The chocolate chip cookie experts were pink-cheeked, and somewhat nervous. When the tasting was over, the room buzzed with their comments.

"I couldn't tell the difference between it any any other chocolate chip cookie," said Debbie Drownell, 13, of Falls Church. But she had a reservation. "No, I wouldn't make them," she said. "I wouldn't want to grind up all the worms."

The dead mealworm floating around in a glass box, potential grist for the chocolate chip cookie, was a bit much for another taster. "Ugh! I ate one of those?" said 11-year-old John Harrill of Arlington. "I think I'm gonna be sick. It reminds me of escargots. It's worms and all."

Undaunted by the mealworms and the sight of a tarantula contemplating a cricket dinner, 6 1/2-year-old Ester Hovey of Woodbury, N.J., took a big bite. "I love them," she told her mother with whom she was supposed to be sharing the cookie. "I think I'll eat all of it."

The fact that mealworms (baby beetles), grasshoppers, crickets, tarantulas, praying mantises, and centipedes were everywhere didn't stop some 30 children from wolfing down the chocolate chip mealworm cookies, a serious offering at the fifth anniversary celebration of the Smithsonian's Insect Zoo yesterday at the Museum of Natural History. The kids' enthusiasm were even more remarkable considering the nutrition message that accompanied the cookies: Insects are good for you.

The celebration, held at the zoo and attended by 1,000 people, included a lecture on the virtues of insects as integral parts of the balance of nature, as key contributors to agriculture, and as creatures that, in the long run, do more good than harm. Then came two experts, samples in hand, to discuss the virtues of eating them -- their high nutrition content, acceptance in other cultures, and their value as a possible alternative food source.

If you eat canned goods, you may already be into insect consumption. "You eat them every day," said Kay Weisberg, director of the Smithsonian's Insect Zoo, referring to the FDA "allowable limits" in food products. "Per every 100 grams of tomato paste, there can be 30 fruit fly eggs or one maggot. For every ounce of golden raisins there can be 10 whole insects, plus 35 fly eggs. Canned mushrooms can have 20 maggots of any size." i

More than anything, the 57 varieties of edible insects are loaded with protein, according to Weisberg. Grasshoppers are 60 percent protein, bees are 43 percent and houseflies are 63 percent. Even an ant, which is a low 20 percent protein, is high in riboflavin and thiamin. Compared to beef, which is only 19 percent protein; pork, 29 percent; and chicken, 18 percent. One woman wondered aloud whether insects are the food source of the future.

All cultures use insect or insect products in their cuisine, added Margaret Collins, professor of zoology at Howard University. Americans eat honey (bee vomit) as a sweetner. Termites are roasted in Africa. In Guiana grubs, ants and termites are a daily staple, said Collins. And mosquitoes are added to tamales and ants to tacos in South America, noted Weisberg.

While living in Guiana Collins became a connoisseur of fried termites and deep-fried caterpillars.She regularly bought labba ("a 30-pound rodent that tastes like a cross between veal and pork") and capybara (an 80-pound semi-aquatic rodent).

Insects may be the answer to the food shortage crisis, Collins said. "It's highly likely as the population increases, we will have to experience alternative foods. It's also highly likely that we will have to dispose of some of the more expensive foods, like beef," she added.

Collins said she was never squeamish about eating insects. In fact, if she had the time today, she said, she'd love to raise crickets in her basement. That way she would know she was eating insects with restricted eating habits.

Collins offered a couple of tips for potential insect-eaters. Be leery of pesticides, she said, noting the wasteful effort to kill little critters. "And," she said with a Julia Child air, "don't eat canned grasshoppers. They just taste terrible."