Consuming insects provides nutritional benefits and meals with high protein levels that rival those seen in more traditionally eaten animals such as cows, chicken and fish, said board certified entomologist Gene White. He works as the global director of vector management for Rentokil and has been a cook and consumer of insects for decades.
There are certain benefits to raising insects for consumption compared to other animals, White said. For instance, insects are less expensive to rear than other animals and can be raised in large quantities.
Eating insects is a common practice in many cultures and is gaining popularity in western cultures. “Our culture, in the last 200 to 250 years, has thumbed our nose up at the possibility of eating insects, but the reality is that, as a culture, as a species, we’ve been eating insects for thousands of years,” he said.
White got started in entomophagy, which is the practice of eating insects, during an insect eating program he put on at the Cleveland Metroparks in the mid-90s. The program, named “Bug City,” gave kids and adults the opportunity to try his “chocolate chirp cookies,” “bugaboo brownies” and “Jello wrigglers.” Other recipes were simple dry-roasted insects with different flavorings, such as sugar, butter and Cajun spices. Another crowd favorite was the “Paleozoic picante,” which was picante salsa with insects inside.
“Bug City averaged about 5,000 to 6,000 visitors per day,” White said. “So, six separate thematic programs were scheduled that were participant-centered for both the children and parents. The kids were proud to show their lack of fear as well as providing a photo opportunity as well!”
White said he would always bring live insects to remind the audience of what they were actually eating. Yet, his ultimate goal was to teach his audience about entomology and have them see it as an interesting and legitimate science. “So, the objective was to show people science can be fun. But in the back of my mind, I always hoped that one kid would go home and say entomology is pretty cool and I want to do that! That was always the end game for me,” he said.
White used crickets, mealworms and wax moth larvae for these dishes. He said these types of insects have a nutty taste to them, but each has a unique flavor. For instance, mealworms tend to have a much stronger taste, while wax moth larva is sweeter than the others. This is likely because the wax moth larva is a parasite of beehives, which feeds on the beeswax as well as the components of honey.
Insects tend to taste better as part of a recipe than by themselves. “Crickets, when you dry roast them, they’re OK. I wouldn’t say they were something that I would just keep popping in my mouth like popcorn, but when you put them with recipes and you put them with flavors, that’s when they start to take on a different taste,” White said.
The start-to-finish process of preparing the insects for the event was extensive, White said. First, he would order more than 3,000 wax moth larvae, around 20,000 crickets and as many as 50,000 mealworms. The insects would be shipped overnight from an Ohio farm. After receiving the insects, a crucial step was separating the dead insects from the live ones. He said this is because dead insects taste and smell bad.
However, the flavor of the insects depends on how they were treated beforehand, just like beef, White said. He would feed the insects cornmeal a day or two before cooking them. This is because insects are not being fed the highest-quality food for human consumption when bred in large-scale production facilities, he said. Therefore, the cornmeal clears out the insect’s gut contents, which gives them a nuttier taste rather than a sour one.
In order to separate live crickets from dead ones, two 55-gallon trash cans with fresh liners were used. All the crickets were dumped into one can where they could not climb up and out of the plastic sides. Then, a rectangular piece of cardboard was placed into the bottom where hundreds of crickets started to climb up the cardboard. Then, slightly shaking the cardboard to make the crickets hold on, they were transferred to the other “clean” trash can.
Once the live crickets were separated from the dead ones, they were frozen in smaller groups for two days. Once frozen solid, they were then transferred into 8-quart plastic soup buckets and shaken vigorously until all the legs, antenna and ovipositors were broken off.
The next step was to screen out the broken appendages and wash the bodies free of debris in a colander. Then they were dry roasted at 200°F for three to four hours until they were dry and crunchy.
The entire process for just the crickets took a solid three days and to prepare all the dishes it took almost an entire week. White never served raw insects to attendees because of the slight chance of parasitic infection.
White said it “took a lot of trial and error” to perfect his recipes. For example, he had a tough time getting the kids to eat the mealworms on the “Jello wrigglers.” This is because mealworms float on top of the gelatin, which makes it easy for the kids to pick off. In order to get the mealworms enveloped in the gelatin, he filled the cups half full of gelatin and then put the mealworm on the surface. After the gelatin solidified in the refrigerator, trapping the mealworms on top, he poured on more gelatin. This made the insects harder to pick off and increased the likelihood that the kids would eat the whole thing. He said, “Each year I got better and better at preparation and learned along the way what to do and not to do during the process of cooking with insects.”
For people who are hesitant to eat insects, White recommends turning mealworms into flour as part of a recipe. Using this flour in baked goods such as brownies or chocolate chip cookies gives people all the amino acids and proteins that come with eating insects without having to see the insect’s body. He suggests using dry-roasted mealworms for flour because they are the easiest to acquire and prepare.
People interested in cooking and eating insects should do their own research beforehand to learn what should and should not be done, he said. Topics of research should include articles about eating insects, information on which companies sell insects for consumption and recipes. White said, “Once people read and understand more about entomophagy their fears and concerns tend to go away which makes the experience of eating insects easier to swallow...pun intended!”