What is Entomophagy? And How Edible Insects May Have Affected Our Brain Development

Edible insects in a nutshell

Martin Gomez Thomsen
Essentials
An Illustration of Edible insects on The Plate - Designed by Crickster

In short, entomophagy is the practice of eating insects. This practice has always been an important part of our diet and it may have played a key role in our brain development and evolution.

The word Entomophagy derives from Greek words éntomon “insect” and phagein “to eat”.

By now, you probably saw videos of people eating insects and start-ups trying to build a business with it.

And, if you’re like most people, you probably thought: YUKKK!, that’s disgusting…

But wait a minute. If it is that disgusting, why are so many people so hyped about it?

In this article, you’re going to learn the following:

  • How do insects taste and why it may be a good idea to eat them
  • Edible insects around the globe: Where can you get your hands on edible insects?
  • The history of entomophagy - how insects may have helped us develop the brains we have today
  • Insects and religion - what insects are you allowed to eat if you are a Christian, Muslim or Jew?
  • Why we stopped eating insects in the western world?

Let’s dive in!

The first thing that you’re probably curious about is:

What do bugs taste like?

They can taste sweet, salty, savory, sour, spicy or bitter. It all comes down on the insect species.

There are spicy leafcutter ants (Atta laevigata), sweet honeypot ants, savory and slightly salty house crickets (acheta domesticus), grilled grasshoppers that are crunchy savory and bitter… the list goes on.

In fact:

It is estimated that 2,100 different insect species including their eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults are being consumed around the world. [1]

The most consumed insect groups are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies, and flies. [2]

Edible insect infographic- Number of recorded edible insect species worldwide
Edible insect infographic showing the number of recorded edible insect species. [2] Designed by: eatCrickster.com
Fun fact: It is estimated that there are around 8.7 million species in the world of were 900 000 are insects!

Besides the wide range of taste combinations, entomophagy has more to offer.

Are edible insects healthy?

Insects have various nutritional profiles, but most of them are packed with nutrients.

Most edible bugs contain high amounts of protein, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Many species contain all essential amino acids which are responsible for a wide range of bodily functions.

Some of the most common edible insects like crickets and grasshoppers, contain high amounts of vitamin B12 and Riboflavin. A recent study even showed that insects can synthesize vitamin D3 when they’re exposed to UVB light. Which makes them a great supplement for people with dietary restrictions.

The best part?

Besides being tasty and healthy, edible insects are relatively sustainable compared to other livestock animals. They need less water and feed and they emit less greenhouse gases than cows, pork or chicken.

Edible insect infographic comparing insects with livestock

However, there is a downside to it...

As insects are cold-blooded animals they need to get heat from the outside. In nature, the sun takes care of that. However, Indoor insect farming needs a lot of energy.

Since insect farming is constantly evolving at a rapid pace, we're hoping to see more optimized methods in the near future.

In case you want to try edible insects yourself, we got you covered.

As we’ll show in the next chapter, getting your hands on edible insects is super-easy and adventurous.

Where can I try eating insects?

Anywhere. Eating insects is more common than you might think.

Edible insect Infographic by Crickster- Number of people who eat bugs
Infographic: Almost a quarter of the world population is eating bugs

The easiest option is ordering bugs online from the comfort of your home. Some food start-ups are making innovative food products with different types of edible insects.

The other option is a little more adventurous and it involves traveling!

Worldwide, around 3,000 ethnic groups practice entomophagy in one form or the other. [7,8,9,10] There are at least two billion people from Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand to North, Central, and South America who eat bugs [11].

Some of the insect consumption is stemming from Western civilizations as well. People are consuming caterpillars in France and Belgium, bee larvae in Germany. In Italy, people prize the Cazu marzu cheese, which is cheese made with live insect larvae.

In case you want to explore edible insects around the world, we got you covered.

A list of countries, where you could try some incredible dishes with edible insects:

Thailand: Besides white sandy beaches, full moon parties and big buckets of booze. Insects are common and are considered a delicacy in Thailand.

With their many food markets, it’s easy to go on a culinary adventure. Here you can find a variety of edible insects like grasshoppers, woodworms, water beetles, crickets, bamboo worms and many many more. [11,12].

Mexico: Edible insects are only eaten in some regions and not as common as in Thailand, but they are still an important part of Mexican gastronomy. The Oaxacan area is a food-mecca for extraordinary culinary insect delights.

