“What would it be like to eat a bug that was about as large as a loaf of bread? This question was inspired by a video game called Grounded, in which shrunken kids have to survive on a lawn, which involves cooking and eating bugs. Would eating a bug under such circumstances be like sucking goo out of them, or would it be more like eating seafood?”
This question recently received in our email piqued my interest. Sure, I’ve eaten bugs, but I never thought about it in this way. I hadn’t heard about the video game “Grounded,” but the thought of shrunken kids figuring out how to catch, cook, and eat bugs intrigued me. So, what would it be like to eat bugs?
Before I answer these questions, I think it’s important to define entomophagy and discuss it. Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects. Anthropo-entomophagy specifically refers to humans eating insects. However, myself and most entomologists I know simply refer to anthropo-entomophagy as entomophagy. Although eating insects is typically considered weird in North America and other western nations, many cultures do practice entomophagy – in fact, around 3000 ethnic groups! There are over 2000 species of insects which are eaten. The groups (or orders, rather) of insects customarily consumed are Coleoptera (beetles), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths – typically their caterpillar/larval forms), Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps), Orthoptera (crickets, grasshoppers, locusts), and Hemiptera (cicadas, waterbugs, etc).
Because this question asked what it’s like to eat bugs, I thought about taste and texture. I also recalled my anecdotal accounts of eating insects and also asked the other two Ask an Entomologist writers, Nancy Miorelli and Joe Ballenger, to share their entomophagy experiences.
Living in Ecuador, Nancy has been able to try all kinds of insects and insect dishes. One of the reasons is because it’s not abnormal to eat insects in some South American countries like Ecuador. Three types of insect food that she has eaten are chontacuros (basically means worms from the jungle), corozos, and catzos (here’s a video of her eating catzos). She mentioned that chontacuros is like bacon or fried chicken wings, catzos tastes like whatever it’s seasoned with, while corozos tastes like “coconut gushers.” This makes sense because corozos are found in coconuts and then are eaten live.
Joe stated that some insects he’s tried he didn’t like. For example, he felt that stir-fried silkworm pupae tasted like burnt chitin and “not in a good way.” He also doesn’t like Cà Cuống, which is a mating pheromone of the water bug, Lethocerus sp. He’s tried to cook it a couple of times because it’s supposed to taste like black licorice, but he hasn’t been successful. On the other hand, Joe does like insect larvae that have thin exoskeletons such as waxworms and bee larvae. He’s made waxworms by marinating them by covering them in a 1:1 or 2:1 mix of mirin, sake, or shaoshin wine and wasabi (he lets it sit overnight) and then fries them. He says they kind of take on the texture of the rice crackers and the flavor of the marinade. Here’s a direct quote from Joe on how the cooked waxworms are able to take on the flavors they are cooked in:
“This works for a few reasons. The alcohol lowers the surface tension, and is able to get into the insect’s tracheae. These insects also have a high fat-to-protein content (think bacon) which allows them to absorb flavors. Most of the stuff we taste are compounds which dissolve in fat, so that’s really important for absorbing flavors. The fat:protein ratio also creates a nice, crispy texture which stands up well to and pairs nicely with a sesame-ginger vinaigrette.”
I’ve personally eaten palm weevil larvae, carpenter ant queens, various ants, silkworms, and crickets. The palm weevil larva was my favorite. It was buttery and kind of tasted like heart-of-palm with a hint of bacon. In my experiences, the ants and crickets are chitinous. Eating the carpenter ant queens was like sucking on flavored corn kernels. I personally don’t like food getting stuck in my teeth, so I wasn’t a fan.
Insects are related to crustaceans (lobsters, crabs, shrimp, etc). Actually, insects may as well be land-crustaceans because of the Pancrustacea hypotheses which states that crustaceans and hexapods (i.e., insects and other closely related 6-legged critters) are a clade, which is a scientific way of saying that a group of organisms are related because they share a common ancestor and all of its descendants. Both crustaceans and insects have similar molecular biology and morphological characteristics. Simply put, these groups of animals are arthropods which have segmented bodies with an exoskeleton whose cuticle is made of chitin. They have similar interior structure as well. Particularly relevant to this topic, the muscles are similar. All arthropods have muscles which are attached to the inside of their exoskeleton that are able to flex their limbs. These muscles are striated and differ from mammal muscle fibers. The difference in the muscle fibers impact the way meat feels and cooks. So, if you’d like something to compare to the texture of what an insect is like, crustaceans are a good reference.
Finally, now that we have an idea of what it’s like to eat insects, to simply answer the questions asked by the email sender:
Q: What would it be like to eat a bug that was about as large as a loaf of bread?
A: If we think about combining science with video games in a science fiction fashion, I would say that it would be like eating a large shrimp or lobster, but with differing flavors depending on the species of bug.
Q: Would eating a bug under such circumstances be like sucking goo out of them, or would it be more like eating seafood?
A: I would say that it would be like more like eating seafood. However, it depends on the bug in question. Grubs like beetle larvae are meaty and fatty.
Barnes, R. S. K., Calow, P. P., Olive, P. J., Golding, D. W., & Spicer, J. I. (2009). The invertebrates: a synthesis. John Wiley & Sons.
Martin, E., & Hine, R. (Eds.). (2008). A dictionary of biology(Vol. 6). Oxford, UK:: Oxford University Press.
Ramos-Elorduy, J. (2009). Anthropo‐entomophagy: Cultures, evolution and sustainability. Entomological Research, 39(5), 271-288.
Ramos-Elorduy, J., & Menzel, P. (1998). Creepy crawly cuisine: the gourmet guide to edible insects. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.
Van Huis, A., Van Itterbeeck, J., Klunder, H., Mertens, E., Halloran, A., Muir, G., & Vantomme, P. (2013). Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security (No. 171). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Zhang, Xue, Casey M. Owens, and M. Wes Schilling. “Meat: the edible flesh from mammals only or does it include poultry, fish, and seafood?.” Animal Frontiers 7, no. 4 (2017): 12-18.