It's time to eat insects for the good of the planet, say experts
By Honor Mahony
"The European consumer has some difficulties in crunching a whole insect", says Professor Arnold Van Huis, capturing in one dry sentence the gamut of faint distaste to full-on revulsion that many Europeans feel about the idea of snacking on their local grasshopper.
Potential squeamishness aside though, the Dutch academic believes insects are the sustainable, healthy and environment friendly foods of the future.
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"There are so many benefits to the eating of insects compared to conventional livestock, and, nutritionally, insects are exactly the same as conventional meat", he tells EUobserver.
Insects contain more protein per mouthful than beef, are low in fat, high in vitamin B and rearing them causes much less damage to the environment than cows, sheep and pigs.
At the moment, the issue of whether we can sustain the European population on insects remains academic, or, at the very least, one for the culinary adventurous.
But Van Huis believes that rising food prices, coupled with still further huge increases in the world population and the corresponding search for yet more farm land means "people are really looking for alternatives".
There are about 1,800 edible insects in the world. But for "scaling up" it has to be possible to raise the insects easily, which leaves mealworms - the larvae of darkling beetles - crickets and locusts.
This is where Marian Peters comes in. A Dutch entrepreneur with a background in economics and agriculture she saw a gap in the market for struggling Dutch farmers to rear insects. She set up Venik, the Dutch insect breeders association, which now has about 16 registered members.
Peters is also involved in stocking Sligro, a Dutch food wholesaler that caters to restaurants, with freeze-dried locusts and mealworms and has developed a muesli bar containing ground up mealworms.
Along with Van Huis, she is at the vanguard of the insect-as-food movement, so much so that when she first went to the Dutch agricultural ministry looking for research money, they couldn't categorise her.
"I wasn't a cow, I wasn't a fish, I wasn't a chicken," she laughs.
Now the ministry is providing Van Huis - with whom Peters collaborates - and his team of four PhD students with €1 million for research focussed on extracting protein from insects. This is something of a holy grail for Van Huis as it would give all of the goodness of insect protein without the off-putting exoskeleton visuals.
The ministry is also funding research into raising insects on edible food waste, such as the skin of soybeans.
For her part, Peters reckons the novice insect-eater should start off with insects in a wok with rice and soya sauce, with garlic, pepper and salt: "This is really good".
Insects taste "nutty" by all accounts. And there is much to be said about the texture too. Freeze-dried locusts, for example, are "crunchy like popcorn", says Peters but when you buy them fresh "they also have a good bite, but it is more like wheat".
But she says that often the easiest way people can bring themselves to overcome the 'yuck' factor is when they hear about how damaging livestock rearing is for the environment.
Our taste for beef sees land gobbled up to grow grain to feed the cattle, vast amounts of water expended (over 10 gallons is needed to produce around two pounds of beef) and the atmosphere warmed through their methane burps. Mealworms, by contrast, generate up to 100 times less greenhouse gases than pigs.
It is all about overcoming preconceptions according to Van Huis. After all, we are generally perfectly happy to sit down to eat prawns and shrimps, oysters and snails. Locusts are merely "prawns of the sky".
He works with a team of scientists at Wageningen University, a sort of food silicon valley in the Netherlands, to come up with appetising insect recipes. One that goes down well is mealworm quiche.
But we are well behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to eating insects. Caterpillars, grubs grasshopper, ants and the like are part of the diet or even a delicacy for many people in Africa, Asia and South America.
Nevertheless, there is already a market for creepy-crawlies it seems. Daniel Creedon, chef at London's Archipelago Restaurant, serves chocolate-covered scorpions ("they're quite fun"), cream custard brulee with a bee on top and a side salad of stir-fried locusts and crickets - the 'love bug salad' - as part of a deliberately eclectic menu.
"I would say half of our customers have insects of some sort while they are here," says the award-winning chef, adding of this website's inevitable taste question: "It's incredibly hard to describe the taste, because it tastes like insects, which really don't taste like anything else."