IRA FLATOW, HOST:
What's on your plate? What do you like to eat? What are you eating for lunch, dinner at this point? As with many things, the answer to that might have a lot to do with what you're accustomed to do and, you know, what part of the world you live in. In some parts of the world, insects can be a delicious part of the diet. Well here not so much.
But that might change. A report published this week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that insects and insect products could and should do a lot towards improving the food security of the world. Joining me now to talk about it is Peter Menzel. He's co-author of a book, "Man Eating Bugs," and he has studied - this is a word for you - entomophagy as it's called around the world. Did I get that right, Peter?
PETER MENZEL: That's right, it's entomophagy.
FLATOW: What is that the study of?
MENZEL: It's the study of the consumption of insects. And we went to - I went with my wife, Faith D'Aluisio, co-author, to 13 countries. We ate hundreds of insects with scores of people and photographed and reported on it. And we also collected recipes from - of their favorite insect recipes.
FLATOW: How common is eating insects in other parts of the world?
MENZEL: Well, the U.N. reports that it's two billion people eat insects around the world. I think that's a little bit overstated or a little bit optimistic. Maybe they're counting the vast amount of people now riding around on motor scooters in Asia or maybe the fact that the FDA has reported that there are 56 insect parts in each peanut butter and jelly sandwich here in America.
FLATOW: So we're already eating insects...
MENZEL: We're insect eating, and the U.N. report talks about, you know, flavoring and coloring, you know, the Italian aperitif Campari is colored with cochineal, which is a scale insect from south of the border. And, you know, it's - we found that it's quite common in some places. In some places it's harder to find. And you know, it's also seasonal. It's very seasonal. Insects are, you know, not - the same insect is not there all times of the year. And in a lot of places it's used as a bridge food so that when a crop is coming in or going out, sometimes people will use insects, which are very high in protein, to supplement their diets and carry them through lean times.
FLATOW: In your travels to dozens of places around the world, did you have any favorite foods, any favorite insect places?
MENZEL: Sure. We did. And there were some really unfavorites too. The favorite of mine, I think, was probably the witchetty grubs in central Australia, in the outback. I went camping with some aboriginal grandmothers that were just amazing. They could walk through the, you know, the red desert desiccated outback of central Australia and with just, you know, a digging bar, carrying their pocketbooks, they could find these trees - these witchetty trees that were infected with grubs.
They would plop down on the ground and with a digging bar dig down and find the roots, crack open the roots, and there were these witchetty grubs which are large worms that are, you know, as big as your middle finger. And then they would roast them in the hot sand at the edge of a mulga wood fire. And the taste of this, you know, you would think that it would be pretty disgusting, but I found it to be quite, you know, light and delectable. It was sort of like a, you know, a very, very well-prepared omelet that was wrapped in maybe phyllo dough.
That's what the skin turned into when you roasted it. And it had a little bit of a smoky flavor from the mulga wood, but maybe that was because the mulga wood was blowing in our faces when we're eating it.
FLATOW: And your least favorite?
MENZEL: There's a bunch of those, and I think my wife, Faith, has an entire book full of lists of least favorites, but maybe live scorpions in China or stink bugs in Mexico. There's a festival outside of Taxco where people go to the top of a mountain once a year and they celebrate the jumile, which is a live stinkbug. And they grind them up or sometimes eat them raw. And my very first insect that I ever ate was at this jumile festival, and I ate a live stinkbug, which, you know, I put in my mouth and immediately tried to escape.
So the thing you do is you chomp down on it, and then the real surprise happens is that it squirts its insides all over the inside of your mouth, which is a really, really medicinal, metallic iodine taste. And the reason that people do this is because that there are, you know, properties to insects and especially this jumile, which is high in iodine, so that people that eat just a few of these a year, they're, you know, immune from dwarfism or from thyroid problems.