There, you can find fried caterpillars, chocolate-covered locusts, big black ants and their eggs. Also, their traditional smoked agave drink, called mezcal, is both flavoured and coloured by the red maguey worm submerged in the bottle - SALUD! [13,14,15]

Southern Africa: In Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa mopane worms are a special seasonal treat. The caterpillars are often squeezed out and dried to a crunch so that you can enjoy this South African treat all year round. [16]

China: Is a major insect consuming country, with its “eat everything, waste nothing” food culture. The rural parts of China consider insects a delicacy and can be a distinctive sight at food markets. [17]

Larvae is a big thing in China! This comes as no surprise when the by-product from the extensive silk production is silkworm pupae. [17]

India: Entomophagy is only practiced in the north-eastern part of India. So, if you are an adventurous entomophagist that want to experience the edible insects of India. Then you should go to Assam, where you can find crickets, grasshoppers, giant water bugs, termites and red ants - Namasté. [18]

Ghana: How about a plate of Ghanaian akokono, or palm weevil larvae? Other insects commonly eaten here are termites, crickets, and grasshoppers. In this country, eating insects is not a lifestyle choice, but is a mean of survival when other food sources are scarce. [19]

The Netherlands: The Dutch are pioneering in Europe when it comes to edible insects. Especially, within commercial insect farming. Here, the company Kreca and the University of Wageningen have partnered to become a huge driver for entomophagy in Europe. [20]

Also, many edible insect start-ups are offering products tailored to the western consumer. Products, such as mealworm burgers, cricket powder energy bars, and chocolate covered grasshoppers. [21]

With that many countries and regions eating edible insects you’re probably curious;

Where did it all begin?

The History of entomophagy—Our ancestors were munching on bugs

Entomophagy was an ancient and widespread practice. It was particularly common among our primate ancestors [22] that were all ‘to some degree insectivorous’ – meaning, they loved bugs. [23]

From prehistoric times to the present day, humans have been eating the eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults of certain insects. [1]

Signs of entomophagy can be found throughout the ages in fossilized cavemen poop, cave paintings, religious & historical texts.

Scientists concluded that edible insects may have played a key role in our brain development and evolution. [24]

The first evidence of entomophagy came from analyzing fossilized feces (coprolites) from caves in the US and Mexico. Researchers found coprolites (fossilized poop) that contained ants, beetle larvae, lice, ticks, and mites in the Ozark Mountains, Arkansas, US. [25]

Fun Fact: The Native Americans were very accustomed to eating grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets. The settlers reported that the Goshute Indians on their first tasting of shrimp named the creatures “sea crickets”. [26]

The first “recorded” cases of entomophagy stem from cave paintings in Altamira, north Spain. The paintings are from 30,000 to 9,000 BC and show the collection of edible insects and wild bee nests, suggesting an insect eating (entomophagous) society. [25]

In the Shanxi province of China, excavators collected cocoons of wild silkworm (Triuncina religiosae) dated from 2,000 to 2,500 years BC. The cocoons had large holes in them, that the Shanxies of the old was eating the pupae. [25]

Later, when the written word and the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) were introduced. The texts guided the faithful by telling them, which insects they could consume.

Even the old Greeks had a thing for insects. The first references about entomophagy in Europe come from Ancient Greece. Here, they ate cicadas as a delicacy! [27]

This was documented by Aristoteles in his Historia Animalium (384-322 BC). According to Aristoteles, female cicadas tastes better after mating because they are full of eggs.: [27]

“The larvae of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best before the husk is broken [i.e. before the last molt]”. [27]

Other texts from that time and region show how common it was to eat insects. The Greek historian, Diodorus (200 BC) nicknamed the people from Ethiopia 'Acridophagi’, because they munched on grasshoppers and locusts, which are in the  insect family Acrididae. [27]

In the Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder, who was the author of Historia Naturalis, refers to a dish loved by the Romans called ‘cossus’, which they prepared with beetle larvae. (Bodenheimer 1951) [27]

That was back in the good old days! What other records do we have of entomophagy?

In Asia, Chinese literature usually refers to entomophagy and the use of insects in traditional medicine. The Chinese created a big recipe list based on insects along with their medicinal attributes in the Compendium of Materia Medica (Li Shizhen, Ming Dynasty, (1368–1644)). [27]

in 1550, Leo Africanus from Morocco recorded that the Nomads from Arabia and Libya boiled or dried locusts in the sun. [27]

René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur wrote in Mémoires pour server à l’Histoire des Insectes, 1737, that we could perhaps in time overcome our repugnance of eating insects and accept them as part of our diet and realize that there is nothing terrible about them and that they perhaps may even offer us agreeable sensations. We have grown accustomed to eating frogs, snakes, lizards, shellfish, oysters, etc. in the various provinces of France. Perhaps the first urge to eat them was hunger. [27]

Foucher d’ obsonville described in 1783 that locusts are eaten by some Asiatics, most Africans and especially the Arabs. The locusts appear roasted or grilled in great quantities on their markets. They keep for some time in storage when they are salted and are used for supplying ships, where they may be served as a dessert or with coffee. This food is in no way repugnant to look at or by association. It tastes like prawn, and is perhaps more delicately flavoured, especially the females when filled with eggs. [27]

Bottom line:
Insects are and have always been an important part of our diet and may have played a key role in our brain development and evolution.

Insects and religion

Can I eat insects if I am a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew?

Well, yes, sort of! I guess we have to clarify this answer.

Culture and religious beliefs have always influenced food practices throughout history. The practice of eating insects is a part of the religious literature in the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths. [1]

In the Bible the book of Leviticus (the third book of Tora) speaks of locusts as food:

However, you may eat the following kinds of winged creatures that walk on all fours: those having jointed legs above their feet for hopping on the ground (Leviticus XI: 21)

- any kind of locust, katydid, cricket, or grasshopper. (Leviticus XI: 21) [28]

So, without breaking any heavenly laws, the Christians can partake in the consumption of locusts, katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers. Yeah, go JESUS! [28]

Are insects kosher?

