Insects, like these fried locusts on display in a market, are a popular snack in a number of countries.
Ants are sweet, nutty little insects, aren't they?
I'm not talking about their personalities, but how they taste. Stinkbugs have an apple flavor, and red agave worms are spicy. A bite of tree worm apparently brings pork rinds to mind.
This information will come in handy for those of us following the latest recommendation from the United Nations: Consume more insects.
A report released Monday by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reminds us that there are more than 1,900 edible insect species on Earth, hundreds of which are already part of the diet in many countries.
In fact, some two billion people eat a wide variety of insects regularly, both cooked and raw; only in Western countries does the practice retain an "ick" factor among the masses.
Why eat something that we usually swat away or battle with insecticides? For starters, many insects are packed with protein, fiber, good fats, and vital minerals—as much or more than many other food sources.
One example: mealworms, the larval form of a particular species of darkling beetle that lives in temperate regions worldwide. Mealworms provide protein, vitamins, and minerals on par with those found in fish and meat. Another healthful treat: small grasshoppers rank up there with lean ground beef in protein content, with less fat per gram. (Related video: Family learns how to cook and prepare mealworms.)
And raising and harvesting insects requires much less land than raising cows, pigs, and sheep. Insects convert food into protein much more efficiently than livestock do—meaning they need less food to produce more product. They also emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock (think gassy cows).
Entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food, is also a safe and healthy way to help reduce pest insects without using insecticides. Plus, gathering and farming insects can offer new forms of employment and income, especially in developing tropical countries where a lot of "edibles" live.
That helps to explain why 36 African countries are "entomophagous," as are 23 in the Americas, 29 in Asia, and even 11 in Europe. With so many species swarming the globe it's difficult to parse out the specific ones most often eaten, so we'll go a little broader—to the top edible insect groups. According to my favorite cookbook, Creepy Crawly Cuisine by biologist Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, a leading proponent of the entomophagy movement, here are the eight critters most often ingested worldwide.
The most commonly eaten beetles are the long-horned, june, dung, and rhinoceros varieties. These are munched by people living in the Amazon basin, parts of Africa, and other heavily forested regions, both tropical and temperate, as diverse species are easily found in trees, fallen logs, and on the forest floor. (Native Americans, I've heard, would roast them over coals and eat them like popcorn.) They are efficient at turning cellulose from trees (indigestible to humans) into digestible fat. Beetles also have more protein than most other insects.
2. Butterflies and Moths
They do more than look pretty fluttering across a meadow; these winged insects, during their larval and pupal stages, are succulent and full of protein and iron. They're very popular in African countries, and are an excellent supplement for children and pregnant women who may be deficient in these nutrients. In Central and South America, fat and fleshy agave worms, which live between the leaves of the agave plant and turn into butterflies, are highly sought after for food and as the famed worm dropped into mescal, a Mexican liquor. Cultivation of these worms could help protect them from overharvesting.
3. Bees and Wasps
We love bees for their honey, but they have more to give. Indigenous people in Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and Mexico commonly eat these insects when they are in their immature stages. Stingless bees are most commonly munched, with wasps a distant second. Bee brood (bees still in egg, larval, or pupal form tucked away in hive cells) taste like peanuts or almonds. Wasps, some say, have a pine-nutty flavor.
You're probably thinking that it takes a lot of ants to make a meal. True. But they pack a punch: 100 grams of red ant (one of thousands of ant species) provide some 14 grams of protein (more than eggs), nearly 48 grams of calcium, and a nice hit of iron, among other nutrients. All that in less than 100 calories. Plus, they're low in carbs.
5. Grasshoppers, Crickets, and Locusts
Grasshoppers and their ilk are the most consumed type of insect, probably because they're simply all over the place and they're easy to catch. There are a lot of different kinds, and they're a great protein source. The hoppers have a neutral flavor, so they pick up other flavors nicely. Cricket curry, anyone? Meanwhile, locusts move in swarms that devastate vegetation in countries where people are already struggling to eat—one of several reasons to turn them into dinner. (See video: Family prepares a cricket stir-fy.)
6. Flies and Mosquitoes
Not as popular as some of the others, these insects—including edible termites and, yes, lice—still have a place at some tables. Flies that develop on various types of cheese take on the flavor of their host, and the species from water habitats may taste like duck or fish.
7. Water Boatmen and Backswimmers
Easy to cultivate and harvest, these cosmopolitan little guys deposit eggs on the stems of aquatic plants, in both freshwater and saltwater environments—even in stagnant water. The eggs can be dried and shaken from the plants to make Mexican caviar (tastes like shrimp), or eaten fresh for their fishy flavor.
If you can get past the funky smell, these insects apparently add an apple flavor to sauces and are a valuable source of iodine. They're also known to have anesthetic and analgesic properties. Who would have thought?