FLATOW: Hmm. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I thought you might need a little break after hearing that story the stinkbugs. Now, people who eat bugs, if you, you know, they're sitting there and they're eating bugs, and if you suggest a different bug, do they say, oh, how could you eat that? You know, like you're not used to eating that, like everybody's got their own kind of cultural food they eat.
MENZEL: That's exactly true. I mean there's people here in America that, you know, used to be really, you know, repulsed by sushi, and it only took, you know, probably 10 years or a decade for sushi to invade America. But it's everywhere now. But you're right. There are certain types of - let me give you a couple of examples. We were in Venda, which is just north of South Africa, near Botswana, and we were eating - we were photographing and eating termites with some women in a village, having a nice lunch.
FLATOW: What do they taste like, termites?
MENZEL: Termites, well, part of the problem, Ira, is describing taste.
FLATOW: It's not all chicken.
MENZEL: Things that you've never had before - I mean just imagine going into the bar in "Star Wars" and you're served up all these things, and how do you describe them?
FLATOW: I get it. I get it.
MENZEL: You know, we had - that was the hardest thing I think about writing this book, is accurate descriptions of what things tasted like. Termites taste a little bit woody, and it depends on how they're, you know, how they're prepared. But these women in Venda were cooking them with, you know, a little bit of oil in a type of pot with some onion and peppers and some tomatoes, and stirring it up. And then they would serve it on top of some mili-mili, which is cornmeal type porridge that is pretty prevalent all through parts of Africa.
And so we were having a nice meal, talking about insects and what we eat and what they eat, and we mentioned that we had just come from China where we'd eaten scorpions, and they were appalled. They - lunch was almost over. We were almost escorted out of the village, and they thought that, you know, these white people must be really, really heathens or crazy to have eaten scorpions.
MENZEL: We found it in a couple of other places too. I mean I've got lots of examples of...
MENZEL: ...people eating different types of insects that may be thought that - that palm grubs were good, but other people thought that they were just, you know, just an insane thing to eat.
FLATOW: You know, a lot of these are crustaceans, right? And people don't think twice about eating large crustaceans like a lobster. I mean...
MENZEL: No, they don't. But you know, we really have to be careful about eating insects, and eating insects in places where there are no pesticides and there's sort of a pristine environment, and if you're eating them with people that customarily eat them all the time, I think you're pretty safe. But if you're in an area that uses pesticides or around, you know, big ag, insects tend to concentrate what they eat. And it's pretty, pretty dangerous to eat an insect that you don't know about. I mean it's akin to hunting mushrooms. I mean, you don't want to go out and just go into the forest and randomly start eating mushrooms.
FLATOW: So that's not something you would recommend. How should you get into this, to begin with then, if you want to try it out?
MENZEL: It's tough here in the developed world because, first of all, there's hardly any places that's left that are pristine where insects can be gathered that don't have some kind of pesticidal drift. And you know, Monsanto is going to get on to me about this, but it's actually really dangerous. And there's other problems too. The (unintelligible) shell of an insect has properties that many people are allergic to. So if you're allergic to dust or shellfish or shrimp or, you know, certain things like that, then you should never eat an insect because you could have a very bad allergic reaction and be in trouble.
FLATOW: We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Peter Menzel, author - co-author with Faith D'Alusio of "Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects." It's out on Ten Speed Press. Our number - 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can tweet us @scifri, also go to our website at sciencefriday.com. We have some recipes, insect, bug-eating recipes up there in our website, sciencefriday.com. We'll be back after this break. Stay with us.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this week about the United Nation's recommending that you take a bug to lunch. I mean, really, folks, eat it, and - boom, bang, ching. And with - if you want to learn how to do that, Peter Menzel is with us. He's co-author of the book "Man Eating Bugs." It's got some great stories of going around the world. It's a great - it's a beautifully illustrated book. If you want to try some recipes, you can visit our website at sciencefriday.com/eatabug, and we'll have a recipe up there for you. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Pat in Los Angeles. Hi, Pat.
PAT: Hello. Thanks for taking my call, Ira.
FLATOW: Hey there.
