the author of a new book called "Edible Insects and Human Evolution" and a professor of anthropology at Wayne State University. Lesnik, whose book is geared toward researchers, explains that eating insects used to be normal in many parts of the world, but that several historical factors diminished its popularity. One is climate:

"The number of desirable insects for food drops as you get further away from the equator. Northern areas like Europe have seasons that are cold for part of the year. So edible insects were never a major part of European history because they weren't readily available."

Then those same Europeans were the ones who ventured into other distant parts of the world, bringing back unfair conclusions about Native people being "like beasts, because they ate things like insects, foods that Europeans had never seen before." As a result, insects became stigmatized, something that "civilized" Europeans would not do.

In the present day, the spread of a highly-processed Western-style diet (again, with roots in that early European culture) has not helped matters either. There are many places in the world that still value edible insects, but younger generations are less interested in these food traditions, preferring the fatty, salty, sugary foods that dominate U.S. food culture. (A side note to this point is that kids are seen by some as the vanguard of insect eating in America. They're young and adventurous, with a deep instinctive concern for the environment. They could be taught, through schools and public health initiatives, that eating insects is good for the world and for their bodies.)

©. K Martinko

© K Martinko

Slowly but surely, broader interest is growing in edible insects. You might be surprised at how many people have tasted a cricket protein bar by now -- but it has yet to become normal. There are still barriers standing in the way of expansion. As Lesnik explains in an interview with NPR, the insect-raising industry is largely unregulated (it differs from state to state), nor is there standardized language on packaging that would allow states to advertise insects in grocery stores as safe for human consumption. Even the officials who should know about regulating insects do not:

"I was recently in D.C. and I got to speak with staffers from the House Committee on Agriculture. I brought up this idea with them. I had a Democratic staffer who worked with specialty crops, and I had a Republican staffer who worked with livestock. I asked them, 'Which one of you does this fall under?' And they have no clue. So I think that insects, like seafood, need their own language in the farm bill."

The lack of regulation makes it harder for would-be insect farmers to start production, despite the fact that demand is growing. Right now there are startups wanting to produce insect-based foods, but there's not enough insect supply to meet their demand. Only once that demand is met and products become commercially available will consumers start eating them and, hopefully, normalizing the idea of eating insects in general.

It's a complicated issue, but one that Lesnik says she's "cautiously optimistic" about. At the very least we would benefit from diversifying our food supply chain, rather than being so dependent on intensive meat and poultry farming -- methods that have serious ethical concerns alongside serious environmental degradation.

Canada seems to be a bit further along than the U.S. in this regard, now selling cricket flour in some major supermarkets. But flour is one thing, whole insects another, and that's where we really need to get -- to the point where we can appreciate Mexican grasshopper tacos with gusto, much as we would a meat- or bean-based variety.