Meet the students who eat bugs

 

JOSH SALISBURY talks to new student group Eat Bugs! about their mission to encourage us all to snack on insects – and tries some for himself…

THEY taste a little like a soy-flavoured cereal: a strong crunch, a savoury taste and a lingering saltiness on the tongue. They’re not great. But they’re not as awful as I was expecting. As long as I don’t open my eyes, I can almost pretend that I haven’t just eaten a handful of dried crickets.

The brownies are much better. Although they contain insects, they taste just like any regular brownie: chocolatey and sweet – it’s just that these ones have added protein. “What I’ve done with these brownies is caramelised them [the insects] first”, explains Eleanor Drinkwater, who made them. “Because you keep the really nice texture without the taste.”

Eleanor, along with Megan Hasoon and Roberto Padovani, are members of a new group on campus called ‘Eat Bugs!’. I first stumble across them on Twitter. Initially I wonder if it’s entirely serious. But it’s not a joke. The group is part of a growing social movement which encourages entomophagy – the practise of eating insects. Their mission statement, according to their profile, is to try and persuade us to consider eating insects as part of a larger move towards greater food sustainability. So far, so good. But as I read it, there’s one burning question I have in my mind. How on Earth do you suddenly start a group dedicated to eating insects? It’s the first thing I ask the trio when I sit down to talk to them.

“Well, I tried them a couple of times when I lived in Ecudaor for 9 months as an undergrad. I just ate a few things there and thought they were quite nice,” explains Roberto. “Then a few months ago I just had the idea that we should start doing this thing.”

Like Roberto, Megan had tried eating insects first while abroad. “I’ve been to Thailand and South East Asia, and it’s massive over there, so I tried little bits,” she says. “So when Roberto suggested doing a stall, I was like yeah, that sounds like a cool idea!”.

For Eleanor, it was the increasing popularity of entomophagy in the media that first attracted her to the idea. “It seemed quite big in the press,” she tells me, “which made me really curious about it”.

The friends, all of whom study Ecology PhDs relating to insects, decided to set up a stall of edible bugs at the Royal Entomological Society’s annual Insect Festival, held last year in York. The stall was so popular, they decided to create a group based around the idea.

 

Once they explain it to me, it seems a little less far-fetched than I first thought. Yet even as they’re talking, I can’t get over my gut instinct that eating insects is gross. “So”, I ask them, “why should people eat bugs?”

One of the reasons, they point out, is that there isn’t any good reason not to eat bugs. “People think: ‘Ew that’s gross’, Megan tells me, “But actually they’re no different from anything else… it’s just our preconceptions of them.”

The aversion to eating creepy-crawlies is common, but it’s also very dangerous for the planet, they explain. As you might expect from a group of PhD students, they’ve done their research when it comes to the environmental impact of eating insects. For instance, I learn that cows produce 35 grams of CO2 while being farmed, but a kilo of crickets only produce two grams. Recently published research, co-authored by University of York academics, found that eating even a small amount of insects instead of beef would substantially cut down on harmful emissions associated with livestock. Chomping down on these instead of a burger might help stop global warming then.

It’s not just good for the environment to eat crickets – it’s good for other animals as well. Eleanor explains that it’s better for animal welfare, too. “If you compare the conditions it takes to keep a cricket happy compared to battery farmed hens for example, obviously [crickets] a lot simpler to look after than a chicken.”

The students’ concern for animal welfare leads me to think that they’re vegetarians. In fact, I begin to wonder if they’re advocating swapping all of our meat for insect-based products. I could cope with switching meat for vegetables. But the thought of exchanging all meat for insects makes me feel a bit queasy.

Luckily, that’s not what they’re suggesting. Insects are easy to cook, so they could easily be a substitute for meat if you wanted them to be, Megan explains to me. But the trio don’t expect us all to stop eating meat and start eating insects. Much more modestly, they just want us to think more about the environmental impact of the food most of us currently eat. “I wouldn’t expect our stall to suddenly start swapping their steaks for insects,” says Eleanor, “but if it makes a few people stop and think ‘Oh I didn’t realise that a cow produced that much greenhouse gas, and here’s a good alternative’, then it’s worth it.”

At this point, the group are doing such a good job of persuading me that eating bugs isn’t as gross as I initially thought, that I start clutching at straws to try and justify my distaste for it. Perhaps eating insects is actually really bad for you? They’re actually super-healthy, it turns out. Crickets contain more protein than an equivalent amount of beef or chicken. “And it’s got vitamins, minerals, fibers, so it’s got all the things you kind of need”, Roberto adds.

Because they’re so healthy, eating insects has actually taken off in the unlikeliest of places: gyms. Powdered cricket is the new protein powder, one fitness website I find says. While it’s a small specialist niche today, it could be widespread tomorrow, Eat Bugs! think. “If you think about sushi, when that first appeared in England, everyone was freaked out by it”, says Roberto, “but now it’s next to your sandwiches in Tesco’s”.

It’s pretty hard not to agree. By the time I finish interviewing them, I’ve come to accept that edible bugs might soon be on the menus of the future. But if edible bugs will be everywhere, I want to know which ones taste the least disgusting.

The group can clearly tell I’m not entirely sold on the idea of insect-eating, because they laugh at the question. But they humour me. “Go for the [cricket] flour!”, Megan advises. “It’s so versatile, you don’t even realise you’re eating it. Give it a go, even if it’s you and your mates split a box between you and bake some cookies or something. It’s tasty, you’ll see!” While I can imagine using cricket flour in something, it’ll take a lot before I can stomach eating flying ants, tarantulas and giant palm grubs – even if Roberto insists that “they’re really good, just kind of meaty”. I wouldn’t say no to another brownie though. And if you’re offered, you shouldn’t either. They taste good – and it just might save the planet.

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