Modern diets are changing all the time — not “diet” in the sense of the latest weight-loss fad, but the everyday foods eaten by ordinary people. And if you look at your household's typical weekly menu, it's almost certain to be radically different from what your ancestors were eating 200 years ago.
Some of these changes are due to technological and agricultural innovations, while others have to do with cultural intermingling. To offer a personal example: I generally like sushi, but if you traveled back in time and told my ancestors “Your great-great-great-granddaughter will eat raw fish,” they'd probably be horrified and think it's because I live either in miserable poverty or on some godforsaken desert island.
And if you assured them: “No, it's not out of desperation, it's her choice! She'll actually pay more money for raw fish than a cooked hamburger, because in the year 2014, raw fish is popular enough that America has thousands of restaurants dedicated to selling it” …. well, that little conversation would probably end badly for you, when you found yourself imprisoned in an insane asylum from that era.
The point is, there are many edible and nutritious foods which people in one culture (or time period) embrace, though people in other places or times think it appalling. Snails in America are mostly considered “yuck,” except in upscale French restaurants where they are haute cuisine.
Cheese is another example: super-popular in some countries, including America (and my own household within), yet disgusting in other places, including China. If you think about it, cheese actually does sound pretty gross: “So, you take milk but don't drink it while it's fresh; instead, you wait for it to go bad, deliberately contaminating it with bacteria if that's what it takes, and then don't eat it until after it congeals? Eew.”
And insects are another example. In modern America and most Western countries, bug-eating falls firmly within the “yuck” category. Yet in the future, insect protein might play a huge role in every person's diet, including our own American descendants'.
Ounce for ounce (or calorie for calorie), insect protein is cheaper and easier to grow, and far more environmentally sustainable, than protein from beef cattle or any other form of common food livestock.
Though mostly ignored in the modern Western world, eating insects remains common in other regions as it has been throughout history, dating back to the earliest Middle Eastern civilizations. It is also mentioned several times in the Judeo-Christian Bible. The dietary restrictions in the book of Leviticus put certain insects on the “approved foods” list; chapter 11, verse 22 says “Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper” (New International Version).
And in the New Testament book of Matthew, when John the Baptist is first introduced, it's mentioned that he ate “locusts and wild honey.”
So there's both historical and religious precedents for eating insects, plus pressure to provide sufficient protein for a growing world population while reducing the environmental damage caused by raising larger livestock.
The problem, again, is overcoming the “ick” factor. But Wired UK last week reported on a new effort to make insects “delectable to western palates,” telling the story of an Icelandic designer named Búi Bjarmar Aðalsteinsson, who has invented what he calls a Fly Factory “that restaurants can use to grow delicious suppers for their clientele. He has a recipe for larvae pudding, too.”
Of course, Aðalsteinsson doesn't intend customers to simply be given a bag of dead flies and told bon appetit, but he does apparently produce a fairly tasty “meat paté” by combining wheat, eggs, onion, salt, milk and various spices with liquified larvae to pack a protein punch.
Similar to meat
Aðalsteinsson told architectural magazine Dezeen.com that he was inspired by a 2013 United Nations report (available in .pdf form here) called “Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security,” which studied how insects, if raised as a food source, could reduce if not outright eliminate food shortages throughout the world. As Aðalsteinsson said: “Larvae are similar to meat when it comes to protein, fat and nutrients … But larvae need 5 to 10 times less feed to produce the same amount of growth. Larvae, and insects in general, are also very resourceful when it comes to feeding, as they are able to digest almost any biomass available in the natural environment.”
Indeed, the larvae in his Fly Factory (and similar fly-raising setups) feed mainly on organic waste — the vegetable peelings and other unwanted leftovers from ordinary food preparation. Where raising protein for human consumption is consumed, a protein source that feeds on garbage is much easier to support than, say, a cow requiring several acres of good grazing land.
And if the thought of eating larva paté makes you queasy, remember: there's millions of people today who feel the same way about eating cheese or sushi, pork or beef, and sundry other popular American foods, including a few of your own favorites.
Photo credits: Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security, United Nations, 2013