Various types of insects and bugs for sale to eat in a foreign market

The U.N. has begun promoting edible insects as a low-fat, high protein food for people, pets, and livestock. According to the U.N., they come with appetizing side benefits: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs in developing countries, and feeding millions of hungry people around the world. And yes, bugs can be an important part of any survival situation.

Eating insects is already common in Asian, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. Even in the United States, bugs are already included in most food items. The FDA food laws allow a certain percentage of bug parts to be included in most food products and natural food coloring used in many food products are often derived from insects. For instance, the red coloring produced from the cochineal, a insect from Peru, is used to color a popular brand of strawberry yogurt. Many pharmaceutical companies also use colorings from insects in their pills.  That we already ingest insects, whether we like it or not, is not in question.

Is eating bugs worth the trouble? Edible red ants, grasshoppers, and some water beetles provide as much protein as lean ground beef (with even less fat). Edible insects also provide fiber and minerals such as magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, and zinc.

Popular edible insects include beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets. More specifically, the following is a partial list of insects that are considered popular to eat.

  • agave worm
  • honeypot ants
  • leafcutter ants
  • lemon ants
  • bamboo worm
  • bee
  • centipede
  • Cicada
  • cockroach
  • cricket
  • dragonfly
  • dung beetle
  • earthworm
  • fly pupae
  • flying ant
  • grasshoppers
  • hornworm
  • jumiles (stink bugs)
  • june bug
  • locust
  • louse
  • mopane worm
  • mealworm
  • midge fly
  • nsenene
  • pill-bug (roly-polies)
  • sago grubs
  • silm worm
  • scorpion
  • tarantula
  • termite (the 2nd most eaten insect on earth)
  • wasp
  • walking stick
  • water bug
  • waxworm
  • wichetty grub
  • zaza-mushi

If the above list seems large, consider that it is only a partial list. More than 1,400 types of insects are considered edible and even healthy for human consumption.

There’s no dead giveaway that an insect is edible but here are some tips.

  • As with plants and berries, avoid brightly colored insects.
  • Avoid any insect that is extremely pungent.
  • Avoid hairy insects and insects that bite or sting.
  • Avoid disease carriers such as flies, ticks, and mosquitoes.

Also, remember that any pesticides the insect ingested will enter your bloodstream if you eat them. For this reason, only eat live insects (insects that are commercially farmed are often “purged” with natural, fresh leaves before harvesting).

Of course, for every rule there are exceptions. For instance, tarantulas are hairy but can be roasted and eaten. Stinging bugs like wasps and bees are also edible.

For all insects, the trick is to cook them first (unless the survival situation dictates they be eaten raw). Even if a bug has harmful toxins or venom, boiling, smoking, or roasting the critter will typically neutralize the poisons. Similarly, insects with hard shells, such as beetles, often contain parasites which can infect a person if the bug is not cooked first. Cooking shelled insects will not only soften the shell, it will also kill any harmful parasites.

When cooking bugs (you can roast or smoke them on a stick or boil them water), remove the head, legs, and wings first. These body parts have very little nutritional value.

To give you an idea of the wide range of possibilities, here are the 15 orders of insects:

  • Anoplura – lice
  • Orthoptera – grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches
  • Hemiptera – true bugs
  • Homoptera – cicadas and treehoppers
  • Hymenoptera – bees, ants and wasps
  • Diptera – flies and mosquitoes
  • Coleoptera – beetles
  • Lepidoptera – butterflies and moths
  • Megaloptera – alderflies and dobsonflies
  • Odonata – dragonflies and damselflies
  • Ephemetoptera – mayflies
  • Trichoptera – caddisflies
  • Plecoptera – stoneflies
  • Neuroptera – lacewings and antlions
  • Isoptera – termites
Sources: NBC News, United Nations report
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