Sunday 22 April 2012

The Colganology Podcast - Episode 2 - Bug and Chips twice please


On the top shelf of one of my bookcases there’s a small green book by a man called Vincent M Holt. It was first published in 1885 by the London Natural History Museum (It's where I got my copy) and has been in print ever since. Surprisingly, it’s a cook book. It’s a cook book called Why not eat insects?

I bought my copy at an evening lecture run by the Museum in the early 1990s. The speaker, whose name I've forgotten I'm afraid, made the very valid point that insects and other invertebrates outnumber us backboners by millions to one. And yet, on the whole, this vast source of protein is almost entirely unused. I say almost ... because we do eat some. Invertebrates – creatures without backbones – include the hard-shelled, multi-legged arthropods such as insects, spiders and crustaceans. It also includes worms, starfish and corals. And the molluscs; the snails and slugs. But here’s the odd thing … we’ll eat invertebrates that come out of the sea but very few that live on land. Most people baulk at eating a garden snail but think nothing of chomping on a winkle or oyster. We happily munch on crabs and prawns and lobsters … but not on locusts, scorpions and ants. Why is that? Why this prejudice against land-based arthropods? The lecturer (and I'll have to paraphrase here) made this very point.

Let’s look at prawns and locusts, for example. They share a common ancestry. They are both arthropods with external skeletons and almost identical internal arrangements. However, one evolved to live on land and in the air; the other to live in the sea. Locusts eat grain and corn and green leaves and fruit. Prawns eat fish crap, bacteria and micro-organisms and quite frequently hang around near sewage outfalls. So which would you rather eat? Most would still go for the prawn. And yet, they taste pretty much the same. I can vouch for that. This wasn't just a lecture, you see ... it was a tasting. And during the evening I munched my way through deep fried honey ants, a barbecued witchety grub, a kind of black pudding made from brine flies and a locust cocktail. And they were all delicious. They really were. He also explained that there would be less famine in some parts of the world if people started eating insects again. It’s notable that the countries that stopped eating bugs are those that were visited and ‘educated’ by Christian Missionaries who managed to persuade the vast majority of tribes that eating bugs was dirty and disgusting. A prejudice, incidentally, that was foisted onto most of you too. In the Far East, where few such missionaries dared to tread, bugs still provide a valuable source of protein to some of the world’s largest populations. There, having invertebrates on the menu is no more freaky than eating chicken or fish.

Food prejudices are not a uniquely British phenomenon, but we are oddly particular. We'll eat a lamb or a cow or a pig. But we won't eat a horse. Most people will no longer eat rabbit or squirrel or pigeon even though they are plentiful, pests, low in fat and cholesterol and delicious. And the fishmongers and chip shops get asked for almost nothing but cod while John Dory, gurnard, pollock or hake are also fantastic fish. We have created a hierarchy of animals, with some being much more important than others. Take 'dolphin-friendly tuna' for instance; no one seems to give a toss about the tuna. All tinned tuna is tuna-unfriendly. This is a perfect example of what some call species-ism or mammal-nepotism; people make value judgements about living creatures based upon how close they are to us on the family tree of life. Hence, we baulk at stabbing an elephant but will happily stick a hook through a fish's jaw, boil a lobster alive and drown slugs in beer. Pretty = good. Ugly = bad. It's no great surprise that the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose a charismatic warm-blooded mammal - the giant panda - for its logo is it? Yet if you look at the list of critically endangered species (as opposed to just endangered) what do we find? The Antiguan Racer Snake, the Spotted Handfish, the Australian Ant, and the Southern Blue Fin Tuna. Surely they’d be more suitable animals for the logo?

What puzzles me is this …. Why don’t these same prejudices make us eat fewer mammals and more bugs? It’s a real mystery to me. Surely people find chickens and lambs cuter than honey ants or meal worms? If you have any theories, please do let me know.

Meanwhile, here are some statistics for you to mull over. 100g of crickets or grasshoppers contain 121 calories, 12.9g of protein, 5.5g of fat, 5.1g of carbohydrates, 75.8 mg of calcium, 185.3mg of phosphorous, 9.5mg of iron, 0.36mg of thiamin, 1.09mg of riboflavin and 3.10mg of niacin. There are 1,462 recorded species of edible insect. Just one of those species - Mealworms - are an incredibly rich source of nutrition, having more complete protein than soy, meat, or fish and are concentrated sources of calcium, niacin, magnesium, potassium, the B-vitamins, and many other nutrients. Wouldn't they go some way to alleviating world hunger? We’d certainly never run out of them. Mealworms are beetle larvae – and there are over 350,000 species of beetle alone. Fully 95% of all living creatures on Earth are insects – that’s approximately 10 quintillion (10 with 18 noughts after it) individual insects alive on this planet at this exact moment. If you scooped up all of the animals on Earth and scrunched them up into a ball, 10% of the total mass would be made up of ants. By comparison, we humans make up just 0.33% - and there are seven billion of us.

Actually, the chances are that you’ve eaten a few bugs already. The old story that every year we all swallow an average of four spiders in our sleep is completely untrue. But you have eaten bugs. Or parts of them anyway. Food manufacturers are aware that is impossible to completely guarantee that their products will not contain some insect contamination and there are levels of acceptability. For instance, chocolate is allowed to contain up to 60 insect fragments per gram before it is deemed to be unsuitable for sale or consumption. Ground nutmeg and cinnamon is allowed up to 100 insect fragments per 10 grams and caned citrus fruit juices may contain up to 5 fruit fly eggs per 250ml before action needs to be taken. Disturbed? Don’t be. The fragments are tiny and harmless. And perfectly edible. It’s almost impossible to find any foodstuff that isn’t contaminated by bugs But as Dr. Manfred Kroger, a professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University, says, 'Let's face it, much of our food comes from nature, and nature is not perfect.'

But embracing the bug as a foodstuff isn’t just about survival in Third World countries. Just think about the exciting new range of meals you’d have to choose from. Anticipating this, the excellent Mr Holt included recipes and suggested menus in his little green book. Who could not resist the lure of Boeuf aux chenilles (Braised beef with caterpillars), or Wasp grubs fried in the comb) or the ultimate supper dish of Phalenes au parmesan (Moths and cheese on toast)? There is absolutely no difference between a snail and an oyster - they are both gastropods. And the snails you pay so much for in France are the same as the ones in your back garden. Exactly the same. They’re just bred to be larger and fed on top quality greens.

So get out the garlic butter and tuck in.

You have nothing to lose but your prejudices.

Here's a great little TED talk by Marcel Dicke that covers some of what I've said and considerably more:

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