A man died Friday after eating scores of cockroaches, worms, and millipedes in a contest. Last year, Slate explained which bugs are safest to eat. The article is reprinted below.
Brazil's ant harvest has been on the decline, and the culprit appears to be the pesticides farmers spray on their eucalyptus trees. For residents of Silveiras, Brazil, this is a bigger deal than it may seem, since they turn out in droves every year to hunt for queen ants, a popular delicacy in some regions of the South American country. * Bug-eating has never really caught on in the United States, but this news item got the Explainer wondering—which North American bugs would make the best snacks?
Crickets and grasshoppers, probably. Members of the order Orthoptera, including crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts, are favorites among practitioners of entomophagy. They're meatier than smaller insects like ants and mosquitoes, for starters. They're also versatile. Orthoptera are the tofu of the insect world—they don't have a lot of flavor on their own but take on the taste of the dish they're in. Applications abound for these bugs. A grasshopper's exoskeleton seals in moisture, so grilling and other high-heat methods are appropriate. Consider marinating them first, though, to tenderize the crunchy skeleton. Crickets, especially the nymphs with their thinner exoskeleton, are good in stews, or ground up for use as a flour substitute. Adventurous gourmands can eventually graduate to pine-nutty wasps, honey-tinged wax worms, or apple-flavored stink bugs.
More than 1,400 species of insect have been confirmed as safe to eat. That seems like a low number, considering that there are approximately 900,000 known insect species worldwide. But it doesn't mean the rest are poisonous or even unpalatable. There just hasn't been a concerted effort to test the bugs that aren't already part of a traditional diet somewhere in the world.
Even venomous insects are usually OK to eat if you cook them. Heat changes the chemical structure of the venom, rendering it harmless. Scorpions, for example, are a delicacy in parts of Asia. Nervous diners can cut off the end of the tail, where the venom gland and stinger are located, but Asian gourmands usually eat the whole bug.
While most insects are safe, not all are palatable. Generally speaking, colorful insects should be avoided. They can get away without camouflage in the wild because they're so bitter that no predator wants to eat them, even if they're an easy target. So pass on the ladybugs.
Most experts in entomophagy discourage beginners from foraging for their own dinners, so you can put your old butterfly net back in the attic. Bugs get covered in pesticide residue flitting around in the garden, though it's unclear whether it would be enough to damage your health. Even if your yard is completely organic, you can't be sure where you prey was before it found its way onto your begonias. If you insist on bagging your own grasshoppers, go out into an unspoiled area as far from human activity as possible.
It's safer, and a lot easier, to buy the bugs from your local pet store. Most of them carry crickets as food for reptiles, tarantulas, and other exotic pets. But you should be careful when buying insects intended as pets, rather than food. Eating an animal traditionally kept as a pet is illegal in some states, and stores occasionally make you sign a pledge to treat purchased pets humanely—even scorpions and tarantulas. You can avoid the moral and legal ambiguities by patronizing one of the online retailers that offer a wide selection of insect delights.
Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks David George Gordon, author of Eat-a-Bug Cookbook: 33 Ways To Cook Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin.
Clarification, Jan. 6, 2011: This article originally implied that ant-eating is practiced throughout Brazil. Certain Brazilians in some parts of the country eat queen ants, but it is not a nationwide dietary staple. (Return to the revised sentence.)