The Next Sustainable Culinary Frontier: Insects
Unlike livestock and other forms of animal protein, insects are plentiful and nearly everywhere. While culturally we tend to overlook the possibility of nourishing ourselves with the help of insects, they are a nutrient-rich and sustainable source of food that deserves consideration. Food writer and editor of Edible Hudson Valley, Eric Steinman, asks us to question our cultural aversion to making insects part of our meals.
Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of Gourmet and award-winning author, recently told the New York Times, “We should all be eating insects, and we all will be eating insects. They are a perfectly reasonable source of protein.” These comments were not the random mutterings of a disaffected food critic, but a response to a recent report issued by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promoting human consumption of insects as an environmentally sustainable means of feeding the planet. Many balked at this report, seeing it as projected desperate measures for not-so desperate times, as well as being one of the least appetizing pieces of U.N. dictates in recent memory, but such sentiments are nothing to dismissed as a laughable oddity. The fact is, however culturally objectionable to Westerners, eating insects (or as it is more formally known, entomophagy) provides a far more sustainable source of protein than our existing consumption of meat and animal products.
But better than just being a meat substitute, most edible insects are very protein-rich while being comparatively very lean. A cricket for instance has all the essential amino acids that beef contains while being far higher in iron content and calcium. In general, insects are an extremely inexpensive, and relatively safe, source of protein that require a fraction of the feed, space, water, and maintenance of conventional livestock, providing a reasonable “mini-livestock” solution to the environmental mess that makes up our current industrialized livestock option. (The livestock industry is estimated to be responsible for 17-18% of greenhouse emissions, through production, transport, and digestive gas.)
While an estimated 1,417 species of insects have been recorded as being regularly eaten by over 3,000 ethnic groups around the globe, eating insects is a tough swallow for most Westerners (especially Americans). Even though the FDA permits an incidental amount of insect parts, or “foreign matter” in food sold to Americans, it is neither in the cultural norm nor deemed at all desirable to consume insects, regardless of how healthy they may be or good for the planet. However, a few decades ago most Americans balked at the idea of eating raw fish and now sushi restaurants remain popular dining destinations in large cities and small towns alike.
A few forward-thinking entrepreneurs are working to raise the bar on eating insects and make the practice somewhat desirable, or maybe just palatable. Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz founded Exo, a Brooklyn-based company that manufactures a protein bar (also called Exo) with cricket flour as the star ingredient. They began a Kickstarter page this summer and exceeded their funding goal by over $30,000, which may reveal a little about the growing enthusiasm for insect-based products. They use “slow roasted and milled crickets” along with organic and all-natural ingredients such as raw cacao, dates, almond butter, and coconut, to create a protein bar that simply put, tastes more like its composite ingredients than a bunch of dried crickets. And along with Exo there are a number of other entrepreneurs entering the market with similar products (like Chapul out of Utah), as well as chefs and restaurants doing their best to make insect-based dishes not just novel, but filled with culinary intrigue.
Nordic Food Lab, a nonprofit organization founded by celebrated chef Rene Redzepi of Noma and dedicated to exploring the future of Nordic cuisine, recently announced a project that will greatly expand their research into insect gastronomy. The idea is to bring insects up from the ground and onto the plates of Western diners. As Michael Bom Frøst, director of Nordic Food Lab says of the endeavor to bring insects into the larger culinary culture, “Much important work is being carried out by others, but we believe the missing piece is a focus on deliciousness. It is our goal to provide that missing argument, so that insects become not just edible novelty but celebrated ingredients with high gastronomic value.”
While we are likely a few years away from mass, sushi-like acceptance of comfortably eating insects, the conversation remains stimulating and pushes us to reconsider the limitations of our cultural aversion to insects.