CHATHAM – Alana Lojko wasn't sure about the snacks on the plate in front of her, an assortment that seemed to be something out of a horror film: Mexican-spiced mealworms, taco seasoned crickets, and sour cream and onion crickets. But rather than a freaky moment in a B-movie, the bugs were actual edibles, and could soon become a food staple, one with myriad benefits, according to scientists.
Bringing the edible bugs to MRMS was entomologist Larry Dapsis with the Barnstable County Cooperative Extension, who said that entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, is more widely acceptable than those of us in the United States realize.
Dapsis's adventure into the realm of edible insects began when he was asked to give an insect-eating talk at the Truro Public Library, through which he discovered a wealth of interesting information.
“What I discovered was a very fascinating industry that even has some local roots on the Cape,” Dapsis said.
He felt the information was perfect for students and created a program that explains how edible insects are a benefit not only to a person's health, as the bugs are packed with key nutrients, but also the planet since the insects and the products made from them are more sustainable than processed foods.
On June 11, during his first of two visits to MRMS, Dapsis shared with students in Julia Randall's science class how eating insects has been a practice in many cultures since prehistoric times. Dapsis showed students slides and shared information about how flour and other foods made from crickets has more protein than meat, and is healthier.
“For students it seems to have something that resonates,” Dapsis said. “What I've put together is a program that shows that insect protein really is going to be part of our society going forward.” While Dapsis was educating students, Randall was arranging crickets in a variety of flavors (sour cream and onion, taco seasoning, Indian spice, white cheddar) and Mexican spice flavored mealworms on paper plates for students to sample after the slideshow.
The reactions to the plated bugs was mixed, particularly regarding the white cheddar crickets and the mealworms, which looked far more buggy than their counterparts. Lojko opted for the sour cream and onion insect, while her classmates sampled Indian spice and taco.
“The taste was good, but the texture wasn't,” she said.
“It's crunchy and tastes like a sour cream and onion chip,” said Dapsis. “If you don't think about it, that you're eating something with legs and a head and eyeballs, it's really good.”
Other students thought the crickets felt and tasted like chips and the majority of kids admitted that they liked them (as did this reporter). Dapsis told the class they could purchase their own insect snacks at the Beef Jerky Outlet in Yarmouth, eliciting a few “I'm going there!” comments.
“I think for the classes it brings out elements of sociology and sustainability, because how are you going to feed the planet going forward?” Dapsis said. “Insects are going to be showing up as snack foods such as cricket tortilla chips or pasta made with cricket flour. Cricket flour is one of the biggest products being produced. Cricket pasta. Who would've thunk?”
Dapsis hopes that the more accepting middle school students will pass along their affinity for insect-based foods, which in turn will help alter perceptions about eating insects, therefore benefiting the planet in a big way.
“Insects actually should be considered part of a normal diet,” Dapsis said. “They're nutritious. Insect farms are no different than other food product farms. If I grew up in Thailand or Central America or parts of South Africa, insects would have been part of what I ate.”
Dapsis really got the attention of the class when he explained that McDonald's is entertaining the use of insect-based foods in its repertoire.
Dapsis said the message is that the worldwide food chain cares about the planet, about people's health, “and if we make Chicken McNuggets out of insect-based protein rather than soybeans, that's better for everybody.”
For those that turn up their noses while looking forward to enjoying a lobster dinner, Dapsis is quick with a reminder.
“What's a lobster? A big oceanic bug,” he said. “We don't think of eating lobsters as out of the ordinary, but they're really just a big bug.”
While Dapsis' work at the county focuses mainly on ticks, he enjoys talking about anything insect-related.
“If there's a bug you like, I'll talk about it, from ants to yellow jackets,” he said, adding that he'd love to bring more programs into area schools. “I couldn't believe the energy level in those classrooms. It's exhilarating. You get these kids engaged in something and they just consume it.”