Today, potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States. However, they were not always held in such high regard in the Western world. Though they were a long-standing staple in the pre-colonial Americas, they were reviled when they were first introduced to Europe. People considered them “tasteless and starchy,” and some farmers even believed that they could cause leprosy. It was only when potatoes got a public relations makeover in the late eighteenth century that Europeans eventually began to recognize their high nutritional value and amazing productivity as a crop. What great foods are we currently overlooking? Like potatoes in eighteenth-century Europe, insects — especially crickets and mealworms — are unfairly judged today in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, they are tasty, nutritious and sustainable.
One major objection people have to eating insects is that they will taste bad, but this is simply not true. People around the world eat insects as part of their regular diet. Many insects, when cooked the right way, taste like common, well-liked foods. Smoked African caterpillars taste like beef jerky or steak, crickets taste like nuts, fried grasshoppers taste like prawns, and sakondry, an insect found in Madagascar, tastes strikingly similar to bacon. In fact, most people — inadvertently or not — regularly stomach small quantities of insects in their food; we all have almost certainly eaten insects without knowing. Even the average package of spaghetti can legally contain up to 450 insect parts. There is thus no reason why we cannot deliberately incorporate insects into our diet for nutritional reasons.
Edible insects are quite healthy. They contain high amounts of important nutrients like iron, zinc, fiber, omega-3s and antioxidants. In addition, insects are more protein-dense than beef, containing a maximum 35.2 grams of protein per 100 grams compared to a maximum of just 20.6 grams for beef. And unlike some meats, insects are low in fat. People already incorporate unconventional foods into their diets for health reasons, so eating insects should not be seen as particularly drastic.
Looking beyond culinary and nutritional considerations, insects are also much more sustainable to farm than animals we typically raise for consumption. They produce little waste (and the waste that they do produce is a great fertilizer) and require much less food and water to raise than animals like cows and pigs. Yet, all the while, they still produce the same — if not better — nutritional output. They also take up much less space to farm than these animals. And, do not worry about insect farms leading to giant infestations: They are tightly controlled and self-contained. The efficiency of farming insects thus has wide-ranging implications for climate change and hunger. Just think of the impact that replacing livestock (which is responsible for about 14.5% of global carbon emissions) with insects could have on global warming. Or consider the dent that could be made in world hunger by replacing even a small percentage of inefficient livestock farming — which uses 80% of the world’s farmland to only produce 18% of humanity’s calories — with the much more efficient farming of crickets and mealworms. And, because it costs less to raise insects and they take up less space, insect farming may help address food insecurity.
Eating insects may have the added benefit of making us more moral eaters. Since insects are a great protein source, they could make it easier for many people to stop eating meat, especially from factory farms. Animals raised in these farms live cruel, depressing and painful lives. For example, most pigs they raise must preemptively have their tails cut off to prevent other pigs, who are under stress from tight confinement, from gnawing their tails off. Fortunately, insects have no qualms about being raised in close quarters or living in dark, damp areas — some even prefer to live this way. Furthermore, though there is growing evidence that insects do feel pain, they still exhibit fewer indicators of pain than traditionally farmed animals. Thus, insects killed for human consumption suffer less than animals killed for the same reason.
Just as we laugh at eighteenth-century Europeans for ignoring the potential of potatoes, future generations will laugh at us for ignoring the obvious benefits of insect consumption. Insects have long been consumed in other cultures, have obvious nutritional benefits, taste good and are efficient to farm relative to the meats we currently eat. By every objective measure, they deserve to be staples in our diet. Even if some of us are reluctant at first, insects deserve a spot at the dinner table — after all, they can’t be worse than potatoes!