If Cam Brantley-Rios can eat bugs for every meal, the Auburn University senior figures, then anyone can do it. In the hopes of inspiring potential insect-eaters across America, he's committed himself to a 30-day challenge doing just that.For the next few weeks, he's having bugs in every single meal.
But a blossoming interest in entomophagy -- otherwise known as eating bugs -- pushed him to give crickets and worms a try. Brantley-Rios was fascinated by the growing popularity of making and eating bug-filled foods in the United States. Until recently, the practice was incredibly common in some areas of the world, but remained taboo here. That's changing thanks to companies that tempt young health-seekers with benign and tasty bug-based products.
There are plenty of reasons to eat bugs: They're a low-fat, high-fiber source of protein (crickets and mealworms pack an especially powerful punch) with extremely low carbon footprints. It takes much less energy to raise bug protein gram for gram than more traditional meats, so chowing on crickets ends up being both cheaper and more environmentally friendly than choosing a cheeseburger.
In fact, the United Nations released a report in 2013 urging western countries to embrace entomophagy for the good of the world.
To Brantley-Rios, the most important thing about eating bugs is that it isn't gross.
"They absorb flavors pretty damn well," he said, explaining that he's been surprised by how tasty his hastily prepared dishes have been.
As is the case with many college students, Brantley-Rios lacks the time and skill to whip up a gourmet meal designed to hide insects within. Instead, he's throwing crickets and superworms into standard college fare: Sandwiches, omelets, hasty stir fries, takeout, and tons of Mexican food.
"Crickets work really well with taco seasoning and lime juice, so that's been working great," he said.
But while insects have proven to be the perfect protein for a college student (the bugs cook up in two or three minutes, Brantley-Rios said) he's trying to broaden his horizons even more. He's writing about the challenge every day on his Web site, which he eventually hopes to expand into an online news source focused on insect dining, and he's worried about keeping it interesting. Luckily, he's got an idea -- more disgusting bugs.
"I've got some orange-spotted cockroaches on the way, which is a little nerve-wracking," he said. "I'm also thinking about eating a couple tarantulas."
Brantley-Rios, who studies public relations, says he didn't really think of the challenge as a a PR move for the Web site he's building, where he hopes to highlight some of the many start-ups producing insect-based food in the U.S. He just felt like it would be hypocritical to write about the benefits of eating bugs without doing it regularly himself -- and he knew that telling his friends, family, and school about the "challenge" would force him to stick to it. But he admits that "the PR kid" in him seems to have "found a way to get people's attention" regardless. So far all the feedback he's gotten has been fairly positive, excluding a few University of Alabama fans who "find reasons to make fun of Auburn students no matter what."
On campus, people are transitioning from encouraging him at arm's length to joining him for dinner. "It's starting to pick up as a sort of local movement. A lot of my friends are getting curious and having dinner with me, and then their friends are getting interested," Brantley-Rios said. He hopes his campaign will help convert a few Americans to bug eating.
And if he can do it, he says, anyone can. The picky eater who doesn't know how to cook is sure that most people could have an even easier time of it than he does. There are also options for people who don't want to look whole bugs in the eye -- protein powders, flours, chips and snack bars made from bugs are all available for purchase, and more products are coming out all the time. Just days ago a group of college students were lauded for creating tofu made entirely of mealworm protein.
"I didn't realize how sustainable it is to eat bugs," he said, "And I think a lot of people don't know. I mean I knew that there were people eating worms in other countries, but I didn't know that it was a healthy thing to do -- or that people really thought they tasted good."
"So that's what I'm trying to do, I guess," he said. "I just want to share the good news."