Little Herds Bug Banquet brings Eating Insects to Austin, Texas

More than 150 people turned out to sample a variety of foods made with insects at Little Herds’ Future Food Salon event held at the Brazos in Austin last Wednesday.

Cricket flour polenta

Cricket flour polenta topped with tempura fried veggies at the Little Herds Future Food Salon. YUM. Photo by Monika Maeckle

LIttle Herds, an Austin start-up and wannabe trade association for human grade entomophagy (that’s the consumption of insects as food) partnered with Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, Canada, to host the bug banquet.

The evening capped a day when the three leaders of North America met in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the ancestral roosting sites of the Monarch butterfly.   By the end of the day, some of us had consumed mealworm and cricket snack mix for the first time (along with other entomophogical selections) and the decline of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators rose to prominence on the radars of Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada.

Bob Rivard and cricket polenta

Bob Rivard samples cricket flour polenta topped with tempura fried veggies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Is there a connection here?

Absolutely.   The consequences for continuing to destroy our natural landscapes and manage the planet only for the benefit of Homo sapiens include an inability to feed the expected nine billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2050.  Just read this 185-page report, Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security,  assembled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Serious concerns exist regarding our ability to feed the world as a burgeoning population will require us to produce twice as much food as we do today.  Sooner or later, those of us in the United States will join the two billion folks in other countries that tap more than 1,900 insect species for their high protein, low carb, low-fat, and extremely easy-to produce sustainable production needs.

Aruna Handa, Alimentary Initiatives

Aruna Handa, Founder of Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, passes a bowl of crickets and grasshoppers.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

A small group of us went ahead and took the plunge last week.   We tried cricket flour polenta with tempura fried veggies, collard greens with mealworms, butternut squash soup with crunchy mealworms on top and dark chocolate drops topped with grasshoppers.

Most tasty were the delicious Chapul brand protein bars.  I prefer the Thai flavor, a chewy mix of coconut, ginger, lime, dates, almond butter, cashews–and of course, dehydrated crickets.  With 190 calories and 8 grams of protein, the bars are a nutritional bargain.

Don’t scoff.   It wasn’t that long ago that we snubbed sushi.   Swallow raw fish?   And now the Japanese mainstay can be found at most local grocery stores.  Won’t be long and insects will achieve the same status.

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Austin Bug Eating Soiree February 19: Munch on Insects to Sustain the Planet

How many crickets does it take to make a pound of flour?

Hard to say, says Robert Nathan Allen, founder of the nonprofit Little Herds in Austin, an organization devoted to educating us on why we should all be eating insects.   “About five pounds of crickets makes a pound of high protein flour,” he told us by phone this week.

Allen reached out to me after reading last week’s post on eating bugs. “Great article on edible insects,” he wrote via email.

Fried Green Tomatoes with Tomato Hornworms

YUM! Fried green tomatoes topped with Tomato Hornworms, from the Eat A Bug Cookbook

But unlike many of us who live in the United States,  Allen doesn’t view entomophagy–that is, the consumption of insects as food–as an attention-getting gimmick or weird antic.  He believes devoutly that we should join the two billion people worldwide who regularly eat crickets, caterpillars, tarantulas and a variety of larvae.   His start-up nonprofit, Little Herds, claims status as North America’s first charity dedicated to promoting the eating of insects. The name salutes the small, ubiquitous creatures the organization suggests we consume as food.  It also tips a hat to children, seen as the target market most likely to embrace the message.

Along those lines, Little Herds in Austin has partnered with Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, Canada, to host their third Future Food Salon event, February 19, 7 – 11 PM  at Vuka in Austin.

Robert Nathan Allen

Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Little Herds, an Austin nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of entomophagy, the eating of insects as food. Courtesy photo

The “unforgettable party” will feature local chefs, bakers, musicians, and artists who will deliver an evening of edible insects. Tickets are $40 and available online.  Hope to see you there.

