Eating bugs: University researcher advocates for a different kind of diet

October 9, 2018

Sujaya Rao says that insects can be used as a sustainable, healthy form of protein.

By LEW BLANK

 University researcher advocates for a different kind of diet
photo credit: JACK RODGERS

Charlotte Paulsen feeds her dad, Andrew, a cricket based chip on Sunday, Oct. 7. as part of Food Fest at the newly opened Bell Museum in Saint Paul. Sujaya Rao's presentation, which examined bugs as a sustainable source of protein, encouraged the audience to try samples.

With the world’s population on the rise and food scarcity becoming a major concern, a University of Minnesota researcher believes that insects are the answer to feeding the world.

Sujaya Rao, head of the University’s Department of Entomology, sees eating insects as a stable source of protein that doesn't need much land or resources to produce. Rao presented a lecture to about thirty people on Sunday at the Bell Museum in an attempt to raise awareness about the health and environmental benefits of eating insects.

“If you think about grasshoppers jumping, that’s because it’s got the strength, it’s got muscle,” she said. “And muscles are all about protein … they have fat, fiber, minerals [and they could] be gluten-free products.”

In addition to being healthy, insects are also more environmentally efficient than other forms of protein, such as beef, Rao said.

“As we’re thinking about feeding the world’s ever-increasing population … insects present themselves as [a sustainable source of protein],” said Holly Menninger, an entomologist and director of public engagement at the Bell Museum. “The thing about insects is that you can raise a lot of them in a fairly small space with not as many resources and … food required as [for] poultry and livestock.”

Increased comfort with eating insect could lead to acceptance of worms and other critters in produce, which would allow farmers to reduce pesticide use and grow their crops more sustainably, Rao said.

Insect-based dishes are common in countries around the globe, including grasshoppers in Mexico, termites in Africa, moths in Australia and scorpions in Thailand, said Eric Middleton, a University doctoral student in entomology known for eating tarantulas on the show "American Ninja Warrior."


photo credit: JACK RODGERS

Charlotte and Graham Paulsen examine mealworm and scorpion lollypops on Sunday, Oct. 7. as part of Food Fest at the newly opened Bell Museum in Saint Paul. Sujaya Rao's presentation, which examined bugs as a sustainable source of protein, encouraged the audience to try samples.

“People all over the world eat insects,” Middleton said. “It’s a very fun way to experience different cuisines and different cultures.”

Many Americans view insect eating as taboo, however, which poses a major hurdle to increasing its presence in American diets, Rao said. She said that food manufacturers should work around this by using discreet cooking alternatives like cricket flour to mask the insect contents.

“If I present most people with a cricket, or a grasshopper, or even a spider, they’re going to say ‘yucky,’” Rao said. “But if you grind it up, make a cookie, make a muffin, make a chip out of it, you can’t really tell the difference.”

Rao's weekend speech was part the museum’s Food Fest, which gave participants the opportunity to eat tortilla chips and homemade cakes made from cricket flour, a flour substitute derived from the bugs.

“There’s a bit of an aftertaste in the chip,” said Kari Hovey, one of the event’s attendants. "I could get used to it as a healthy option.”

Rao said she received positive feedback when she distributed the cricket chips at this summer’s Minnesota State Fair at a venue she called the “Jiminy Crickets: What’s In These Chips?” taste test. On average, the taste test’s 172 respondents enjoyed the cricket chips even more than the non-cricket chips, she said.

“I think [the cakes] taste fine ... it’s just like a normal cake,” said Matthew Fuller, another attendant at Rao’s presentation. “I think it’s evident we’re running out of resources ... if you can produce protein with less [damage to] our planet, I think it’s a good thing.”