The ‘yuck factor’ often gets in the way of having a decent conversation about eating bugs. A lot of people just don’t want to entertain the thought of snacking on a cricket, termite, mealworm or ant. What is it about eating creepy crawlies that makes so many of us shudder on cue?
“Edible insects are not something that most Australians have grown up eating,” explains Skye Blackburn, entomologist and food scientist at the Edible Bug Shop. “So with any new food, people will need to learn about it.”
Skye is ready and willing to educate from Australia's first edible insect farm in Western Sydney. She runs cooking demonstrations at parties, corporate events and festivals, and provides educational programs for students of hospitality, future food and food systems. Her hard work in growing consumer awareness is paying off – for both her business, and her customers.
“Ten years ago I would struggle to get a visitor at a food expo to try a cricket cookie, but now people seek us out."
"Demand is huge"
“About five years ago I made a decision to help educate consumers about the amazing health, nutritional and environmental benefits of edible insects,” says Skye. “Now demand is huge.
“Ten years ago I would struggle to get a visitor at a food expo to try a cricket cookie, but now people seek us out, and come to events specifically because they have questions for me and want to try them for themselves.”
These days Skye mails edible bugs all over Australia, but she didn’t start out growing insects for food: “I started breeding bugs for school education programs and displays while I was working as a food scientist.
“In 2007 I went on a holiday to Thailand where I was introduced to edible insects for the first time and I was hooked! When I came home I was on a mission to develop food products using edible insects as a key ingredient, but that were suitable for Western tastes.”
Little bugs, big health benefits
There’s certainly a growing awareness that insect farms could provide an eco-friendly alternative to animal farming. Edible bugs may be rare in Australia, but bugs have been eaten on plates all over the world for generations. So there will be plenty of Australians who are quite used to supplementing their diet with nutrient-rich insects already.
“Once people try edible insects for the first time you can see their expression change, from ‘Oh my, what am I putting in my mouth!?’ to ‘Oh, my, what was a worried about?’”
Nutritional composition varies across species (and varies further depending on the metamorphic stage of the insect), but in general insects are an excellent source of protein, amino acids, mono and poly-unsaturated fats and micronutrients like copper, iron, magnesium and zinc. In fact, gram for gram, crickets contain a higher amount of available iron than beef, and copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium, and calcium in crickets, grasshoppers, and mealworms are more readily available for absorption than the same nutrients in beef.
Are the health and eco benefits enough to get Australians to tuck in? Skye is confident that most people will find they don’t mind eating bugs at all. “It’s so worthwhile to see such a big change in consumer acceptance when it comes to eating insects,” she says.
Really, it’s just a matter of closing your eyes and having a taste. “Once people try edible insects for the first time you can see their expression change, from ‘Oh my, what am I putting in my mouth!?’ to ‘Oh, my, what was a worried about?’” says Skye.
Bugs have a “slightly nutty” flavour and it helps that most insects are dished up hidden in familiar foods. Cricket ‘powder’ is one such product that is perfect for adding an insect-kick to a morning smoothie or to enrich a slow-cooker veggie casserole. The cricket powder can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes to add a protein and micronutrient boost.
“I’ve developed familiar food items that just happen to have insects as the key nutritional ingredient. We have burgers, smoothies and cookies all enriched with insect protein,” says Skyle. “They just taste like something that is already familiar to you.”
“Eating insects isn’t always about eating a huge bug!"
Interestingly, one of the questions Skye is most often asked is whether or not you can eat bugs straight from the backyard. It’s not something Skye recommends as bugs in the wild can be contaminated with chemicals or parasites. Collecting insects from nature is also not a sustainable practice, which is one of the reasons Skye started farming bugs in the first place.
Let’s face it, the thought of chowing down on a cricket from the backyard is probably what puts the ‘er’ into ‘er, no thanks’ in the first place. As Skye points out, “Eating insects isn’t always about eating a huge bug! We can benefit from the nutrition of eating insects by in lots of different ways.”