Allen makes a convincing case why eating bugs is good for our health and the health of the planet.  He cites their high protein, low-fat, low carb constitution.  Their production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and insects often eat the detritus and trash we cast away–“the hops and grains that brewers toss, for example,” says Allen.   “Bugs are so efficient in converting that waste to protein…it can close a lot of loopholes in the ecosystem” he says.

“Take cricket flour,”  says Allen.  “More than 50% of its dry weight is a complete protein, with no fat.  It’s like a superfood powder.  Add it to tortillas or chocolate chip cookies or banana bread and it makes the food more healthy.”

Allen has done just that at events like pot luck insect cook-outs,  demos at SXSW Eco, East Austin Studio Tours and elsewhere.   He believes “kids are the key” since they don’t have the hang-ups of their parents and think eating bugs is cool.   “This is a way for us to teach the next generation of consumers,” he says.

An international studies graduate of the University of North Texas, Allen left college in 2009, moved to Austin and fell into the role as chief entomophagy promoter by chance.  Upon graduation, he couldn’t find a job and worked as a bartender, then sales.  One day his Mom sent him a video about entomophagy as a joke.  “I  thought it was really interesting and researched it online,” says Allen.  “It shocked me that Austin didn’t have anybody doing anything with it.”

Chapul Cricket flour protein bars

Why eat insects? Because they’re better–nutritionally and for the planet.                                        Graphic via Chapul website, makers of cricket flour and high protein bars

As Allen grew more educated on the subject, he identified the need for a nonpartisan, noncompetitive voice to enlighten the public on the myriad reasons for eating bugs.  He also realized that businesses need help in developing rules and standards for growing human consumption-grade insects.  “And without chemicals or antibiotics,” he says.  “They should be held to a higher standard.”  Little Herds was born.

Allen is staging a Little Herds fundraising campaign through StartSomeGood, a Kickstarter type website for raising money for good causes. His goal:  $50,000.   As of this writing, he’s raised $2,350.  Feel free to chip in.

As for combatting the “ick factor” so many of us experience when faced with bugs IN our food, much less AS as an entree, Allen remains optimistic.

“I really don’t think it’s that big of a challenge,”  he says.  “Sushi took 20 years to go from dangerous and disgusting to commonplace.  Lobster went from peasant prison food to a high class luxury.  Most of the world doesn’t think it’s weird.  Just us.”

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Caterpillar Canapes, anyone? Eating Bugs Could be Answer for Hungry Planet

One of my favorite radio programs, the Splendid Table, aired an interesting segment on Eating Bugs recently.

The show introduced the Mopane worm–technically a caterpillar–and how in just about every corner of the earth, people consume insects as food. The practice is called entomophagy.  The Mopane “worm,” so named because he hosts on the Mopane tree, morphs into the magnificent Emerald Moth, Gonimbrasia belina.

Emperor Moth

Would you eat this guy? The caterpillar stage of the  Emperor moth is a delicacy in parts of Africa and high in protein, too. Photo by Mark Goldstein, the Photography Blog

Stefan Gates, the “British gastronaut” interviewed on the public radio cooking show, spent 10 days eating insects in Cambodia and Thailand as research for the documentary.   Gates readily admits that he accepted the assignment to consume crickets, grasshoppers and giant water bugs because it makes  great TV.  “That’s the shallow side of me,” he said.  But Gates and program host Lynn Rosetto Caspar also explored why many of us are simply disgusted by the idea of eating bugs.

Insects are perfectly edible and yet we have such negative reactions to the idea.  “Why are we disgusted and what lies beneath it?” he wondered aloud, noting that insects are everywhere, readily available, prolifically fertile and high in protein.

Cooked Mopane Worm

Cooked Mopane “worms” with onions.       Photo via Comquat and Wikipedia Commons

Other countries are not nearly as squeamish as the United States.

In Mexico, eating chapulines, a grasshopper of the Sphenarium species, is common practice. (They’re also the namesake of the famous Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.  “Grasshopper Hill.”)

