Episode 6 transcript

News Grab:

About 2 billion people already eat bugs. Mexicans enjoy Chilli toasted grasshoppers. Thai’s tuck into cricket stir fries and Ghanaians snack on termites.

News Grab:

Bug-based treats are becoming increasingly popular. They are now hiding in everything from corn chips to marshmallows.

News Grab:

The Aztecs and the ancestors ate grasshoppers, worms and other invertebrates long before the arrival of colonists.

News Grab:

We dig for whitchetty grubs under the Bush in the root. We eat them raw or roast on the coals.

News Grab:

So these are actual ants. These are black ants from China and you know in China they say that if you eat them it slows the ageing process and increases sexual vigour.

Dr Lara Anderson:

As we just heard at least 2 billion people dine on insects on a regular basis. Insects are highly nutritious and are more environmentally friendly source of protein than livestock plus and eating has the potential to alleviate food insecurity. These are just some of the compelling reasons to bring insect consumption back to the table. Hi, I’m Lara Anderson and this is the secret life of language, a podcast from the school of languages and linguistics at the University of Melbourne. Although insect eating may be dismissed in the West as one of our latest food fads, It is in fact rooted in human ancestry. Early Hunter gatherers probably learned from animals and their first forages for insects and saw them as both a staple and a delicacy. But as farming took off, bugs were seen as pests. So in the West it would seem we’ve forgotten our insect rich history.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Joining us in the studio today to talk insect ingestion is Deirdre Coleman professor of English at the University of Melbourne, who’s recently published a book about the 18th century British naturalist and entomologist Henry Smeathman. I’m also joined by research fellow, Dr Paula Gonzalez-Rivas of the university’s School of Agriculture and Food and by epidemiologist Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz of the Peter Doherty Institute. Also joining me today is episode cohost Professor Adrian Hern, who like myself works at the University of Melbourne School of Languages and Linguistics. Paula, I’d like to start with you. What are some of the most compelling reasons as you see it for making insect dating more mainstream?

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

So insects for food and feed are really beneficial for the environment because they close the loop in our battle against food waste. Insects can grow easily in organic waste from food scrap straight from the kitchen to discarded food and veggies from the markets. Also even they can grow on sideways such as animal manure. And also in terms of uh, environmental benefits, insects have very high feed efficiency. They consume less food, they need less water and land compared to other livestock species and they produce less greenhouse emissions.

Dr Lara Anderson:

I was wondering if you could talk to us about the nutritional benefits of insect eating, insects as a really as a superfood of sorts.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Yeah, exactly. Insects is a super food, so they are nutrient dense. They contain high protein content. They contain the nine essential amino acid for human diets. They contain unsaturated fatty acid, Omega three and Omega six that compared to other livestock, they are in higher proportion.

Dr Lara Anderson:

It’s the right proportion of Omega three.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

They have the right proportion which is very similar to fish.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Okay.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

And they contain minerals such as iron zinc and phosphorus and vitamins from the B complex, which makes insects in a very similar or equal nutritional profile as a red meat. Converting insect in a highly dense nutrients, and a very versatile to be included in diets. Also insects contain chitin in the exoskeleton. And chitin is an undigestible carbohydrate, and in studies conducted in humans and animals have demonstrated that chitin because it’s not absorbed in the gut health and works as a prebiotic contributed to the good bacteria reducing inflammation, working against IVD and maybe colon cancer.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Deirdre in your work about a 19th century British text that argues for the environmental and health benefits of insect eating, can you tell us a bit about, that text?

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

Well the colonial travel writings about insect eating are really interesting because for the most part insects are seen as really dirty and a kind of boundary marker between, you know, the civilised westerner traveling say in West Africa and the primitive natives who are gorging themselves on, you know, termites or locusts or whatever. But occasionally you come across exceptional travellers who think quite wisely that, uh, and particularly for Westerners in a tropical environment that the healthy thing to do is to do as the natives are doing. And so this particular insect, an entomologist, I suppose you’d call him at the end of the 18th century, he is looking in West Africa at the natives eating termites, roasting them like coffee beans and eating them like lollies. So he totally gets that this is a nutritious thing to do. I mean, he understands from talking to the local people that this has been a culinary treat for a long, long time. So yeah. So he warns in his travel writings that if you’re shipwrecked, if you find yourself on the slave coast in West Africa in the late 18th century, do as the natives do and eat the insects because otherwise you’re going to die.

