“I always said i would never eat a bug,” Carnie Wilson said, scrunching up her face, her voice catching in her throat. Wilson, a contestant on a celebrity edition of the Food Network show Chopped, had just been challenged to create an appetizer with salmon, avocados, sweet tea—and flour made of ground-up crickets. She looked at the bag of light brown powder with horror.

Soon, though, she was thinking of ways to work with it. “If I combine this with a little brown sugar and a little cayenne pepper,” she said, “it might be good.”  

Crickets, mealworms, and other insects are slowly edging their way into American diets: as the stunt ingredient in a TV cooking show, as avant-garde snack foods, even as a pantry staple for forward-thinking home cooks. But proponents of entomophagy—the formal name for bug consumption—are happy to point out that the United States is actually behind the times. Two billion people around the world eat insects, and have for thousands of years. With good reason: Insects tend to be high in complete protein, low in saturated fat, and are good sources of vitamins and minerals.  

But while insects hold the promise of being a superfood, there is a lot we still don’t know. That’s why Joel Mason, a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts, recently convened a working group of experts from academia, industry, and government. They’ll work together to outline the most pressing research questions on insect nutrition and the role they should play in the American diet. “It is true that insects have been used by many cultures as food stuffs for millennia,” Mason said. “But we really know very little about the health impacts of insect-based foods.”

Six people from the edible-insect industry signed on to Mason’s group, called the Tripartite Organization for the Promotion of Insect Consumption, as did six academics from Tufts and other universities, and six scientists and governmental managers from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The group’s agenda includes looking at cricket husbandry, processing, and regulations; “barriers to acceptance”—in other words, the “yuck” factor—and, most important of all, what eating crickets long term does to a person’s health.

Mason, a cancer researcher with a personal interest in sustainable food systems, is eager to find out—and fast. The global population is expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, and feeding the world will require doubling our food supply. According to a 2013 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report, farming insects could be a way of meeting that need. Crickets, it points out, are five times as efficient as cows at converting their feed into bodyweight. Plus, about 80 percent of a cricket is edible, compared to 40 percent of a cow. They emit a fraction of the greenhouse gases and ammonia that cattle or pigs do, and need far less water and land.

Environmentally, that’s very attractive. But nutritionally, are insects what they are cracked up to be? And will the world’s swelling population, which increasingly demands meat, eat them?

 

Although beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants are the most commonly consumed insects globally, the cricket seems to be the crown prince of American entomophagy, in part because powder made from crickets can be incorporated somewhat unobtrusively into foods. In recent years, farmers that raised crickets for the pet food industry began separately growing and milling crickets for human consumption, and their powders began turning up in specialty power bars, granola, and spaghetti sauce.

Marketers of cricket foods are quick to point to a long line of health benefits—some with insufficient evidence—but there are already signs that insects stand apart from other food groups. One unpublished analysis found that crickets ware extraordinarily high in B12, “much higher than the sources we normally consume,” Mason said.

The fiber in crickets is also intriguing. The exoskeleton is made up of a compound called chitin, which is also found in bivalves. (In fact, people with shellfish allergies may be sensitive to crickets, which is why many cricket products carry an allergen warning.) “It’s very different from the fiber we’re used to getting in plant-based foods,” Mason said. That could mean it has more health benefits—some cricket companies already tout chitin as promoting a healthy gut microbiome. On the other hand, some evidence points to chitin binding up certain micronutrients, impeding the body’s ability to absorb them.  “Not only do we have to look at potential benefits,” Mason said, “but we have to look at potential negatives.”  

CHECK OUT THE RESULTS OF A CRICKET SNACK TASTE TEST

John Finley, the ARS’s national program leader for human nutrition and a member of the working group, said that the USDA is interested in exploring insects for sustainability and nutrition, but is taking a firmly neutral stand at this point. “This is an emerging area,” he said. “The problem is it is emerging without a lot of strong data as to what it supplies nutritionally. What are the variables in terms of nutritional composition? What is the basis for why we should be feeding insects? Is it truly sustainable? Is it economically viable? There are a number of questions there.”

