Could insects be the food source of the future?

The practice of eating bugs is known as entomophagy, and it is creeping its way into the culinary world. Romi Burks, an associate professor of biology at Southwestern, became intrigued with the idea after watching an episode of “Top Chef Masters” in which culinary masters made appetizers with crickets, earthworms, mealworms and even scorpions.

“Although insects appear in a number of cultural specialties, their use is only now becoming more common in North America,” Burks said.

In addition to being a good source of protein, one of the main arguments for eating bugs focuses on the environmental benefits. A 2010 journal article reported that insects exhibited a higher growth rate and produced less carbon emissions than the equivalent amount of more common proteins like beef and pork.

“Being vegetarian or vegan was not very prevalent 20 years ago, so the question is: Twenty years from now, could we be insectivores?” Burks asked.

Inspired by the episode of “Top Chef Masters,” Burks decided to begin introducing students in her Invertebrate Ecology class to a menu consisting of insects and other invertebrates. Students in her spring 2011 Invertebrate Ecology class sampled dishes that included crunchy spicy crickets, flour pancakes with dried mealworms, and earthworm sliders soaked in a portabello mushroom marinade. Her mother, personal chef and caterer Vicki Comisso, prepared the dishes.

“The key to entomophagy is to have a chef who knows how to blend the invertebrates as a source of protein with flavorful food and spices,” Burks said. “I’m lucky that my mom is local to Austin, knows how to cook and is more than willing to experiment.”

While most students were slightly hesitant about the endeavor, Burks said most warmed up to the experiment with a little encouragement.

“The bug lab was really neat because it was definitely something you don’t get to do often and I enjoy trying new foods whenever I can,” said student Preston Davis. “I like the feeling of actually doing things rather than just talking about them in the classroom.” 

As part of the class, the students also wrote final exam essays about entomophagy and whether they think it will eventually become a primary food source. Burks said she received good answers all around, with some students saying yes and others arguing that the movement could not overcome preconceptions.

“I don’t think eating bugs will be THE food movement of the future. The fact that they may be ‘greener’ than cows and other livestock does not trump the taste of a steak,” Davis said. “I think bugs will become a more common food item than they are now, as long as people push the environmental argument, because that seems to be the thing to do these days. But I don’t expect to see bugs in McDonald’s Happy Meals anytime soon.”

This is not the first time Burks has used food in her teaching. She uses popcorn to teach statistics to students in her Methods in Ecology and Evolution class and uses chocolate to teach students about evolution and phylogenetics.

“I have an interest in teaching with food. I think it is a good way to get the curriculum to stick with the students,” Burks said.

Burks said she would like to write up her entomophagy experiment for a future publication and plans on introducing students in future Invertebrate Ecology classes to the subject.

−Kristen McLaughlin