Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

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Edible bugaboos - More than 1,400 kinds of insects are eaten; what’s your excuse?

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My poor Thai and the waiter’s poor English convinced me to order a “chicken” dish. It turned out to be a platterful of very small baby birds, possibly extracted right from the shell, all nicely battered and deep-fried. They were meant to be eaten whole, which I did, crunching though the entire lot, skulls, beaks, feet and all, given I was so hungry.

Changing circumstances demand changing strategies. With the growing world population and climate change impacting traditional food supplies, the FAO and Chiang Mai University suggest that in light of the fact 1,400 species of insects are eaten by people, the bug world offers many commercial and nutritional opportunities.

It’s not hard to see how the concept might take hold, especially in areas already hit by climate change (read: drought), like sub-Saharan Africa.

Across Africa, the UN reports that some 500-plus insect species are consumed in 36 different countries. Insects are also eaten in 29 Asian countries and 23 countries in the Americas. If you ignore Canada and the U.S., that pretty much leaves people in most of Central and South America happily chomping away on insects as part of their diet.

Of the hundreds of species eaten, the most common come from four main groups: beetles; ants, bees and wasps; grasshoppers and crickets; and moths and butterflies.

In terms of nutrition, bug food is surprisingly rich (remember this next time you are lost in the woods and hungry). Some insects have as much protein as meat and fish; in dried form that protein ratio can double. Some, especially in the larval stage (which, along with pupae, is the most common form consumed) are also rich in fat, vitamins and minerals.

In some regions, they’re only eaten as “emergency food” in times of starvation. But where they are consumed regularly, they comprise a large part of the diet and are often considered delicacies. In Thailand alone, nearly 200 different insect species are eaten. Locals go nuts for them as snacks and treats homemade or sold by street vendors.

It’s a far cry from circling the shelves on the old Woodward’s food floor when we were kids until we found the round, clear plastic containers of chocolate-covered grasshoppers and ants. We’d read the labels in awe, poke at the silver foil-wrapped cubes, then put them back on the shelf with a collective eeugh.

Now that I think about it, the ratio of chocolate to ant must have been about a hundred to one. But other than perhaps as a party sensation or joke, nobody ever bought the things, and nobody ever will now that Woodward’s is gone, and a terrific sideshow for generations of western Canadian kids has ended.

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