Bugs: The Other White Meat?

Some are beginning to explore the buzz about insects as a food source.

March 17, 2011— -- Bumble bee burgers, grasshopper pie, and beetle tacos -- are you hungry yet?

While these foods may sound outlandish and even unappetizing to most, scientists are predicting that as the global population grows, so will the demand for animal protein.

These factors -- along with the considerable strain that traditional methods of raising mainstream animal protein place on the environment -- make insects as a cheap and nutritionally sound alternative to beef, pork, chicken and other proteins consumed in Western culture a true possibility.

Long before "Survivor" contestants popularized eating bugs as a bona fide main course in mainstream America, insects were considered a source of nutrition for ancient Romans. Even the Bible mentions creepy crawlers as food in its reference to John the Baptist's diet of "locusts and wild honey."

However, insects as a main course isn't a relic of antique times, as a wide variety of insects are used in global cuisine. Traveling throughout Asia, it's not uncommon to come across all manner of insects incorporated in rice dishes, snacks, and even delectable desserts. Similarly, Mexican cooking is noted for making use of crispy grasshoppers, and many nouveau restaurants both at home and abroad are experimenting with insects in traditional dishes.

Bringing a bit of Asian finesse to local palates, Typhoon, a popular pan-Asian restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., offers a variety of dishes featuring insects.

Included among the more familiar menu items of steamed potstickers, vegetable fried rice and short ribs are Singapore-style scorpions served on toast; stir-fried crickets with raw garlic, chili and green basil; and silk worm pupae served with a spicy dipping sauce.

The stir-fried crickets are the most popular dish, which owner Brian Vidor estimates is served to at least a hundred diners a month.

"I spent a lot of time in Asia where they eat everything -- and so it's my way of bringing it home and respecting that culture," Vidor said.

"Children love it, they get excited about it," he said of the menu, "and I make sure that everything I get is well-sourced."

Tastes Aside, Bugs Healthy, Hygienic

Really? Hairy creepy crawlers as an entrée?

Yes, indeed. The Food and Drug Administration already permits "natural" and "unavoidable" allowances of insect matter in processed foods such as chocolate, peanut butter and fruit juice, which means that on average, most Americans eat about a pound of insects a year.

Furthermore, the traces of insects found in our food are anything but harmful, as less than 0.5 percent of insects carry harmful diseases and bugs are notably rich rich in zinc, iron, while low in fat and high in protein -- making them the perfect food source.

Additionally, restaurants such as Vidor's say they are careful to purchase insects grown in hygienic conditions that have been meticulously inspected and approved by local health inspectors -- circumstances which make chowing down on a cicada a hearty choice.

Spearheading the movement to popularize insects as food in the Western world are entomologists Marcel Dick and Arnold van Huis of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The two are working under the umbrella of a federal $1.3 million research program to explore the possibility of using insects as food given rising food demands and production costs in a swelling global society.

In a recent publication, Dick and van Huis tackled the most controversial reasons regarding insects as a viable food source, maintaining that raising insects in a hygienic environment is cheaper, more nutritious, and more resourceful than raising a protein like cattle given increasingly expensive agricultural land prices, the rising risk of herd infection, production expenses, and the cost of fodder and water.

These factors led officials attending the Food and Agriculture Organization congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last year to warn that "beef could become so scarce as to be equated with caviar."

Even though meat might become a high-end luxury item, that doesn't mean that insects will instantly become a popular ingredient, taking the place of chicken and beef. Just like bison and chicken liver, the idea of insects as a protein may take some getting used to.

Towards that end, insect fairs, cookbooks and fan clubs are sprouting up all around North America, Europe and Asia as part of a global effort to make bug eating more mainstream.

While crickets on a stick might be too much to swallow for some, it's worth noting that the bug under your foot today could be dished up on your plate tomorrow.