Stomach bugs

By Graham Holter

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Insect, Food

Stomach bugs
We westerners are curiously fussy eaters. We'll happily consume the pulped nether regions of factory-farmed pigs if they're labelled as sausages, while some of us positively salivate at the idea of grotesquely enlarged goose liver. But when we see someone munching on a free-range cricket, we gag.

Or, in some cases, laugh. There is something about eating locusts, ants, flies and wasps that seems utterly bizarre to us. Yet the United Nations calculates that there are 1,700 edible insect species, which provide vital protein to large swathes of the human population in South America, Africa and Asia.

We might not be taking insect cuisine seriously, but some of our political leaders are. The EU has invested £2.7M in a project to research and promote entomophagy, to give it its scientific name, and the Food Standards Agency has recently played its part by setting up an industry consultation into which insects are already commercially available in the UK food industry.

The results aren't yet public, but the broad answer is likely to be "not many"​. One of the very few businesses in the market is Osgrow, a Bristol catering company that specialises in exotic meats such as ostrich, camel, python and zebra. Ant lollies, locusts and grasshoppers are also on the menu.

Who buys this stuff? "My stock answer is drunk people, really,"​ says chef Paul Cook, who owns the online business. "It's a bit of fun as much as anything else."

Osgrow sources its bugs from breeders who supply live food to reptile enthusiasts. "They're so high in protein. Those bugs contain everything for life so they have everything on board, and if they're dried or roasted and then ground down to make some sort of flour you can make amazing things with them,"​ Cook says.

"If we were serious about it we would be grinding up meal worms by the kilo and using them to make cookies and cakes, or as a binding agent for burgers. But if I did that the only people that would be interested would be journalists."

Wageningen research

One person who would certainly take notice is Arnold van Huis, professor of tropical entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Arguably the world's leading expert on insects as a source of nutrition, he firmly believes that bugs are delicious, protein-rich and less of a burden on the environment than conventional meats.

Van Huis, who is coordinating a three-year study for the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality, believes there is an "urgent" ​need to identify alternative protein sources. The exploding global demand for food is placing strains on land resources, using up energy and requiring increased chemical use. Unless we investigate other options, "greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and environmental degradation will increase"​, he warns.

"Because insects are cold blooded, they have a high food conversion rate. They emit less greenhouse gas than conventional livestock. In some cases insects can be grown on organic waste, reducing environmental contamination.

"Edible insects are a serious alternative for conventional production or other animal-based protein sources, either for direct human consumption, or indirectly as feedstock. In the developing world, a re-evaluation of the food resource is required. In the western world, processing technology needs to be developed in order to make it an acceptable food item."

Does he believe this is a realistic prospect in the European market? "Yes, but there are a few things that need to be done. Of course, you have the consumer attitude to deal with, and people have to know that insects are safe to eat.

"Another difficulty we are facing at the moment is that it's still quite expensive, so you are dealing with a scaling-up issue. Mechanisation is important because, at the moment, 50% of costs are labour.

"But there are already insect farms in the world. There are huge farms in Mexico breeding flies, and there are universities in Japan that have looked at how you get your proteins in the most efficient way possible when you're on another planet. They came up with a kind of meal worm, a beetle, which you can rear in a facility that's 3m x 4m x 3m. It would be able to provide protein for about 100 people.

"If you look at the industry that's producing food for animals and for pet food, it is extremely interested. The proteins from soya or fresh meat that are currently being used are becoming so expensive that industry is looking for alternatives. The trend will probably start there first. It would need enormous amounts of insects that it could convert into feed."

Serious alternative

UK food producers are hardly swarming towards the opportunity. But Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), remains open-minded. "Insects are already consumed in a number of countries worldwide and although there are apparently hundreds of edible species crawling around, the protein quantity and profile vary enormously depending on the species,"​ she says.

"Although I am not aware of any FDF member currently looking to market insect-based products, the current and future challenges to food security mean that it makes sense to investigate and consider alternative food sources with potentially low environmental impact."

Van Huis adds: "People have looked at this as something of a joke, but now they realise it's a serious alternative. It's up to the cooks to make something nice out of it and, of course, it's a challenge. We're currently working on a cookery book but if we can get Jamie Oliver preparing insects, that might turn people's minds around.

"I've eaten grasshoppers in Thailand and they were absolutely delicious. A number of insects in the tropics are often more expensive than common meat. The demand for beef diminishes if there are locusts on the market. Personally, I must say I normally find grasshoppers, locusts or termites delicious."​ Lake flies baked in a cake proved less appetising to the van Huis palate "maybe it was the way they were prepared, but I didn't enjoy those"​.

When van Huis offers cooked bugs at food fairs, he claims that 90% of people who sample the insects return for a second helping. But he accepts that to be commercially successful, suppliers will have to look at a way of extracting insect proteins so the insects themselves are unrecognisable.

Cook at Osgrow agrees. He has been selling insects for 15 years but only sees a sales spike when I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here is broadcast.

"I can't see that, even with the help of people such as Jamie Oliver, you could ever get kids at school to eat bug burgers,"​ he says. "If you can see its eyes and ears and legs you've got no chance, in any commercial sense."

Like van Huis, Cook prepares insect cuisine at food fairs "and for people like the WI"​. He says: "I do a locust stir-fry and have no trouble whatsoever in getting people to try. But it's all bravado. I can't believe people come back for more because they like the taste."

The bug chef: it's hip to wax lyrical about wax worms

One of the most enthusiastic exponents of eating insects is David George Gordon, a Seattle-based author and chef whose Eat-a-Bug cookbook was first published in 1998.

Have attitudes changed in the past decade? "Yes, definitely. I usually start one of my cooking demos by asking the audience how many of them have eaten a bug before. You'd be surprised at how many people raise their hands. It wasn't like that 10 or 12 years ago. Now it's become almost trendy or hip to eat bugs.

"There's absolutely nothing foul about eating bugs, but people have a real thing about insects. They think they're germy and gross yet our species wouldn't last a minute if they suddenly disappeared. If prepared properly, insects can be delicious. I've had people come back for seconds, thirds, even fifths of some of my dishes."

Which species have the greatest potential for food producers? "From a practical standpoint, I think crickets are a likely candidate for cultivation. In the States, we have many companies that raise zillions of them, mostly for feeding pet lizards and turtles or as fishing bait. They're rich in protein and calcium, and taste like shrimp crackers from Asian grocery stores.

"Purely from the standpoint of taste, I'd go with wax worms: the small white caterpillars of a dusky grey moth. They're also easy to raise indoors. In the wild, the caterpillars feed on the beeswax inside a honeycomb. So what's not to like? These animals have been dining exclusively on beeswax and honey during their short lives. Lightly toasted, they have a sweet, filbert-like flavour. Baked, they taste like pistachios."

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