PAT: I just wanted to say I'm with Chapul Cricket Bars, where it's appropriate timing. We're celebrating our one-year anniversary in Los Angeles at the Natural History Museum's International Bug Fair. And we have a product that is trying to address the psychological components - eating insects in the Western world. We make a flower out of crickets and add it to an all-natural energy bar, and it's just phenomenally exciting right now, all the discussion about the feasibility of insects as an industry and bringing to the forefront. And so from the ground level here, it's gaining in momentum and it's really great to see the positive reception that the concept is getting here.
FLATOW: Cricket - your cricket energy bar.
PAT: Yeah. Yeah. So we - we're addressing that psychological aspect by making a flower out of the crickets and we add it to an energy bar.
FLATOW: Peter Menzel, what do you think?
MENZEL: Well, there is a huge psychological issue that we have to address if Americans are going to eat insects. I think logic really won't put insects on the average American's plate. It's going to take some very clever marketing, you know? The other thing that I think that we ought to really think about is the scale, not the insect scale but the scale of raising insects in large numbers. I mean, if you look at livestock today and how much antibiotics are used just to keep livestock that are in crowded, unnatural conditions healthy, you've got an even bigger problem if you raise insects in very large numbers.
When we were doing this book, we visited a cricket ranch in Southern California, in Visalia, and the owner told us that he had a beetle infestation and they sprayed some pesticides around the foundation of his huge cricket ranch. And the next morning all the crickets inside were dead. So things really, really happen quickly on a small or large scale.
FLATOW: Are then most insects that are eaten found in nature or are they being actively farmed like in this cricket farm?
FLATOW: (Unintelligible) to eat, right?
MENZEL: Yeah. I'm sure that there are - well, the cricket ranch that we visited was for, you know, bait, but people are looking into it, and it's mostly on a small scale. We found it all over Asia. People were raising different kinds of insects in their apartments, and we only saw one really huge operation and that was in Luoyang, China, where we visited a scorpion ranch that was as big as a football field, and there millions of scorpions. It was one of the creepiest places that we've ever seen.
FLATOW: Rob in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Rob. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Do you eat your crickets?
ROB: (Technical difficulties) appreciate you taking my call. I had a question about, you know, when it comes to marketing and stuff for all of this, how - has your guest heard of what they might call some of the - some of the ingredients that are derived from bugs?
FLATOW: Yeah, how do you label - how do you put on the food label what's in there?
MENZEL: Yeah. I don't know. I mean we're so reluctant to label GM-modified foods. What are we going to do when it comes to a bug in your food? I don't know.
ROB: What if we just go with the Latin name, and it would take somebody to sit down and type it into Google to figure out that there's cricket in their soup?
MENZEL: There you go.
FLATOW: There you go. Well, that's an interesting question. Thanks, Rob. Yeah. What kind of labeling challenges - but as you say, there are already body parts in a lot of the foods that we eat that we don't even - they don't label, do they? I remember hearing tomato juice had parts in it and other - you said peanut butter.
MENZEL: Sure, just about any, you know, large commodity product that's - or vegetable or anything that's, you know, harvested by machines outdoors is going to have insect parts in it.
FLATOW: Let's go Paul in Moorhead, Minnesota. Hi, Paul.
PAUL: Hey. I was just going to ask a fun quick question here. I was going to see if your guest has heard of any recipes for cicadas. And because I was thinking if I was to run out there and scoop a bunch of them up, I could have a real rare delicacy on my hands because they all come around every 17 years.
FLATOW: Yeah, we're in - good question, Paul. We're in cicada season.
MENZEL: Yeah. I've read about that, and I don't have a recipe. We've seen cicadas in markets in Thailand and Cambodia and Vietnam and a few other places, but I don't have any recipes. But I would also want to know what that cicada for that 17 years underground was concentrating in his body.
FLATOW: Oh, you mean in the soil, what was in the soil there?
MENZEL: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
FLATOW: So you're actually saying - you said this before. I want to be clear about it. Don't just go out and pick up a bug and eat it is what you're saying.
