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The (selected) history of insects as food

Insects are ubiquitous and have been included in human diets in most areas of the world at some time. They are still a component of many current diets. In this post I will showcase how insects have been seen as food in during the ages in Near East, Europe and North America. It is well understood that entomophagy has been relevant in all over the globe, but for purposes of making this post shorter Asian and African history of entomophagy will not be discussed.

Even though in western societies entomophagy has not been in fashion for some time, this has not always been the case. Insects have been used as foodstuffs since the prehistoric times, and some researchers propose they played a vital role in facilitating the expansion of the hominid brain. Basically, we can thank our ancestors for their dietary choices containing insects with high energy intensity and large amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids for having big brain time today (Paoletti, 2005; Sutton, 1995).

Well-attested and widespread references of insect-eating can be found in the ancient Near East. In the palace of Assurbanipal there is a bas-relief (Figure 1.) depicting a scene of servants carrying strings of granates and grasshoppers probably to offer them to the king (Berenbaum, 1996). In religious texts in the Old and New testament we are also given some records of entomophagy. In the Old testament Moses described four kinds of locusts which the Hebrews were permitted to eat: “Even these of them you may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind” (Leviticus 11:21-22). These are truly words to live by. In the New testament John the Babtist ate locusts and wild honey with great appetite (Mark 1:6). in Talmud there are several references to eating locusts and gathering them for food, but I have never read Talmud so this is up to you to check out.

Slab from Corridor LI in the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh (702-692 B.C.). (from A.A. Layard, 1853. Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. London, 339 pp.).

Figure 1.  Slab from Corridor LI in the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh (702-692 B.C.). (from A.A. Layard, 1853. Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. London, 339 pp.). 

During antiquity the Greeks and Romans held certain insects in great value, and consumed those as great delicacies. And oh boy, those people knew how to feast (The Greek came up with the whole idea of Hedonism). Pliny the Elder referred to the larva of an insect known as “coccus” (thought to be Lucanus cervus) being reared on flour and wine in order to fatten them and heighten their flavour. Now days we season our insects on the surface, but a wine-infused coccus sound neat. And they must have been very tasty, as the Roman aristocracy considered these insects on a par with the daintiest meats. Also, in ancient Greece cicadas were a very popular dish, and Aristotle even gives us a hint that females full of eggs were juicier than males (Kiple and Ornelas, 2000).

A character in a play by Aristophanes remarks: “Are locust superior in flavour to trushes? Why! Do you want to fool me? Everybody knows that locusts taste much better!” Authors note: a trush is a small bird.

A Roman Feast

Figure 2. A Roman Feast, Roberto Bompiani, late 19th century

After the antiquity we enter the dark ages of entomophagy in western world. Little information is to be found before the emergence of the scientific era. Aldrovande comments on the use of insects as food in different parts of the world in his book De Animalibus Insectis Libri Septem published in 1644. In 1800 Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) wrote in his Phytologie that several insects were worthy of being served in his dinner table. In 1877 Alpheus Spring Packard Junior described bees and ants used in Sweden to flavour brandy (those damned Swedes are always a step ahead of us Finns). My personal favourite of this era is Vincent M. Holt with his angsty book Why Not Eat Insects? (1885) where he writes about “a long-existing and deep-rooted public prejudice” to insects as food. This shows that entomophagy is not a new idea in any way, and the problems we share today with Mr. Holt are truly long-existing and deep-rooted. 

The prohibition against eating insects among many contemporary North Americans can probably be traced to Europe. European colonists who settled in North America also had strong taboos against consuming insects. In fact, they originally classified the New England lobster as an insect and refused to eat it. But that was in the 1600s. Subsequently, the lobster has, of course, passed from the status of prohibited food to delicacy (Kiple and Ornelas, 2000). At first at Entis we described house crickets as “land shrimps” as they are kind of similar. Funnily enough the Goshute Indians did the exact reverse – they named shrimps as “sea crickets”. These Native Americans were very accustomed to eating grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets, but shrimps were introduced to them by the settlers (Lockwood, 2009).

During the Great War food prices were increasing and serious shortages faced many nations. In 1916 members of the United States Bureau of Entomology and the United States Bureau of Biological Survey suggested cheap foods as insects as a solution. Why this was not taken further is lost in the bureaus endless filing cabinets, but it is most likely that “a long-existing and deep-rooted public prejudice” was again at work.

Hunger map of Europe 1918

Figure 3. Hunger Map of Europe (1918) United States Food Administration 

After the mid 1900’s researchers were mostly cataloguing human entomophagy around the world. Even though we have an immense wealth of knowledge about human use of insects as food, entomophagy has remained a niche in the western world. For a comprehensive overview of the history of human entomophagy (Dossey et al., 2016) is suggested.  

Coming to this day, we are seeing re-emergent interest in entomophagy. This is why you are reading this writing and I am writing this. Well, I am writing this because I represent a company fighting against the long-existing and deep-rooted public prejudice against entomophagy with information. The "why not" is hard to explain logically, nutritionally, or on the basis of the sheer abundance of these creatures. For Europeans and North Americans the eating of insects is considered a curiosity at best. Yet for these same people, other invertebrate animals, such as oysters, snails, crayfish, and lobsters, are not only accepted as food but even viewed as delicacies. Food habits are not conditioned by nutritional tables, calorie counts or balanced diets. What we eat is conditioned by religion, by tradition, by fashion - in a word, by culture. As food psychologist Gerald Bennelt (Bennett, 1988) has put it, we like what we know, we have an irrational fear of the new and, once established, food preferences are highly resistant to change.

Hopefully this brief review gave you some food for thought, and from here you can order some food for your body as well: https://entisstore.com/

References:

Bennett, G., 1988. Eating matters: why we eat what we eat. Heinemann, London.

Berenbaum, M.R., 1996. Bugs in the system: insects and their impact on human affairs. Addison-Wesley, Amsterdam.

Dossey, A.T., Morales-Ramos, J.A., Rojas, M.G. (Eds.), 2016. Insects as sustainable food ingredients: production, processing and food applications. Academic Press

Kiple, K.F., Ornelas, K.C. (Eds.), 2000. The Cambridge world history of food. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK ; New York.

Paoletti, M.G. (Ed.), 2005. Ecological implications of minilivestock: potential of insects, rodents, frogs, and snails. Science Publishers, Enfield, (NH).

Sutton, M.Q., 1995. Archaeological aspects of insect use. J. Archaeol. Method Theory 2, 253–298. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02229009

 

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