I’ve always found something enchanting in the idea of eating bugs. Partly for the exoticism, introducing new things into our diet that challenge chefs and provoke our taste buds. But more than that, there are unending benefits to the planet and our health that seem attractive when thinking about a growing population and limited resources.
Take for instance a cricket. The humble squeaker doesn’t have the most riveting life—it doesn’t feel pain quite the same way as mammals, and its lifespan is crushingly short, about three months. The horrifying conditions of some factory farms that raise pigs or cattle don’t apply to crickets or ants or earthworms. They live in crowded conditions, practically on top of each other.
The only problem is that many Americans have never been able to get past the psychological hurdle. Eating unfamiliar animals that are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat makes sense on paper, but it just doesn’t feel right. Never mind that 80 percent of the world make insects a regular part of the diet. In America, bug-eating just gives most people the creeps. There’s a reason why Fear Factor was such strangely gripping TV.
Yet perhaps those attitudes are receding. Insects are coming to the U.S., or in
the case of some burgeoning companies, they’re already here. Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis started one of them, called Exo, that turns live crickets into cricket flour, then uses it to make energy bars high in nutrients. As the guys told me, the bars are healthy, sustainably-produced and packed—10 grams per bar—with protein.
They’re still raising money on Kickstarter to bring the idea to full scale. I, however, was mostly interested in the crickets. Fortunately, they were willing to send me a few samples, which I awaited with the excitement of a kid wizard camped out for the next Harry Potter book. When they arrived we snapped a few photos, and then affixed our bibs.
Now it’s important to remember that these things are made of cricket flour, which is a fine puree of cricket dust. There are no strange legs or wings to get caught in your teeth. The taste of cricket is a little nutty, a little smokey. But if you weren’t paying attention, you’d never notice. Still, I wanted to get some opinions around our office (at which point I faced the ethical dilemma: Do you tell people in advance and cloud their judgement, or do you wait until after the swallow in order to get an objective opinion? Loving my colleagues and my job, I chose the former).
True to National Geographic‘s staff ethos, some people were eager to try a sustainable protein of the future. True to the rest of society’s attitudes, some people couldn’t be persuaded. One of my colleagues had the best excuse. “It’s too soon,” she said, telling me about an event she attended at the Embassy of the Netherlands where she tried mealworms and cicadas.
For everyone who tried, the reviews were positive. “It doesn’t taste bad, it just tastes good for you,” someone said, which is probably a fair way to describe most energy bars on the market. Some people were disappointed that the cricket bars didn’t go further. “If I’m going to eat crickets, I’d at least like to see one,” someone said. In other words, compared to the rest of the world where people actually eat whole, cooked bugs, hiding our insects in pulverized ground flour is a pretty wimpy way to get into the pool.
Would I eat them again? Absolutely. At this point, it’s a high bar to go through the entire process of ordering crickets (which you can do on Amazon!), kill them, chop them and cook with them. But the more companies that crop up like Exo that do the dirty work for me—serving up a high protein alternative in a country with growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans—the more I can imagine myself saying, “Yeah, I’ll eat that.”