The ARS already knows a lot about bugs—as crop and livestock pests to be reckoned with. But for this working group, ARS scientists are putting their deep knowledge of entomology to a different use. Two ARS researchers in Mississippi will be creating a nonproprietary cricket powder for use in experiments. “It will be analyzed so that we know exactly what its components are,” Mason said. A scientist in California with expertise in food processing will look at the best ways to make the powder shelf stable, and to optimize its nutrition.

As for Mason, his ultimate goal is to study whether cricket powder affects the chance of developing cancer. A typical Western diet—high in red and processed meat and animal fat—is associated with a higher risk of colon cancer. “If you fully integrate insect foods as a protein in the diet,” Mason said, “maybe it wouldn’t convey as high a risk.”

 

One member of the group, Jarrod Goldin, cofounder and president of Entomo Farms in Ontario, Canada, said he is excited to have cricket nutrition put to the test. With 100 million “head of cricket” at any given time—the Gryllodes sigillatus, or tropical house cricket, is his species of choice— his farm is the largest of its kind in North America.

He and his brothers began the business in 2014 with 5,000 square feet of retro-fitted chicken barns. Now they have 60,000 square feet of “cricket condos” where his herds live out their full, seven-week lives before being frozen in a 3,500-square-foot processing facility. He’s now looking for 200,000 square feet to meet skyrocketing demand. “We are desperate for space,” he said.

Some big players in the food industry are already helping bring insects to a broader population, he said. In March, Canada’s largest grocer, Loblaw, announced it would sell cricket powder under its house brand, President’s Choice. A couple weeks later, IKEA’s research lab announced that it was working on creating a mealworm-based version of its iconic Swedish meatballs. “It’s still a nascent market, but it shows you where this is going,” Goldin said. “It’s not just one start-up in New York or a hippie in California. It is starting to normalize.”

But while Goldin says the only thing holding the market back is supply, there is no ignoring the 800-pound Gryllodes in the room: Many Americans are simply repulsed by bugs. Goldin, who sprinkles cricket powder on his yogurt, bristles at the suggestion that eating insects is icky. He wants to change that attitude.

“Foods that cause obesity, diabetes, sarcopenia, early death—those are icky foods,” he said. “But foods that make you live longer, that prevent heart disease, are great foods.” His website offers recipes and tips to ease consumers into this new food group. Bothered by the legs on the whole roasted crickets? They are easily picked off.

Goldin believes more than enough people looking for healthy, sustainable food options will give insects a try. Cricket powder could be the gateway product for many of them, said Jessica Manly, N18, a graduate of the Friedman School’s Agriculture, Food and Environment program.  “I’ve been putting it in my smoothies for a couple of years now,” she said. She also uses it in her homemade veggie burgers and blueberry pancakes.

As someone who eats little meat, she was first attracted to cricket powder as a sustainable protein choice, and thinks it promises significant environmental benefits. Still, she has questions. Worldwide, most of the insects people eat are collected in the wild, not farmed, so it’s hard to know exactly what the environmental effects would be of mass production. If crickets are raised on the same grain-based foods that chickens eat, their environmental footprint goes up; finding a way to raise them on consumer food waste would be better. She’s also concerned about affordability—she currently pays $20 for a one-pound bag of cricket powder. “That could be cost-prohibitive for many people,” she said. She’s hopeful scaling up farming of crickets and other insects—known as “minilivestock”—will bring the price down.

Manly is fascinated by the many factors that lead one culture to chew on insects, and another to eschew them. Her own comfort level is evolving. “Cricket powder is ground up; it’s like flour, so I didn’t have any type of repulsion,” she said, adding, “I’ve never tried mealworms whole. I think I would have a harder time with that, um, texturally.”

If the crickets fulfill their promise as nutritional powerhouses, Mason’s group plans to look into what kind of marketing could persuade Americans to look at insects in a new, gustatory light. That’s what happened with Chopped contestant Carnie Wilson.

Once she got past the “eww” stage, she impressed at least one judge with her salmon in a sweet and spicy cricket-flour crust. Even an entomophobe would have to admit, she did make it look pretty tasty.

Send comments to Julie Flaherty, the editor of Tufts Nutrition magazine, at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.