Dr Lara Anderson:

So that’s a really interesting tension between sort of accepting and seeing that that’s the good way to survive in distant lands. But then also that kind of disgust, which is part of the colonial experience.

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

Which you often see in 15th and 16th century very early modern...

Dr Lara Anderson:

Definitely in Spanish colonial writing there was this idea that the American indigenous Americans were uncivilised because they were eating insects and how failure to properly differentiate between what was edible and inedible was a sign of their sort of kind of non-human status.

Lara Anderson:

Francisco Lopez De Gomara wrote of the indigenous people of the new world, they eat hedgehogs, weasels, bats, locusts, spiders, worms, caterpillars, bees and ticks, raw, cooked and fried. Nothing living escapes their gullet. And what is all the more amazing is that they eat such bugs and dirty animals when they have good bread and wine, fruit, fish and meat available. So he was shocked that they would choose to eat insects.

News Grab:

So, so you pull the head off, it’s, I guess it’s a little bit like eating a prawn. There’s got a shell on the outside should be the same sort of thing. Okay. Let’s see.

Dr Lara Anderson:

So I’m interested to hear about your own experience eating insects and farming insects? Juan and Paula? You have an insect farm at home?

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Yeah, we have an insect farm at home and we also have eaten insects overseas. So in our last trip to Thailand we tried pan fried crickets with Thai basil leaves and they were truly delicious. And then we went to Hong Kong and we went to this specialised restaurant that is specialised on edible insects and we tried cricket pasta with silkworm and basil sauce and also cricket pasta and a cricket and Chorizo Ragu that were absolutely delicious. And it was the highlight of our trip.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Could you taste the cricket or was it really kind of heavy chorizo flavour? Yeah, there was a very like nutty flavour. So insects are defined as an umami flavour, which is the flavour that high protein products provides you. So that’s the sense that you have in your tongue when you eat high protein products.

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

Here in Australia, we try to include the insects in our everyday meals. So what we do is to use either cricket powder or mealworm powder.

Dr Lara Anderson:

So the insects that you farm at home or is that insect powder that you buy?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

Ah both. So we farm mealworms and we get some cricket powder as well because we like the taste and we use them for cooking pancakes. Uh, baking some bread for pizza crust. Sometimes we put them as toppings in our pizzas.

Dr Lara Anderson:

I saw that on one of your Facebook posts.

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

Yeah,

Dr Lara Anderson:

Crickets on the pizza.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

We create this amazing cheese platter in our last trip to Chile. So we took some crickets to our friends. And with Pisco sour probably you tried Pisco sour?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

It’s a very popular drink.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Yeah. And yeah, so we have this cheese platter with uh, insects and that was very, I liked it!

Dr Lara Anderson:

Did you, and you tried insects Adrian, when you were just in Mexico?

Professor Adrian Hearn:

Yeah, I’ve tried insects twice in my life. Once was about 10 years ago in Mexico, a very kind of fancy expensive restaurant where they served tacos with small ant eggs Escamoles I think they were called. And so that was the first time that was a sort of high end experience. And the other time was about a week ago in Mexico city in a marketplace in Coyoacan, uh, and someone was walking around with a bucket with something orange and I could see there were limes on top. And I was curious and I asked for, you know what, what is that? And she said, Oh, these are chapulines, these are crickets. And I thought, well, I’m waiting here for them to make my tacos in the, in the food market here in Coyoacan, why not, why not give this a try? And so I did, I tried it and it, to me it tasted like shrimp. And so I wondered, you know, in, in your views, our guests today, you know, what potential you see for this going more middle class, more mainstream? Deirdre?

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

Well, I’m going to out myself as someone who hasn’t yet eaten insects. I think probably we have to begin with children if we’re going to bring about the revolution.

Dr Lara Anderson:

You write about that in your article.

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

Yeah well Museums Victoria actually ran a day back in 2013 called bugs for brunch and it was targeted at children. So parents invited to bring the kids along and for them all to sit and consume different kinds of insects and apparently the reports say that children were averse at the beginning but slowly came around to the idea.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Because you’ve got an educational program, would you like to talk about that?

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Yeah, we try to focus also in on children and include them in our workshops in order to teach them that they are tasty, insects are tasty and that it’s good for them to eat insects, for them to start a conversation at home. Probably the kids will try to encourage parents to go and try them first if they, if they try them in activity at the school and children are the consumers of the future and the adults of the future and they are maybe going to be more affected by food insecurity in the future. So they need to be more aware and open to this idea.