MENZEL: Correct. Exactly. Yeah. It really does matter. And just one example of, you know, the concentration of pharmacological substance. There's a caterpillar in Peru that eats only coca leaves, and it's the Molombia(ph) caterpillar. And it's excrement is almost 100 percent pure cocaine.
FLATOW: Now we're driving customers to...
MENZEL: To vacation in the highlands of Peru.
FLATOW: That's right. Could be deadly, though, is what you're saying.
MENZEL: Could be.
MENZEL: Yeah. The excrement of - here's another word for you. Entomophagy is one and frass is another, F-R-A-S-S. It's the technical term for insect excrement. And it's actually used quite a bit for medicinal purposes and for some beverages, and especially in China.
FLATOW: There was an interesting part in your book about tequila and wine. There is a worm in the bottle of tequila.
MENZEL: Right. Yeah. The tequila bottle - they put agave worms. There's red and white agave worms in - just to show the authenticity of tequila because tequila can only really be made from agave cactus. And it's - the worm is just sort of an indicator. It also is an indicator of the potency of the brew because it's, you know, it's double distilled and it's supposed to be 140 proof. And apparently, a worm won't stay intact. It will start to disintegrate in anything that's under, like, 140 proof. So it's not only showing that it's coming from an agave plant, but it's also a very strong drink that you've got in that bottle.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Is it Eddie(ph) in Paramus, New Jersey?
EDDIE: Hi. Thank you. I'm pretty repulsed about cockroaches. And I was wondering if the other people in other world that eat insects are as repulsed about eating cockroaches as we are, especially as a woman. I don't think women like insects as women are about that awful insect of a cockroach.
FLATOW: Yeah. What about bed bugs too? Could you...
MENZEL: Well, the problem with cockroaches is they're mostly urban. And, you know, they're not eating, you know, nice plants in the forest. They're running around underneath your floorboards and in your cabinets and even in worse places. The problem, too, with this whole idea of people eating insects is that the world's population is tipped over to urban, and more than half of us now really live in urban cities. So the idea of going into your backyard and harvesting anything or going just outside the city is becoming more and more difficult because there are fewer backyards.
FLATOW: Well, now that the United Nations said that we should be eating or making - becoming insect farmers or ranchers, what's your recommendation about how to do that? What's - you eat them all over the world. What's the best way then to become insect ranchers?
MENZEL: Well, I can't really answer that. But what I can do is recommend that you don't eat an insect without someone with you that really has done it before. I mean, human beings, I mean, before fast food farms or even wild game, our ancestors were fed by insects, and it was much easier for them to - instead of going out and hunting a wooly mammoth, it was easier to grab a wooly caterpillar and throw it on the fire and burn off the urticating hairs, and then you've got all this protein and it's cooked.
But seriously, we didn't - we ate over 100 species of insects in more than a dozen countries, and we never got one upset stomach. And the reason that that happened is because we were always with somebody, a local, or an etymologist or, you know, in a very good restaurant where it's on the menu. And we were careful about what we were eating. We didn't eat things that we didn't know about.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So I guess you could - I guess that like ecotourism is big, maybe there'll be insect tourism.
MENZEL: I think there already is. We - I found out about this through a newsletter back in the '80s that Gene DeFoliart founded called "The Food Insects Newsletter" or "Insects Food Newsletter." And it, you know, was a pamphlet that was mailed around that collected recipes and people's stories of eating insects all over the world. And this entomophagy thing really took off after that. And I read all of Gene's newsletters, and then decided that I would go out into the world and sort of conquer my own fear which was - and we wrote a book.
FLATOW: Wrote a book. And unfortunately, Gene has passed away, we understand, so you'll have to go to Peter's book. Peter Menzel, co-author of "Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects," co-authored with Faith D'Aluisio. It's in Ten Speed Press. It's a great book. It would may be cure you of some of the fears of eating insects. Thank you very much, Peter, for taking time to be with us today.
MENZEL: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.