mealworm meatballs

For some, the idea of eating insects is revolting, while others already enjoy bugs and worms as delicacies. Still others are on the fence—not a bad place to be, since the future is likely full of cricket flour and other insect protein.

IKEA’s test kitchen first tinkered with the concept of mealworm meatballs (pictured above) three years ago, so maybe they won’t actually make it onto the menu alongside their standard Swedish meatballs for a relatively long while, but they’re back in the news thanks to even more recent innovations like a beet and beetle larvae burger, a spirulina hot dog bun, and herby—insect-free—ice cream. These are test creations too, but the idea behind them all is that healthy, sustainable food must also be delicious, because “To change people’s minds about food, to inspire them to try new ingredients, we can’t just appeal to the intellect—we have to titillate their taste buds.”

If you want to titillate (or test) your own, there are plenty of places where you can eat insects today, including Don Bugito in San Francisco and Mi Tocaya Antojería in Chicago. And of course, you can buy them online to enjoy in the comfort of your own home, from bags of assorted bugs (sort of like an insect party mix!) and Chirps cricket chips to coconut toffee brittle mealworms, just to name a few intriguing options.

bug burger (beet and beetle larvae burger from IKEA's test kicthen, Space10)

The Bug Burger (with beets and beetle larvae), via Space10

While these are still novelties to most of the Western world, insects have long been consumed by many other cultures, and not just in times of duress, but because they’re considered delicious. Traditionally harvested in the wild, farming bugs for food has great future potential, since it’s not only economical (they convert feed incredibly efficiently) but ecologically friendly too, in that they require far less water, energy, and land use to raise, and don’t produce anywhere near the greenhouse gas or ammonia emissions of livestock. Insects are, by and large, whole foods, with no part of them going to waste, and they’re healthy too, high in protein and various minerals (depending on the specific type of bug, of course), but low in fat. They’re also not inherently dirty—with the possible exception of roaches and flies—and while some raw bugs could host nematodes that might infect humans, on the whole they’re much safer than meat, or even fruit and vegetables farmed on an industrial scale. Should factory farming of insects become the norm some day, then concerns would mount; pathogens could become introduced via mishandling, and feeding bugs agricultural compost could be dicey if said compost was contaminated. But for now, the greatest threat to their viability as a Western food source is ingrained prejudice and squeamishness.

Of course, we’re all consuming bugs already in some form, whether we want to think about it or not. There’s cochineal red dye in lots of products, and an acceptable level of insect matter allowed in all manufactured food (see this FDA guide for exact numbers permitted in everything from apple butter to wheat flour—or maybe don’t). Anyone who’s ever had to overcome some measure of discomfort staring down a table full of boiled crabs, shrimp, crawfish (not called mudbugs for nothing), and even lobsters, knows that looks can be overcome—but those with allergies to sea-based arthropods may also be affected by eating spiders, a great excuse to have on hand just in case you ever need it.

People from places that don’t traditionally eat bugs (on purpose anyway) have advocated for adopting entomophagy since at least 1885, when English entomologist Vincent M. Holt published a pamphlet entitled, simply, “Why Not Eat Insects?” As usual, the answer was probably on the order of “Because they’re gross,” so the idea never really took off. Neither did it gain much traction in 1976, when Entertaining With Insects, or: The Original Guide to Insect Cookery was published, nor were many swayed by The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook (originally published in 1988 and revised in 2013). Still, proponents of the practice persist, so we have Eat Grub: The Ultimate Insect Cookbook from 2016, and Insects: An Edible Field Guide from just this year. It’s safe to say, the idea will only continue to rise in popularity—and may one day be a necessity.

Edible Insects Field Guide

Insects: An Edible Field Guide, via Cate in the Kitchen

Luckily, there is a pretty big gulf between mealworm meatballs and roasted tarantulas; you may never be able to stomach the latter, but the former is a fairly friendly way to ease yourself in. Then you can graduate to chapulines tacos and all the rest. Apparently, Nicole Kidman is a fan of eating bugs, if that helps pique your interest.

Vegans get an obvious pass, as do those who adhere to religious restrictions prohibiting certain types of animals, but for the rest of us, there are lots of good reasons to at least try getting comfortable with the idea of eating insects, well before they do turn up on IKEA’s cafeteria trays. And who knows? What gives you the creepy crawlies now may one day make your stomach rumble.

Header image courtesy of Space10.

Jen is an associate content producer at Chowhound and hails from Baltimore, Maryland, but has lived in Portland (Oregon) for so long it feels like home. She enjoys the rain, reads, writes, eats, and cooks voraciously, and stops to pet every stray cat she sees. Continually working on building her Gourmet magazine collection, she will never get over its cancellation.
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