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

We have a couple of experiences. For example, last year I brought some crickets to share with my university colleagues and half of them were very happy to try them with a lot of curiosity. The other half just look at me with big eyes in disbelief. So acceptance I think is not only about education, it’s more about baby steps for a friendly approach for insect consumption. So we then had a second experience now with the members of the community garden at the Moonee Valley council and we presented them some cricket biscuits. They try them and they just realised that this looked identical to the normal biscuits and tastes identical. So they asked about the ingredients, we showed them cricket powder and then they wanted to know how we produce that cricket powder and that was the time we showed them roasted crickets. Many of them were keen to try the cricket to really know the true flavour of the insect.

Dr Lara Anderson:

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about using insects as animal feed?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

Well there is current investigation that feeding insects to the animals may have multiple benefits. For example, you can feed the animals and reduce their problems with different bugs that may cause some disease on them, like E. coli salmonella, campylobactor. Um, you can increase the wellbeing of the animals. For example, there are some early research on feeding insects to chickens and chickens pretty much enjoy eating, uh, live animals so that could increase in the wellbeing of these farm animals.

Professor Adrian Hearn:

Prior to the pre-industrial era, would animals have eaten insects?

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

So well, animals like fish and poultry, they normally harvest insects from the wild when they roam free in the water or in the farm. But the regulations to include, uh, insects as animal feed is very strict and it’s in a constant development in all countries, in the European union and in North America, and also in Australia. So far the regulations are being approved to include edible insects in fish to replace fish meal because normally farm fish have been fed with other fish that produce over harvesting. Also there are some intentions to regulate to include in chicken feed and also in pork in pig feed. In several countries they have done studies about what is the performance, the growth rate and the feed efficiency when the insects are included in the diets and they are promising results. And also, uh, from the consumer’s perspective, what is the responses in the sensory analysis when people eat the meat from those animals? And this is also promising results. So basically there are no differences between the animals that are fed with a normal diet versus a diet that contains insects. The Other area that is absolutely different is the feed for ruminants. Due to these problems of the BSE or mad cow disease that happens years ago. Animal the right product is no longer approved to be included in ruminant feed. So that’s why we cannot so far, this is not approved to include insects in the diets of ruminants, which means cows, sheep or goats.

Dr Lara Anderson:

So Juan Pablo, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the process of farming insects? How do people go about sort of sourcing insects for farming and and what does an insect farm look like or you know, the small scale one that you have a home or if we wanted to set one up here at the university for example?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

You have a range of farms, right? If you go to Asia, you will see people going to the bushes, capturing some insects and starting their own colony. And very simple things like boxes. A lot of people use egg trays to produce crickets in Asia. Here in Australia you have kind of form of farms, but a farm is a room, is a room which is called vertical farms with a lot of trays where you have different stages of the insects. What we have at home is a simpler version of that. So we have a vertical farm with different trays where we produce our mealworms and we allow them to grow, to transform into beatles, beatles, to breed, to put eggs and lay eggs and then um, start the process all over again.

Dr Lara Anderson:

So you mentioned using insects as a powder for flower and biscuits, how does that process work? How do you go about turning the farmed insect at your home into powder for biscuits?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

It’s very simple. So we have our very simple farm at home where we grow mealworms in particular. When they have a certain size, which is the size, we prefer to harvest them, we just collect them. We put them in the freezer. That’s the human way of killing the insects. We keep them in the freezer for 48 hours. After that, we go with boiling water, so we cleaned them in boiling water. Then we dry them and they go to the blender.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Wow, okay. Have you got a blender just for insects or multi-use?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

I mean insects are normal things, normal ingredients, so we have to convince the people that insects are just like seafood, meat or any animal product.

Professor Adrian Hearn:

I want to ask about maybe the flip side of this. We’re talking about people that have studied and as you say, have a scientific knowledge. I’m curious if any of the three of you come across examples where there is an explicit intention to try to learn from indigenous or from communities that have been practicing this as part of their heritage to try to learn some lessons from them and scale those lessons up to a Western market.

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

One phrase that really leapt out at me in reading colonial writings about just observing the eating of insects is this idea of the manna harvest. So what colonial settlers are seeing is harvesting and its manna. So it’s got this, you know, the idea of the sort of honeydew that is left on leaves by insects. You know that this is a manna, you know, has a biblical resonance.

Professor Adrian Hearn:

This is the manna falling from the sky.

