When the Brood X cicadas emerged in March 2021, a flurry of news articles and social media posts followed, with a curious suggestion: eating them. Recipes and advice for the best ways to cook these insects were hard to avoid around this time, and it was met with great excitement by some, and great disgust by others.
Insects are a staple part of the diet in many regions of the world, especially in Brazil, southeast Africa, and Eastern Asia. Others, particularly Western cultures, seem to have a visceral disgust at the idea of eating insects.
This innate disgust may seem excessive to many, especially in light of recent arguments that many insects actually provide some health benefits and could help reduce both obesity and malnutrition in different parts of the world.
There has been a rise in articles promoting eating insects (known officially as ‘entomophagy’) since a 2013 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with some arguing that eating insects has the potential to boost nutrition and sustainability all over the world.
This vehement opposition to eating insects is not normal, argued entomology major Nathan Laurenz ’22. “Somewhere around 90 percent of human history was preagricultural. Humans were hunter-gatherers and insects were a large part of their diets,” Laurenz said. “It is only relatively recently in our history that eating insects has become stigmatized. Even today around 80 percent of cultures consume insects in some way.”
There are thousands of tiny insect parts in many common food products that we eat everyday. This is perfectly legal and also perfectly healthy, though it may set off a reaction in some. The FDA even has an entire handbook of guidance regarding what levels of insect contaminants are acceptable in these foods.
Many have questioned why people feel disgust at this idea, even in the absence of health risks or any real dangers.
“Disgust is an emotional reaction that most researchers believe evolved to protect against physical contamination,” said Prof. David Pizarro, psychology. “Some universal elicitors of disgust are the things that have historically been associated with the risk of getting sick: bodily fluids, excretions, putrid meat, and foul odors.”
Disgust may be innate, but the things that trigger it vary greatly from culture to culture and even person to person. “Although the emotion of disgust appears to be universal across cultures, there is a huge effect of culture on disgust.” Pizarro said. “Many of the foods you might encounter while traveling to places you’ve never visited before might disgust you.”
For example, food items that are considered quintessentially ‘American’ in the United States — candy, cheese, and white bread — are a source of disgust for many who did not grow up in the U.S., according to a report from Business Insider.
Psychologists like Pizarro suggest that disgust is not something humans are born with, but is learned as they grow up as part of socialization. “Culture — along with other forms of learning — is fantastic at teaching you what to be or not be disgusted by,” Pizarro explained.“There is a lot of research showing that you can undo disgust with enough exposure.”
Given the health benefits of eating insects — such as being high-protein and nutrient-rich, but much lower in fat than meat such as beef — and the likelihood of lowering individual distaste towards entomophagy, supporters of entomophagy say that it is worth trying.
“It’s not at all rational to be afraid of eating insects.” Laurenz said. “They’re actually safer than traditional livestock because insect biology is very different from human biology, pathogens that infect them can’t make the jump to humans.”
Conversely, two million people die every year from diseases they got from animals, many of them livestock species.
There are also significant ecological benefits to entomophagy. “Insects consume around 10 times less food and 100 times less water than traditional livestock for the same pound of protein.” Laurenz said. “[The] environmental benefits of eating insects are numerous.”
Among these benefits are that farming insects uses many fewer resources than traditional farming animals like pigs or cattle, and has been used as a solution to promote sustainability in places where forests are threatened by agriculture, according to a report from Time magazine.. Insect farming produces less waste, and can actually be used as a way to reduce waste.
“The food insects consume is very different [from what livestock animals eat],” Laurenz explained. “Insects consume our scraps and waste products, whereas traditional livestock need grain grown specifically for them.”
Whether or not these benefits of entomophagy will convince many people is uncertain, but it seems worth reconsidering, given the health and environmental benefits and low risk.
“Food practices in particular are so entrenched, so I don’t think it would be easy to get people to adopt the practice of eating insects,” Pizarro said. “But who knows — maybe if the right sorts of celebrity chefs endorse it!”