Bugs may solve food sustainability problems

MacKenzie Wade, junior in anthropology, pulls a tray of larvae mealworms and duckling beetles from her oven on April 29, 2015. For Wade's environmental anthropology course, she had chosen to write a blog and pursue her interest in food sustainability by eating insects. (Parker Robb | The Collegian)

While many people search for a solution to a pestering insect problem, Kenzie Wade, junior in anthropology, looks at insects as the solution to a more complex problem. Wade said she saw the crawling creatures as exciting opportunities. She said she hoped to transform her bug-eating school project into a growing business.

“I would like to bring food sustainability to cultural preservation,” Wade said.

According to Wade, she had to choose a topic and write a blog from her environmental anthropology class. Wade used the assignment to pursue her interest in food sustainability by eating insects, or entomophagy.

“I have just grown up watching crazy videos of cultures all around the world,” Wade said. “There are 2 billion people in the world that eat insects on a daily basis. I was always just really wanting to eat insects.”

Wade is from Bakersfield, California, where ideas such as entomophagy are starting to be accepted. Thinking about all that we do eat, it just seems weird to not eat insects, said Wade.

According to a U.S. News and World Report from April 28, 2011 article titled “Countries That Eat Bugs” by Miriam Weiner, entomophagy has been a common practice of cultures around the world for centuries. Such cultures can be found in countries including Thailand, Mexico, Ghana, China and Brazil.

Wade, who speaks with reporters on the condition that they eat one of her insects, is currently raising mealworms in a three-drawer container in her bedroom.

“In the middle drawer, I have the mealworms, which is what I farm and people eat,” Wade said. “They are the larva of a duckling beetle.”

The mealworms then turn into pupa, which she described as the cocoon phase. Wade said she then moves the pupa to the top drawer. There, they transform into beetles. The bottom of the top drawer is made of a mesh-like substance so that when the beetles lay their eggs, the eggs falls into the mealworm drawer and the process is repeated.

“It is like a system,” Wade said.

Wade said she typically orders the insects online, but also admitted that she sometimes buys ones meant for pet food.

“Honestly, I sometimes go to PetCo and I get the ones for the lizards and I use those too,” Wade said.

The insects are eaten while in the mealworm stage. They are taken out of the container and placed in the freezer where they die and are then ready for consumption. Wade said she eats the insects plain, with spices or makes them into mealworm flour to be used in her cooking.

Insects are eaten because of nutritional value, easy access and taste.

“They have two times more protein than the same amount of beef,” Wade said. “They have more iron than spinach.”

Linda Yarrow, assistant professor of human nutrition, confirmed the healthy aspect of insects. She said insects are sources of protein, vitamins, minerals and calcium. The bugs also have low fat content and what fat they do have is unsaturated, which is the healthier kind of fat.

When Wade explains her project and eating habits to others, people tend to cringe.

“I was sitting (in a coffee shop) and there was a group of girls at a table. They were turning around, staring at me, and whispering,” Wade said.

One of the girls later approached Wade and explained that she attended a lecture Wade had given. “Do you really eat bugs?” the girl asked.

“We have this idea that insects are gross and invaders,” Wade said.

It is no different than eating a lobster, the insect of the sea.

“There is no reason that we shouldn’t become more accepting of eating bugs because they are actually are very nutritious food item,” Yarrow said, though she does not actively practice entomophagy herself.

Even Wade’s younger brother is wary of his sister’s diet.

“When I brought them out, he would stand across the room,” Wade said. “But I really don’t get held down by anything. I like to be different.”

Wade said she defends her unusual ideas with environmental facts. Wade wrote in her blog that bugs emit few greenhouse gases compared to livestock, which is produces 18 percent of greenhouse emissions. Bugs also require less water and space than livestock. Livestock, including cattle, need to be raised in rural settings while bugs are accustomed to small spaces and can be raised almost anywhere, including the bedroom of a college student.

With so many advantages to entomophagy, why are Americans hesitant to accept bugs as a food source?

“There’s a lot of good reasons we probably should be looking at them as a source of nutrition,” Yarrow said. “It’s just culturally, it’s not well accepted. In the United States we have the income that makes us sometimes just forget that we should probably try to be a little more sustainable in the way we raise our food and eat our food.”

Wade wrote in her blog that “A cultural bubble keeps us in a purgatorial place in which we are free to care about an issue that we will never experience first-hand, or get our hands dirty trying.”

Disease is another fear Americans have of entomophagy.

“It is safe,” Thomas Phillips, professor in entomology, said. “Insects that we rear for research and also those that we use for food virtually would have no pathogens or diseases for people.” He is careful to not rule out allergens, but, in general, there are no serious allergens found in insects.

Yarrow said she believes the U.S. will accept entomophagy in the future, but it will be a slow process that may come through the work of children.

“It comes as no surprise that children welcome the concept of entomophagy with open arms, and with such sweet treats at hand, it might be time for us adults to follow suit,” Weiner also wrote in her article.

Wade said she hopes to turn her semester project into a business with the help of investors. She plans to order 5,000 insects over the summer and will be selling them as mealworm flour in the fall.

Is it time to start looking at insects as solutions instead of pests?

“Bugs solve all our problems,” Wade wrote in her blog.

Editor’s note: Updated at 2:39 a.m. to correct a misspelling.