I grabbed two jars of the crispy, fried grasshopper carcasses seasoned with lime, chili and salt at the airport upon my return from a butterfly adventure in Huatulco, Oaxaca. The crispy bugs are not half bad with a beer.

chicatanas

Plump, juicy, available in the rainy season. Rip the wings off chicatanas and make a delicious molé. Photo by Veronica Prida

And check out the nutritional data–a third of an ounce has 39 calories and five grams of protein.  Half a cup of chapulines added to a soup recently escaped notice–except for the knowledge that my broth was more healthy.

On the same trip, our guide Cornelio Ramos Gabriel, tried to track down for me the seasonal delicacy chicatanas in Oaxaca.  The huge flying ants hatch after the first downpour of the rainy season.  Locals scramble to collect them, remove their wings, roast them on a griddle, then grind them up to make a delicious molé that’s considered a delicacy.  Alas, we had missed the season.

Chapulines Sazonados

Fried, spiced and ready-to-eat: chapulines–that is, crickets. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Chapulines high protein

Got crickets? Check out the nutritional data–high protein, low fat, low cal, low carb.
Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to the United Nations, edible insects could be the answer to ensuring our future food security.  In  the 185-page report Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security,  the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that nine billion people will inhabit our planet by 2050 and require us to produce twice as much food as we do today.  At least two billion people already tap more than 1,900 species of insects as part of their traditional diets.

The report, published last year, cited the most commonly eaten insects:

    • Beetles Coleoptera                                                    31 percent
    • Caterpillars Lepidoptera                                           18 percent
    • Bees, wasps and ants, Hymenoptera                       14 percent
    • Grasshoppers, locusts and cricket, Orthoptera        13 percent
    • Cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, and true bugs,                               Hemiptera                                                                  10 percent
    • Termites Isoptera                                                       3 percent
    • Dragonflies, Odonata                                                 3 percent
    • Flies, Diptera                                                              2 percent,  and
    • Other orders                                                              5 percent.
ant egg salad

Ant egg salad. Bug eating gastronaut Stefan Gates says it’s a “cacophony” of taste, like “insect caviar.” Photo via spendidtable.org

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, is no insect noshing neophyte.   The good doc has sampled June bugs, drone honeybees and their larvae (lightly browned in butter), wax worm larvae and roasted white-lined Sphinx moth caterpillars.

“The only one of these with an appealing taste was the sauteed drone larvae,” said Dr. Taylor, comparing their flavor to roasted peanuts.  Taylor added that when he’s served the butter-sopped larvae as party snacks and in classes at the University of Kansas, supplies run out fast. “Everybody comes back for more,” he said.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, who oversees the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at the University of Minnesota said via email that she’s eaten her fair share  of bugs in Mexico and enjoyed them.  “I’ve also swallowed a lot of flying insects by accident,”  she added.

Mike Quinn, our favorite local insect expert just up the road in Austin, said he’s tried stir- fried mealworms.  “Entomologists have been eating bugs for decades.  This is nothing new,” said Quinn.

In fact, even if you can’t imagine eating insects, you already do. According to The Food and Drug Administration’s Food Defect Levels Handbook, an online guide that advises consumers of the imperfections of the foods we eat, our food supply is riddled with insects in all their stages.  The online guide details how common staples like frozen veggies and canned tomatoes often contain insect body parts, entire caterpillars, or collections of aphids, thrips, maggots or flies.  See below.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS, FROZEN Insects
(MPM-V95)
Average of 30 or more aphids and/or thrips per 100 grams

 

TOMATOES, CANNED Drosophila fly
(AOAC 955.46)
Average of 10 or more fly eggs per 500 grams
OR
5 or more fly eggs and 1 or more maggots per 500 grams
OR
2 or more maggots per 500 grams
Above, from the FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook

The FDA thankfully explains that most of these inadvertent insect additives are harmless.   So enjoy your dinner tonight knowing that an extra bit of protein has been added to the meal.

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