Mealworms: The Future of Farm-to-Table Dining?

Mealworms are an earth-friendly source of protein, researchers say. (Image credit: Ed Oudenaarden/AFP/Getty Images)

Reported by Dr. Lauren Browne:

The first crunchy bite of an inch-long fried grasshopper in a chapulines taco is surprisingly palatable. The reddish-brown bug is coated in Oaxacan-style spices that pepper the tongue and enhance the underlying nutty, earthy flavor of the grasshopper itself. Admittedly, the most difficult part of eating the bug is taking that first bite.

"It isn't as much an assault on the senses as it is an assault on the mind," said Dan Childs, managing editor of the ABC News Medical Unit, who along with several other staff members resigned themselves to taste testing the little critters.

CLICK HERE to see some flu-fighting superfoods

The practice of insect-eating or, entomophagy, as it is formally called, has been commonly touted in the media as an eco-friendly source of protein for a human population increasingly hungry for animal meat. Yet no published scientific studies have ever examined the full environmental effect of mass insect production from start to finish. That is, until now.

In a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers in The Netherlands examined the environmental effect of mealworm production and compared it to that of more traditional animal products. They found that production of one kilogram of edible mealworm protein created significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions and required much less land, when compared to beef, pork, chicken and milk production.

More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide, consuming more than one-fourth of the Earth's land, according to a 2010 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in collaboration with several other leading environmental organizations.

The entire livestock sector accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which are often produced in the intestinal tracts of animals like cattle and sheep and then released into the air during the digestive process. It is estimated that emissions from the livestock industry are greater than the total amount created by the world's transportation sector, which accounts for 14 percent. These emissions are thought to be an important cause of global warming.

"The livestock industry is huge," said Harold Mooney, senior fellow at Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment and one of the key editors of the 2010 collaboration. He points out that excessive gas emissions along with large land and energy requirements are all problematic for the industry's long-term sustainability.

Eating mealworms might help solve some of these problems, according to Dennis Oonincx and Imke de Boer, the new study's authors. The researchers calculated that mealworm farming cut both carbon dioxide emissions and land use by about one-half to two-thirds when compared with milk, chicken, and pork production and by about 90 percent when compared with beef production. Energy requirements were roughly equal for mealworms, pork and beef, and were slightly less for milk and chicken.

"Over the course of the past 15 years, interest in eating insects has grown incredibly, even exponentially," said David George Gordon, the once self-proclaimed "Martha Stewart of bug chefs" and author of the "Eat-a-Bug Cookbook."

The emergence of increasingly popular gourmet dining events featuring insects as the star of the menu and a bevy of Internet blogs, YouTube videos, and Facebook groups have all contributed to an explosion in insect-eating interest in the United States, adds Zack Lemann, chief entomologist at The Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans. Men and adolescents are more likely to explore insect-eating than women or older adults, according to informal studies done at the center.

Unlike in The Netherlands, however, where food wholesalers stock their shelves with freeze-dried locusts and mealworms, mainstream insect-eating has been slow to catch on in the United States.

"The cultural barrier to eating mealworms is pretty high," Stanford's Mooney said. "I really don't think it'll be part of our normal diet anytime soon."

Western culture has traditionally associated insects with filth and pestilence. New Yorkers run screaming from cockroach-infested apartment buildings. Simply put, most Americans find bug eating revolting. Such views might need to change as the human population swells from 7 billion to an estimated 10 billion by the end of the century, according to a recent report by the U.N. Because of exorbitant production costs, beef might soon become a luxury food item reserved for the privileged and wealthy.

But there are several benefits of choosing bugs over beef, including better nutritional content, nuanced flavors and, of course, environmental protection, Lemann, of the Audubon Insectarium, said.

"The hope for this entomologist is that bugs will eventually be viewed like sushi is now," he said. "If you had offered me raw fish when I was a kid, I would have looked at you like you were out of your skull. Now it's no big deal. And I hope the same goes for bugs; that they don't remain as an anathema, but are actually embraced."