To an entomologist, an insect is an invertebrate animal with a segmented body, six legs, and one or two sets of wings. To those unfamiliar with entomology, an insect might just be something to swat at with a rolled-up newspaper. To Dr. Gina Louise Hunter, an insect is a tasty snack and a gateway to exploration.
“Insects are and have always been an important human food source, and they are not just sustenance, but are relished by peoples across the world,” Hunter said. 
Hunter is the director of the Office of Student Research and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is also a cultural and food anthropologist, whose current research focuses on foodways and food systems.
In her book, Edible Insects: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2021), she explores the past, present, and future role of insects in diets around the world. In addition to personal anecdotes and more than a dozen insect recipes for readers to try on their own, the publication offers insight into the origins of some insect consumption practices and provides information on the presence of insects in diets across the world today.
Insects are intentionally consumed by an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, yet the potential of insects as food failed to gain traction until recently in Western countries like the U.S., Hunter said.
When her research began in 2016, she set out to apply questions of food anthropology to edible insects, seeking out the answers to questions as they came to her: “What is the history of insect as food? How many insects have been domesticated, and why aren’t more insects domesticated? Why don’t we think of insects as a staple food?”
But before her research could officially proceed, she had to first tackle the basics of entomology.
“Bugs are hard,” Hunter said. “I had to buy an entomology textbook and sit down and learn about insects. It took a while to learn about insect life cycles, classification, and the primary orders of edible insects.”
Once she understood more about the subject, her research began.
The use of insects as sustenance dates to the dawn of humanity. Prehistoric evidence of the practice can be found in many places: from 40,000-year-old Paleolithic cave paintings to archaeological evidence of insect consumption, including coprolites (fossilized feces).
Despite being central to the human diet all those years ago, insect consumption is now referred to as entomophagy, a term Hunter finds detrimental to understanding more about the hundreds of cultural groups who eat insects as a regular part of their diet, in some cases, as a delicacy.
“Entomophagy sounds like a disease,” Hunter remarked. “It just has the sound of something that’s not good.”
Exploring insect consumption as something more than a quirk or feat seen on an extreme eating show meant investing time and care into the practice—so Hunter tried her hand at raising insects of her own.
With three plastic bins and a few adult and pupae-stage darkling beetles obtained by mail order, Hunter created a mealworm microranch in her mudroom. Despite being squeamish in the past when handling bugs, she found herself growing fond of her home-raised mealworms.
When she had raised enough larvae for a meal, she gathered her mealworms and placed them in the freezer to “put them to sleep.” After a quick wash and brief boil in salted water, Hunter sautéed the larvae and added a touch of salt and pepper before trying them: “Crispy, chewy, nutty.”
Her goal in raising mealworms was to learn more about the potential of home-raised insect food, but the larger project led her to think deeply about her relationship to insects, as critters and as food.
“It was a lot of self-reflection,” Hunter said. “‘Is this going to gross me out? Can I be open to eating all the kinds of foods that I’m being approached with?’ I thought I might be repelled, but thinking about eating insects and learning about them made me more curious.”
In 2017 she traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, with Dr. Maria Luisa Zamudio-Mainou, the executive director of the University’s National Center for Urban Education. In addition to trying what would become her favorite insect dish—escamoles, or the larvae and pupae of an ant native to Mexico and the Southwest United States, fried with chilies, garlic, and onions—her travels gave her an opportunity to participate in a culture that celebrates insects as food. 
Although the exact number of edible insects is unknown, Professor Yde Jongema, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has maintained an up-to-date record of insect species known to be used for consumption. Currently the list contains 2,111 edible species. As explained in Edible Insects: A Global History, the majority of edible insect species comes from the “big five” insect orders:
Known as the beetle order, this insect category includes 659 different species of edible insects.
Although referred to as the butterfly and moth order, this category’s 362 edible species are primarily consumed while in the caterpillar stage.
321 species make up this order’s edible insect offerings, composed of ants, bees, and wasps.
Grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts are featured in this order, which contains 278 different edible species.
The order of “true bugs,” composed of insects such as stink bugs and cicadas, has 237 known edible species.
“I wanted to travel to a place where I could experience insects as an ordinary part of the cuisine,” Hunter said.
For Hunter, confronting the cultural bias against insects, and overcoming some hesitancy of her own, involved gaining perspective.
“People think bugs are disgusting, but have you seen flounder? It’s got both eyes on one side of its head,” Hunter quipped. “Lots of seafood looks weird. Many people love seafood; why not insects?”
Disgust toward insect consumption, Hunter explains, is a cultural artifact. Repeated avoidance of insects, perhaps caused by fears of contamination or potential toxicity, became a habit ingrained in those who did not rely on them for sustenance. This avoidance, paired with the common idea that intentional insect consumption is a behavior of the past, resulted in the disappearance of “creepy-crawlies” from the diets of most North Americans outside of Mexico and others in Western countries.
In recent years insects have found their way back to the Western palate. Initially reintroduced as novelty snacks—such as ranch-flavored crickets and ants encased in cherry lollipops—insects are developing an expanding reputation as something anyone with an interest in sustainability should be turning to.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, insects produce just one gram of greenhouse gas (GHG) in the production of one kilogram of protein. Compared to beef’s 2,850 grams of GHG per one kilogram of protein, it is no surprise to Hunter that insects are often heralded as a cure-all, sustainable source of protein.
“In the popular press, I saw what I would call the celebration of insects as a solution food. Insects will solve a protein crisis. They are going to solve hunger,’” Hunter said. “I do think some insect foods have potential, but they are certainly not a silver bullet solution.”
While insects do provide a hefty amount of protein and leave a much smaller environmental footprint compared with conventional protein sources like beef, there are other effects to consider before turning toward the mass production of insects.
Commercial production of insects also requires energy, feed, and clean water. And most insect production is going toward feed for other animals rather than to humans.
Additionally the expansion of wild harvested insects as a commodity could pose a threat to the practices of those who rely on them.
“It’s striking that at this time when it is harder and harder for people around the world who have been traditionally dependent on insects for food to have access to them, that they are heralded as a solution food in the West,” Hunter said. “Climate change, industrial agriculture, urbanization— all of these things have made eating insects less of a possibility for rural people around the world, and yet we’re now starting to celebrate it.”
As Hunter writes in her book, “Cricket powder and other insect products are already much like other ingredients in a global market: novel ingredients used only to create new snacks for an already overfed consumer.”
So if the promotion of insect consumption as a means for sustainable living is not Hunter’s goal, what does she want Edible Insects’ readers to take away?
“Be curious and explore,” Hunter said. “It’s about curiosity and thinking about where our food comes from and thinking about the impact eating has on the world. If eating insects gets you to think about where your food comes from and reflect on the impact of consumption—then that’s great.”
As insects are consumed by an estimated 2 billion people around the world, there is a wide variety of options when it comes to deciding how someone might want to prepare their edible insects. Here are a few ways bugs are served around the globe, according to Edible Insects: A Global History.
Although insects are not consumed by the majority of this nation’s people, many indigenous Amazonian communities regularly consume insects. One species of the leaf-cutter ant, tanajura, is collected and fried in lard or butter, often to be added to a version of the Brazilian dish farofa.
In Nagaland, a state in northeast India, edible bee, wasp, and hornet species are boiled, roasted, or fried in oil with spices such as ginger and powdered sumac. Grasshoppers might also be collected to be sundried or smoked.
This country is often referred to as the edible insect capital of the world. There is an array of insect food enjoyed across the country. The giant water bug, Lethocerus indicus, can be found in sauces, or steamed and served on its own.
The most popular edible insect in Zimbabwe is the mopane worm. These are boiled in salted water, and then sun-dried, smoked, pickled, or fried. Because of the nutrition they offer, the trade in mopane worms has become a multimillion dollar industry in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa.


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