For most people, bugs are something to be squashed under a shoe rather than salivated over, but increasing numbers of healthy eaters and environmentalists are campaigning for creepy crawlies to be considered a tasty source of nourishment.
However, their efforts could be thwarted by new regulations set to be introduced next year by the European Commission, which will require vendors to prove that the bugs they're selling have a history of being eaten by humans or else have to undergo rigorous testing for classification as a "novel food."
In the U.K., the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is reaching out to edible insect vendors to ask for information about the history of consumption of their bugs. The Commission requires evidence that all food products have been widely eaten since before 1997, or else they must be authorised as novel foods. An FSA spokesperson told Newsweek that currently 13 UK companies sell insects in an unflavoured, seasoned or candied form, including chocolate-coated Chinese yellow scorpions, giant toasted ants and the humble domestic cricket.
The FSA spokesperson says the agency is "conscious of the potential impact these proposals could have on businesses" and says they have written to affected companies to help them prepare for the regulations.
The sale of edible insects in Europe is currently subject to a patchwork of regulation. The Commission already requires parts or extracts of insects sold as food —such as crickets' wings— to be tested for safety and approved as novel foods. However, the sale of whole edible insects—such as an entire cricket, wings intact— is governed by national regulations. Belgium became the first EU country to officially approve the sale of 10 species of insect at the end of 2013, and a major Dutch supermarket chain began stocking insect products towards the end of last year as the Netherlands liberalised its laws. Other countries, such as Luxembourg, have been unwilling to relax laws on edible insects and require all insect products to undergo extensive testing and attain EU authorisation before being sold.
A growing body of evidence is proving the benefits of entomophagy, or the consumption of insects. A landmark 2013 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that at least two billion people regularly consume insects and urged Western countries to promote insects as part of a balanced diet, particularly given that a 2050 population of around nine billion will require a 70 percent hike in food production.
Crickets produce 1 kg of protein with just 1.7 kg of feed, compared to cattle, which require 8 kg of feed to produce the same quantity. Insects also produce a fraction of the greenhouse gases created by livestock and require a tiny percentage of the agricultural land to be farmed.
According to the U.N. report, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles and caterpillars.The industry is set to be worth more than 230 million pounds ($360 million) within the next five years, according to a 2014 report by New Nutrition Business, who analyse the global food industry.
While insect dishes are popular in places like Thailand(which produces 7,000 tonnes of edible insects per year) and South America, European and North American diners have been slower to catch on.
Christine Spliid, a Danish entrepreneur based in London, is hoping to change that after recently launching CROBAR in the U.K., a protein bar made using ground-up crickets. She recently crowdfunded more than 10,000 pounds ($15,600) for her project and hopes to sell around 50,000 bars in her first year of operation. Spliid told Newsweek she is targeting health junkies, who she believes will be easier to sway when they hear of the health benefits of insects.
"With these people it's really easy to convince them that they should go for it. Once that community has spread the word, I think it's just a matter of a couple of years before more regular people take it up," says Spliid. "I think people are going to see it just as an ingredient, not as a weird crawly kind of creature."
Recipe for Christine Spliid's ground-cricket Crobars
- Take a handful of crickets fed on fruit and vegetables throughout their life (which is six weeks)
- Roast on a low heat to maintain nutritional value before grounding crickets whole, wings included
- Mix 1 tbsp cricket flour with 40 g of cashew nuts, a handful of dates and sultanas, some goji berries and chia seeds, and top with a dash of cacao powder and coconut oil
- Blend the mixture and divide into balls. The crickets should give a hazelnutty taste.