A woman prepares to eat a pigeon and mealworm burger at a pop-up event in London in 2013. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Columnist, Food

Will people eat insects?

They’re not exactly the new kale, but insects are definitely having a moment aboveground.

Insect protein is catching the attention of environmentally minded consumers because it treads more lightly on the planet than protein from the animals we’re more accustomed to eating — cows and pigs and chickens. Tally up the feed required, water used or greenhouse gases emitted, and insects look better than a lot of other protein sources (although there is, naturally, some disagreement about the extent of the advantage). But no matter how green insects are, there are some obstacles to getting Americans to eat them.

The first is simply the ick. Most of us (me included) have a sense that eating insects is kind of disgusting. This has nothing to do with the eating quality of insects; it's simply a cultural norm. We eat pigs and chickens. We don't eat worms or dogs, but there's no reason we shouldn't. Lots of people do. It's just that most of them are in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

According to food historian Rachel Laudan, author of "Cuisine and Empire," the Western reluctance to go where billions of others have gone before has very deep roots. Of eating insects, she says, "There's been a ­taboo since about 500 B.C. Judaism and Christianity have strong disgust conditions against insects."

Brendan “Twig” Sheppard eats a roasted mealworm at a charity event at Occidental Grill in Washington in 2014. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

One of the reasons the taboo is hard to get over is that insects aren't always delicious. I haven't eaten enough to pass judgment — just the occasional crunchy grasshopper — so I checked in with Bret Thorn, senior food ­editor at Nation's Restaurant News, whose eating adventures have taken him deep into insect territory. Beetles that were crunchy on the outside were "disagreeably mushy" on the inside, he wrote in an email, and "the tobacco worm was kind of acrid," but other insects tasted like what they were seasoned with. The deep-fried tarantula (technically not an insect, but I think for these purposes we can group the eight- leggers with the six-leggers) "tasted like battered and fried food. I got a little bit of the leg stuck in my teeth."

The findings of my wholly unscientific survey of the insect eaters I know are unremarkable: Some insects are tasty, some aren’t. But I’ve heard few rave ­reviews. No doubt some of the reason goes back to that first icky obstacle. If you think something’s gross, it may be hard to enjoy it. Thorn acknowledges that, though he’s eaten a lot of insects, he always has to force himself.

Which brings us to what is probably (it’s hard to know; I found no data) the most successful segment of edible insects: cricket flour. There are at least a few cricket farm start-ups in the United States, and more than a few companies using cricket flour in processed foods. One is San Francisco-based Chirps Chips, founded by Laura D’Asaro, Rose Wang and Meryl Natow, who set out to normalize insect eating.

The way they did it, D’Asaro told me, was “to find a place to introduce insects, and it was important that people like the taste.” They tried serving mealworm tacos to their friends, and “a lot of them were pretty grossed out,” she said. So, to meet mainstream tastes where they lived, they went with the ­familiar, a product already ­beloved: corn chips, but made with about 10 percent cricket flour.

Kyle Morgan, grocery manager at MOM's Organic Market in Washington, with bags of mealworm protein powder and whole mealworms. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Chips had something going for them besides deliciousness. They’re a party food; you eat them with friends, at social occasions. And that dynamic — ­people eating together in public — is part of how D’Asaro thinks norms change. “You’re not going to go eat insects alone in your room,” she said. You’re willing to try them because your friend tried them, because it becomes a social dynamic: Try the cricket chips!

She points to the Seattle Mariners, who started selling chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers, at home games (with chile lime salt, $4 for a serving of about 20) after team executives tasted the traditional Oaxacan snack at Poquitos, the Seattle restaurant that runs Safeco Field's Edgar's Cantina. Soon, they were all the rage, selling out at game after game.

Why did toasted grasshoppers catch fire at the ballpark? Why does any new eating trend get traction? Somehow, some food catches people’s attention. And, once the cool kids are eating grasshoppers, well . . .

The key question, though, is whether grasshoppers have legs. Do bugs have the potential to go mainstream? If you check that crudest of measurements, Google trends, cricket flour sparked some interest back in 2014 but has been on the decline since. Nevertheless, according to supermarket expert Phil Lempert, "there's a huge opportunity," which he pegs to products like cricket chips. When the bugs actually look like bugs, he says, "that's a novelty and it makes great headlines, but I don't think that's what people are looking for."

Sous chef Nowshad Alam Rasel with a signature cricket dish at a restaurant in Sydney. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

What they’re looking for is something familiar, something delicious, something that doesn’t look like a bug. Lempert thinks millennials, with their sustainability concerns, will lead the charge. And, once the cool kids are eating cricket chips, well . . .

It’s important to note that the cool kids aren’t doing much of it yet. Colleen McClellan, director at market research firm Datassential, estimates that consumer awareness of edible insects is only about 9 percent. It’s highest among the under-30 demographic, but it’s still not close to mainstream.

But there’s reason to think it’ll catch on, at least a little, so it’s important to ask what the implications are if it does. If insects will be popular as an ingredient, we need to pay attention to what they’re an ingredient of. Cricket chips are, after all, chips. They have a bit more protein, but other­wise the nutritional profile is similar to other chips — those other chips that we’re supposed to be limiting our consumption of. If cricket flour is a minor ­ingredient in baked goods and protein bars and chips, are we doing either our diet or our environment any real good?

D’Asaro says crickets are a gateway insect. Right now, Americans just aren’t ready to make a meal out of mealworms, but once we get used to the idea that ­insects are food, those tacos will go over better.

I think one more obstacle for insects is the fast-growing fake-meat sector. There are some very convincing plant-based meat substitutes, and lab-based meats, grown from actual animal cells but without the actual animal, are also getting both better and cheaper — and the enthusiasm for products like the Impossible Burger, which bleeds like the real thing, may point to a future brighter than that of mealworm tacos. Although it’s early to say for sure whether those alternatives will tread more lightly on the planet than, say, pigs, it’s a safe bet that their footprint will get better and better as the technology improves, and they don’t seem to elicit the kind of disgust that insects do.

Which brings us full circle to the ick factor. Once the idea that something is disgusting takes up residence in the human brain, it’s hard to get rid of it. It’s easier to make sure it doesn’t move in at all. It’s too late for me, and for Bret Thorn, and for anyone else who’s reached adulthood with that idea intact. Kids, though, are where change happens. If we can collectively raise a generation of children who think bugs are cool and yummy, it’ll be easier to move beyond the cricket flour phase and on to the worms and caterpillars starring in dishes where they replace animal protein, which is the whole point.

So if you don’t want to eat ­insects, don’t eat insects! But if we’re going to feed a planet ­responsibly, we need all the tools at our disposal. If you’d like to see widespread acceptance of a more sustainable protein source, you don’t have to order the mealworm tacos, but it might help if you feed them to your kids.