Are Insects the Next Superfood?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: What might we be eating in a century's time? According to speculative fiction, nutrient gel and Soylent Green are going to be pretty popular, but I'm sure that most people would agree that isn't the most attractive option, especially here where we are so used to fresh meat and vegetables. In fact, Australia is one of the largest consumers of meat; 90 kilograms per person per year in 2014. And this has many benefits. We have a massive meat and livestock industry worth over $17 billion that exports worldwide.

But the question is how long this will be sustainable for our population and for the planet. And the answer is not inspiring. Commercial meat, according to a 2006 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, is one of the most serious environmental problems at every scale from local to global. For every kilo of beef produced, 15,000 litres of water are used, and 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide are sent into the atmosphere.

Eating meat is a greater environmental drain than using a car. So what's the alternative? Vegetarianism seems like a pretty good option. But as the world population increases to upwards of 10 billion, we will need more ways to produce enough protein and other nutrient rich food to feed everyone. Lab-grown and 3-D printed meat is a possibility, but the downside is cost. For the hungry masses, a stem cell steak just might not be accessible enough in price and distribution, at least until the technology is really well developed.

However, there is an alternative; the tiny creepy-crawlies that live all around us. But why would we want to eat bugs? For starters, insects are really good for you. Caterpillars, for example, have high levels of iron and are loaded with vitamins B1 and B2, and outstrip beef for protein. They are basically super foods. Crickets could be the new kale. But the real difference comes in production.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations states on its website that crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and twice less than pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Even better, insects such as crickets and mealworms could potentially be fed on our food waste. And since it takes six kilos of grain to produce one of beef, this would be even more environmentally friendly.

There are already multiple kickstarter campaigns based around the idea of people growing edible mealworms in their very own compost bins. And as it turns out, millions of people across the world already do eat bugs. Japan, Ghana, Mexico and Brazil, all consider insects delicacies. In Thailand, fried insects are served like peanuts with beer. And in China, ant soup keeps you warm in the winter. In Australia, witchetty grubs and honey ants have been eaten by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

This aversion to eating insects is pretty much a uniquely Western phenomenon, tied up with all our cultural baggage surrounding how we eat animals. Here in Australia and in other first world countries, the idea of meat is separate from the animal that it comes from. We even use different words for it, such as beef instead of cow. Unless you are part of the meat industry, you probably have no contact at all with the process of living animals becoming steaks, and that division between the source and the end product changes our perception of what meat is.

One example of this is how Chinese restaurants in America shy away from serving anything that is recognisably animal. In her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer Lee writes that 'mainstream Americans don't like to be reminded that the food on their plate once lived, breathed, swum or walked'. And the difference shows in traditional Chinese cuisine, where animal detritus is often left behind after a meal, and where bony parts of the chicken, such as the feet and legs, are highly valued. There is a culinary reason for this. Meat near the bone is more flavourful, as well as the fact that much of China traditionally had scarce resources, and so to not eat the whole animal is wastage.

America, on the other hand, is rich enough to be able to pick and choose what parts of the animal are inoffensive enough to eat, creating a huge amount more of waste. To some extent this is the case in Australia too. We may like our prawns crunchy, but for many the idea of eating something with little legs and exoskeletons is simply too gross.

But there is another option. Whole and crunchy isn't the only way to eat bugs. Mixed up in flour or as added protein in other sorts of food, insects are pretty much unnoticeable. I know this and you know this because you've probably been eating them all your life. The FDA estimates that you consume around 1 to 2 pounds of insects per year in packaged goods, which is about a half to a whole kilo. The red dye you get at the supermarket is commonly made of crushed cochineal scale bugs and is used from everything from cosmetics to sausage colouring. That dye isn't exactly nutritional, but you get the picture. Our national revulsion towards the idea of eating insects is illogical when you realise that we already do.

But in the end this doesn't just affect Australia. According to the UN, malnutrition is the single largest contributor to disease across the world, involving not just the quantity of food but the quality, and a cheap plentiful source of protein will be essential as we turn to find new ways of feeding the world. Personally, I've eating insects a few times in my life. I've had crickets with salt and vinegar, mealworms with cheddar cheese flavouring, and even a deep-fried locust on a stick from a street stall in Beijing. The locust was hot and crunchy, flavourless except for the salt. It tasted like chips, and in a single swallow went from being strange to unremarkable, just another bit of yummy junk food on a hot summer night.

Robyn Williams: Thank you Zofia. And what made you write that?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Well, around a year and a half ago I went to see a talk at a night called Nerd Night at Melbourne Uni, and it was a student talking about…I think it was her doctorate on the idea of eating insects as a protein source in the future, and she actually had a bag of them that she passed around, and as she gave one to each of us she said, 'This is probably the most expensive thing you'll ever put in your mouth,' because while insects and bugs may be cheap to produce in the future, there just isn't the infrastructure for them right now, and so to get them is a bit difficult.

Robyn Williams: But you're keen it might happen?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I am keen, yes, I think once we get over our idea that they are gross and not something we can eat, at least in Australia, I think they would be yummy, I think they would be away we could solve some of our food problems.

Robyn Williams: Now, Zofia, I don't normally notice clothing, but I happened to notice that you are wearing a NASA t-shirt. How come?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: That's because I just got back from a study tour with my school that went for two weeks and where we visited some pretty fabulous science institutions. We went to space camp for a whole week, which was fantastic. And yes, that's where I got the NASA shirt.

Robyn Williams: What was the highlight for you, being there?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Probably space camp. I do want to be an astronaut, so that was a great experience for me.

Robyn Williams: An astronaut up in the space station, just one hop, or would you go to Mars?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I'd go to Mars, definitely.

Robyn Williams: You're kidding!

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I'm not kidding, I would go to Mars. It's Mars, come on!

Robyn Williams: You're very brave.

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Oh no…well, Australia doesn't have a space program yet, we need to get one, so it is far off in the future, but it's something I would definitely like to pursue.

Robyn Williams: May I just ask which year are you in in school now?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I'm in year 10.

Robyn Williams: You're no longer 15?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I'm still 15, that's right.

Robyn Williams: Thank you for coming in.

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Thank you very much.

Robyn Williams: 15 ay? Zofia Witkowski-Blake at school in Melbourne, loving bugs.


-Australian Broadcasting Corporation