Tuesday 2 July 2013

Bugs for Breakfast Anyone?

Malaysians are a passionate bunch when it comes to food. We take great pride in our cuisine and meals are always much-anticipated. From the cheap and plentiful to the celebratory and occasional treat, good food gets us going, excited, and happy beyond being just fuel for our body.

Nasi lemak 01a
By Takeaway (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 

When it comes to food, Malaysians delight in national staples like nasi lemak or satay, rich laksa, roti and curries, steaming char kue tiao, crunchy pisang goreng, and kuih aplenty. The list is long and seemingly endless and in our towns and cities, we are spoilt for choice with stalls, caf├ęs and restaurants easily accessible and often open late into the night or even round the clock.

Our choice and preference for food is often influenced by geography, culture, and beliefs among other things. So it’s not surprising that what we like and enjoy may not be equally appreciated by tourists and visitors (just as not all Malaysians enjoy sashimi, spaghetti carbonara, or a tostada). Similarly, there are some food items that although common in other parts of the world (even as close as our neighbouring country Thailand), but may be viewed with disgust and revulsion if served here – such as a delicious plate of fried grasshoppers. 

Fried grasshoppers in Bangkok
By Thomas Schoch [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons 

The Practice of Eating Insects

We may be annoyed by ants, freaked out by cockroaches, and terrified of spiders but rarely if ever salivate over the idea of eating insects. The human consumption of insects as food is known as entomophagy and it is a fairly widespread practice in some cultures though in many others often uncommon or viewed with disgust. In a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations1, some interesting insect-eating facts emerge:
  • Around 2 billion people consume insects in some way
  • Humans consume over 1,900 different insect species
  • The most commonly consumed insects are beetles, followed by caterpillars.
  •  Insects are a highly nutritious and a healthy food source

Even though the benefits of entomophagy is quite established, will you consider insects for a meal as seen in this dish (below) of fried insects in Cambodia?

Fried insects for sale in Cambodia
By Steve Baragona [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

What are Insects?

If you’re still thinking about chowing down on some caterpillars, consider first what insects are. We often call all forms of creepy crawlies as insects though there is a specific definition to what an insect is. Examples of insects include beetles, flies, moths, and wasps – can you think of what they have in common?

Insect collage
By Bugboy52.40 (Derivative from images uploaded by Fir0002.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 

Here are some necessary features that all insects share:
  • Insects are invertebrates – they have no backbone.
  • Insects have an exoskeleton – a hard external covering which protects their body.
  • Insect bodies are made up of three segments – the head, the thorax, and the abdomen.
  • Insects have 3-pairs of jointed limbs.
  • Most insects have compound eyes and a pair of antennae.

Insects belong to a larger group of animals called arthropods. Other than insects, which are often differentiated by their bodies which have three segments and six legs, examples of arthropods include arachnids like spiders and scorpions, as well as crustaceans like crabs and lobsters. Centipedes and millipedes are also arthropods.

We already consume many kinds of arthropods such as crabs, shrimp, and lobsters. If you think of a spider as a 'land crab', or an insect as a variation of delicious 'seafood', does it make it more appetising? Also we consume many products made by insects, most famously honey which are made by bees.

Why Eating Insects May Be Important

The report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations1 offers three main reasons why we should consider eating insects:

  1. For health reasons as insects are healthy and nutritious, and are good replacements to current protein sources such as meat and fish.
  2. For the environment as rearing insects for food is less damaging to the planet than livestock like chicken because it requires less space, emit less greenhouse gases like methane, and requires less food to grow.
  3. For the economy as it provides new job opportunities as starting an insect-rearing ‘farm’ is much less expensive and less complicated than rearing livestock.

Consumption of other arthropods specifically arachnids like spiders (shown below) and scorpions too have the same benefits as eating insects. Arachnids are just not technically insects.

Skun spiders closeup
By A. www.viajar24h.com (http://flickr.com/photos/soschilds/375166267/) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We Are Already Eating ‘Insects’

Even with all the goodness of entomophagy established, most people will still not choose to eat insects whether due to personal, cultural, or religious reasons. However, what people don’t often know is that in most of the foods we already consume, there are already unavoidable but small quantities of insects whether in part or whole. The Defect Levels Handbook2 published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration presents a list of food items with natural or unavoidable ‘defects’, usually referring to the addition of unwanted objects such as insects, rodent filth, or mold.

Examples are:
  • Ground cinnamon: Average of 400 or more insect fragments per 50 gram2
  • Chocolate: Average is 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams2
  • Curry powder: Average of 100 or more insect fragments per 25 grams2
  • Canned mushrooms: Average of over 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid2
  • Peanut butter: Average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams2
  • Ground pepper: Average of 475 or more insect fragments per 50 grams2
The food items however are still safe to eat, so don’t be worried!

So when you're out shopping for groceries in the future, don't be too surprised to see insects at the supermarket!

Posted by Daniel

1Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security - http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

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