The Bible and the Tora share the above verses. Jews are similarly allowed to consume four varieties of Kosher locusts under the laws of kashrut (The Jewish dietary law). [29]

Alright, so both the Christians and Jews are allowed some types of edible insects. What about their Muslim brothers and sisters?

Are insects halal?

The Muslims are allowed to eat a good variety of edible insects. There are several mentions of insect-eating in the Koran – including locusts, bees, ants, lice and termites. [30]

The majority of references are about the consumption of locusts:

It is permissible to eat locusts (Sahih Muslim, 21.4801)

Locusts are game of the sea; you may eat them (Sunaan ibn Majah, 4.3222)

Locusts are Allah’s troops, you may eat them (Sunaan ibn Majah, 4.3219, 3220) [30]

Bottom line:
No matter what religion you belong to, you are allowed to eat locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets. No more need to hide your cravings for that big swarm of chocolate covered locusts 😉

Now, If religions allow insects, and philosophers were considering entomophagy as natural practice in the 18th century. How come we are not eating insects now? What happened? Or didn’t happen?

Why did the western world stop eating insects?

Welcome Agriculture!

The western world stopped eating insects, because of the introduction of farming that offered better and more stable benefits. Luckily, many innovative entrepreneurs in the western world are trying to reintroduce insects as stable food through new innovative food products with insects.

Many accept that agriculture originated in The Fertile Crescent, a region of fertile lands in the middle east to northeast Africa. [31]

Let’s domesticate

Agriculture and animal domestication spread from The Fertile Crescent to Europe and ended up replacing hunting and gathering for food. [31]

The domestication of larger mammals yielded great amounts of animal protein. As well as fur, milk, leather, wool, plow traction and new means of transport. Thus, the utility of these animals made the use of insects obsolete. With the exception of honeybees, silkworms and scale insects that still offered huge benefits. [31]

The agriculture practices evolved in The Fertile Crescent and Europe to include the domestication of a wide variety of plants and animals. This resulted in incredible gains in efficiency and productivity, which led to a stable and storable food supply. [31]

But wait a moment. That didn’t answer my question about; why did we stop eating insects?

The "end" of entomophagy was most likely caused by going from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to lifestyle of farming. Undomesticated food sources, in general, became less important. This was because of the seasonality and therefore uncertain nature of insects as a staple food [32]

On top of that, the importance of agriculture might have shifted the perception of insects being an important food source to insects being a threat to the crop production. [32]

Edible Cricket Illustration - Crickster Brand Elements

That makes sense! What is happening now? Why haven’t we begun to eat insects in the west?  

It starts with U and it is something we are good at in the west. Yes, you guessed it urbanization. This practice has left people out of touch with nature – big cold cities with closed concrete buildings.

In contrast, many people in tropical areas live a more rural life in harmony with nature. Think a moment about the open clay huts in Africa, with their big house pet spiders.

This picture is changing, as the increase of urbanization happening now in the developing regions will change the consumption of insects if the delivery to the cities remains small and unreliable. [33]

Luckily, lots of startups are reintroducing edible insects in the west.

But, why is it the western world can’t unite with the practice of eating insects?

“Disgust is one of our most basic emotions – the only one that we have to learn – and nothing triggers it more than the strange food of others.” [34]

Most people in the Western world feel disgusted when presented with edible insects. [35]

Also, many westerners associate the practice of eating insects as primitive behavior. This does not open the perspective of entomophagy towards acceptance. [36,37,38]

The feeling of disgust are often followed with questions such as: What is it? or Where has it been? [39] So, when a westerner sees a roasted mealworm – the most common associations are to their favourite oatmeal, crawling with mealworms. Or even worse, the association with the decay of a dead carcass filled with maggots – YUUUCK!

It is a matter of culture

Looking past the basic human emotions, the origins of disgust have deep roots in our food culture.

Culture is the product of history, environment, community structure, human endeavour, mobility and socio-politico-economic systems. It all factors in and helps to define the rules on what is edible and what is not. [40]

Bottom Line:
The western world simply stopped eating insects as the development of agriculture and livestock domestication led to a change of lifestyle going from hunter-gathering to farming.

That topped with the uncertainty of insects as a stable food source and that insects were now becoming a threat to the precious farmed crops.

We are experiencing an increased westernization and urbanization around the world that further distance the urbanized and westernized areas from entomophagy. This is because of an increased less harmonious life with nature and the common notion that westerners perceive entomophagy as primitive disgusting behavior.

Finally, the acceptance or rejection of entomophagy is a question of culture.

I hoped you enjoyed this post about entomophagy and you learned something new.

Now I want to hear from you:

Which topics of this posts positively surprised you?

Which are the most interesting to you?

Are you going to give insects a try?  And which insects would you try first?

Let me know by leaving a comment bellow 😉

Want to know more about edible insects?

Check out this article about why you should be eating insects

Refe

Keep reading

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