Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects. It’s the kind of idea that might make you shudder a little. Maybe the idea of eating insects sounds like some sort of punishment? Maybe you’ve heard of the health and environmental benefits but you’re not quite convinced yet. Maybe the whole concept is new to you. Would you eat a mealworm? A grasshopper? A cricket?
The Insect Ick Factor
To many people in the western world, the idea of eating insects sounds a bit weird. It’s not something we do. It’s a huge mental block.
In some parts of the world eating insects is commonplace – a delicacy even – but that doesn’t appear to make it easier to change our mental model. There are plenty of international delicacies that non-natives might find a bit strange: the French have snails and frogs legs; Scotland has haggis, spiced oats and offle boiled in a sheep’s stomach; the Icelandic have Harkal, a buried, rotten fermented shark dish; and in Japan they eat a lot of raw fish but also have Shirako, a delicacy made from male fish sperm sacs.
Even taking the eating part out of the equation, insects are a bit weird. A bit creepy. A bit crawly. They’re a little disturbing and are often associated with death; probably the least appetising thing you could think of.
But regardless of the mental hurdles, there are huge benefits to eating insects. As our population grows and food production becomes an even bigger drain on our planet’s resources, we’ll need to embrace the benefits of these weird and wonderful little critters.
Eating Insects is Good For Your Health and the Environment
For a balanced diet we need to eat protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Animal products like meat, cheese, milk and eggs are often our biggest source of protein but these are a huge drain on environmental resources.
Insects are high in protein and also contain high amounts of the minerals calcium, zinc and iron. Adult locusts and grasshoppers have comparable levels of protein to raw beef but have a tiny environmental footprint.
The literal footprint of insects is also tiny, meaning insect farming takes up much less space than traditional cattle farming. Insects produce a fraction of the greenhouse gasses that are produced by cattle meaning the impact of insects on global warming is much lower.
The costs of farming insects is also a lot lower than cattle due to the reduced amount of energy required to produce them.
So, with a taste for adventure and the knowledge of all the health and environmental benefits firmly in mind, where can we go to find some of these delicious delights?
Jimini’s: Flavoured Insect Appetizers from France
Previously we’ve written about Mophagy and Grub – with their respective ranges of insect ingredients, flours and energy bars. Recently we met another edible insect company called Jimini’s. They’re originally from France and have recently bought their own range of flavoured insects and a new range of cricket flour bars to the UK.
Jimini’s is a young French brand that launched in 2012 in order to popularise the consumption of edible insects. The company was founded by Bastien Rabastens and Clément Scellier and after some initial experimentation with importing insect products and using insects to make quiches and cupcakes, they discovered a love for insect appetisers.
It seems that across the world we’ve bastardised the word “appetiser” to mean “starter” or the first course. In France the appetiser is something to be enjoyed before the main meal, to whet your appetite – much more akin to a bowl of nuts, olives or popcorn – which seems to be a favourite with trendy restaurants these days.
We chatted to the Jimini’s team about the reaction to eating insects on the continent and took a look at the different buying habits of both the UK and French customers.
Both in France and in London there are similar levels of apprehension around eating insects. This surprised me somewhat as I expected the French to be more adventurous when it comes to eating “interesting” things given their familiarity with snails and frogs legs. But both snails and frogs legs are traditional in France, not the slightest bit weird to many of the locals. Insects on the other hand are different.
It seems that both nations struggle with the idea of breaking their habits and trying something new. But when they do, the response is often surprisingly positive.
Eating Insects at the BBC Good Food Show
We were invited to the BBC Good Food Show at London’s ExCeL to see first hand the reaction to edible insects and chat to some of the attendees during a tasting session held by Jimini’s.
The huge exhibition centre was packed with people and stalls showcasing all sorts of food, ingredients, equipment and homewares. The Jimini’s stand was a hive of activity with a huge number of people taking an interest in what was on offer.
On hearing that the crispy snacks were insects, some people turned their noses up, screwed up their faces and hurried away quickly. But most were intrigued. They wanted to know which insects they could try, what the flavours were, how they were produced, whether they healthy or not – it was a real surprise to see such interest from what I perceived to be a very conservative British public.
Not everyone was a fan straight away but at least the majority of people we spoke to had an open mind:
“I probably wouldn’t buy them in the supermarket – I don’t like them enough. If there were there in a bar I’d probably eat them. But we tend not to eat snacky type things anyway.” — Janice
“I think you have to come to it with a really open mind. If you have the education behind you, you can understand why we need to be thinking about eating these.” — Sage
“I like the dark chocolate and fig bars and I’d probably buy those because of the taste – not because they had anything to do with insects. I think it’s more about the taste.” — Tanya
“Even though they look 3D, they were so light – crispy as a thin wafer crisp.”
“With the mealworms, you just taste the sesame and the cumin – and the crunch. They’re very savoury. Very tasty actually.”
“The [mealworms and crickets] didn’t bother me. I didn’t like the grasshopper because it was bigger and it looked more like a grasshopper. In my head I was thinking that I know I’m eating an insect.”
“I’d buy the mealworms. I’d take them home for the kids, they’d eat anything.” — Sian
“I think it’s just our perception. We don’t eat insects. But we eat things now that we never thought we’d eat. ” — Alison
Insects Are the New Sushi
This final comment from Alison really made me think. Yes, right now, a lot of people probably think eating insects is weird. Just a couple of months ago I did too and I struggled to get over the mental block.
I once thought the same thing about sushi – as did many people. Raw fish? WFT? Are you crazy?
But now you can barely walk down a street in a major city without passing a restaurant or takeaway place offering maki, nigiri, hand rolls or sashimi. Trends, tastes and palates change and what we consider to be weird today might be commonplace in just a few years time.
French supermarkets must feel the same way. When pre-packed sushi became all the rage in the USA, UK and elsewhere around the world, the French supermarkets didn’t pounce on the craze and they are still playing catch up. In our chats with the team at Jimini’s, it appears that the supermarkets (in France at least) don’t want to make the same mistake with insects as they did with sushi.
Perhaps it will take a while for the general public to come around to the idea of eating insects. Perhaps the foodie early adopters will help spread the word about the benefits – both for our health and for our environment.
So, how about now: would you eat a mealworm? A grasshopper? A cricket? Go on, give it a go. You might just surprise yourself.
If you’re not quite convinced yet, read more about delicious insect treats in our articles Bugs Are The Future or Edible Insects That Taste Great.