To Fight World Hunger, the Secret Ingredient Could Be Bugs

The EU hopes to “exploit the potential of insects as alternative sources of protein” and feel out “their potential incorporation into food."

What would convince you to eat bugs for dinner? What if the global food chain collapsed under the weight of a soaring human population, severe climate change, and diminishing pasture space? The European Union is working on a potential solution for that scenario: It’s spending 3 million Euros to look at bugs’ potential to supplement the continent’s food supply. With the research, the EU hopes to “exploit the potential of insects as alternative sources of protein” and feel out “their potential incorporation into feed and/or food products.”

Insects are a natural food source: They are packed with protein and calcium, low in fat, and offer a cheaper option to farming livestock. Compared to most animals used for food, these cold-blooded creatures spend less energy and nutrients, reproduce faster and in higher quantities, and—if farmed—would emit fewer greenhouse gasses. But bugs also conjure up the image of revolting roach patties and creepy-crawly mealworm larvae. The EU hasn't discussed which particular critters it's looking to fry up, and food producers who take up the cause will probably stay cagey on the secret ingredient—according to the Daily Mail, experts believe that insects will likely be used in food additives under the guise of “animal-based proteins.”

But in fact, insects have a long history as culinary ingredient. If you grew up in the United States, you’ve already ingested a sizeable number of insect particles (and even some stray rodent hairs and excrement) in government-approved foods. The bugs have just been conveniently hidden, disguised, or unidentified among the chemicals and other complex ingredients that flood nutrition labels.

Take “cochineal extract” [PDF], also known as “carmine.” It’s a “natural” color additive extracted from crushed and dried cactus-dwelling female cochineal beetles and eggs which are then used to color red, pink, or purple candies, plus yogurts, ice creams, drugs, fruit beverages, baby products, and cosmetics by companies like Smashbox and Yves Saint Laurent (yes, Americans also spread bug guts on their faces). One pound of red dye uses about 70,000 of these insects. Before 2009, they were identified only as “artificial color,” “color added,” or “E120” on food and cosmetic labels. But after several dozen customers claimed severe allergic reactions—ranging from hives to anaphylactic shock—from unknowingly consuming these bug-based dyes, the FDA required the declaration of “cochineal extract” and “carmine” on food and cosmetics labels.

Then there’s shellac, a substance that lends an attractive sheen to jelly beans and a waxy look to supermarket apples. It comes straight from a larval lac beetle’s bodily secretions—collected after it sucks out tree sap, wraps itself in a cocoon to mature, and mates. The final product, an amber-colored resin, is scraped off the host trees, refined to remove the insect’s lac dye and particles, manufactured into brittle flakes, and dissolved into alcohol to make a brush-on glaze. The FDA has declared the glaze as “generally recognized as safe.” When it’s used to coat pills, fruits, candy, and chocolates, it’s known as “E904”—or “confectioner’s glaze,” “pure food glaze,” or “natural glaze.” This resin is also used in hardwood and hairspray to give off the same eye-catching shine.

And these are just the bugs we’re putting into foods on purpose. The Food and Drug Administration publishes a “Food Defect Action Levels” handbook to set maximum levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods, including stray bugs. The FDA warns that “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.” Shelled peanuts, for example, can contain an average of 20 or more whole insects in 100-pound bag siftings. Chocolate can pass with 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams. And if you’re into spices, seeds, and canned or frozen foods, be prepared to swallow insect particles, insect eggs, larvae, and mites.

The idea of bugs as gross is actually an odd cultural construct. According to Insectopedia author and anthropology professor Hugh Raffles, insects were viewed as a food option before they were seen as disease-ridden pests. In the late 19th century, you could even find “home economics books and nursery rhyme books where mothers encouraged their children to befriend flies,” Raffles says. Then, germ theory hit, and bugs were rendered revolting—to some.

While Europeans and Americans both have strong negative associations with devouring bugs, entomophagy isn’t a rarity around the globe. More than 3,000 ethnic groups around the world regularly consume insects. “In Thailand, people eat a lot of insects—sometimes you look at insect larvae or crickets on menus,” Raffles says. “In the last 30 or 40 years," westerners "have been much more revolted at the thought of insects as food.” In another 30 years, we may be desperate enough for protein that the tide will turn again.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user eyeliam

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