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

That’s right in the wilderness. So it’s very richly evocative. The language.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Yeah. I think what we learn from them is also go back to the nature. Is that what happened with the unionization and that was you told that your child didn’t want to try because it wasn’t used to seeing say or be in contact with them. So if we, if we look at those unseen cultures that they live closer to nature and we learn from them to use the resources that are normally seen. So now they’re there for some short time and they can be utilized. That’s, that’s a good way to understand how the ecology and whole, whole, the whole system works in the natural world.

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

As part of our program of education, we really want to bring into the conversation people with different backgrounds. Australia’s a great place to start that kind of conversation. You have a big Asian communities, African communities, Latin American communities.

Dr Lara Anderson:

That would be a perfect country for that because there’s so many countries where indigenous cultures still eat insects.

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

You’re right. As Part of our work program is not only educate people but give a space for conversation and understand the different perceptions, the different cultures and the different understanding of the consumption of insects. We are quite surprised that given all the good knowledge that the indigenous people of Australia have around insect consumption, this is not well known by the rest of the population here in Australia.

Dr Lara Anderson:

It’s a sort of kind of blind spot and it would be great to maybe include that aspect of Aboriginal food culture and culture and educational programs in the schools and that would be a way maybe of giving Aboriginal groups more agency in a way of educating about the inherent wisdom of their food ways?

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

and also I think insect eating and sustainability, the fact that a lot of colonial, well writers in the colonial period will notice that what’s particularly targeted are pest insects. So it’s a form of eradication as well as a sustainable food source for humans.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Yeah, and that’s probably the main origin of entomology like to try to control pests. So it’s like the same when you’re, when you are allowed to hunt wild species because they are highly abundant. Some areas they had to hunt and gather those insects and they start eating them when they had to control them because they were pests.

Professor Adrian Hearn:

Well certainly in Australia, the problem of locusts on farms is, is a serious one. But I don’t think anyone really imagines that the solution could be for us to eat the locusts.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Well maybe that’s something you can suggest to local governments in your report. So on feed systems.

Professor Adrian Hearn:

I could! Well one of the things that’s come up actually is around regulation and you mentioned Lara local government and how these things are controlled and regulated. I’m curious in your, well all three of you in your research on this, uh, have you discovered different approaches in different countries to regulating the safety and the appropriateness of insect consumption?

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

From our experience, when we went to Thailand, they have been practicing the entomology and product producing and harvesting insects for very long time. Regulations were not in place since they don’t need it. But now there is more export market. They are trying to meet regulation from other countries like the European union or North America where they need FDA approval. But in terms of the cleanness of production, especially in Australia, the production of insects has to be certified and under certain regulations. So that’s why it’s not recommended to harvest from the wild sometimes, because we now we, they can be exposed to insecticides and pesticides so we don’t know what they contain. So that’s why it’s better to farm and consume farmed insects. So probably in the early ages they were happy to have them from the environments because they weren’t exposed to pesticides. But now this is unsafe

Professor Adrian Hearn:

in Australia there is a regulatory regime and it recognises certain insects as okay and others as not. It’s that is that right?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

Maybe it’s not an okay or not, but it’s more about the species that can be safely include in the diet so.

Dr Lara Anderson:

That can be sold?

Dr Juan Pablo Villanueva-Cabezaz:

Can be sold to and can be consumed. There are no limitations for their inclusion in the diets of people. And these are three species. Mealworms, giant mealworms and also crickets. So yeah, probably the most common around the world.

Dr Lara Anderson:

And you were surprised to see the insects that indigenous groups here in Australia are eating and not included in that list?

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Yeah maybe because they are not farmed. So they are, they are harvested from the wild. And so there has to be a system for them to be producing in a farming system and this needs more regulation and more technology to be applied. Yeah, because these grubs normally grow underground and this is absolutely different to crickets or mealworms when they’re normally producing. Vertical farms are very contained areas.

Dr Lara Anderson:

And very small areas as well. So with all the compelling environmental and health benefits of insect eating and the reasons for bringing insect consumption back to the table. Do you think insect eating is a, you know, does it offer a possibility to alleviate food insecurity? Is it a way for us to feed our booming population? Some public health nutritionists have argued that large scale entomology in Western culture faces extremely large barriers, if not insurmountable. What do you think about that?

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

Well, there’s certainly a lot of urgency in some of the reports that have been done. There was a report in 2013 called edible insects, which was put together by the United nations food and agricultural organisation. And I mean in 2013 there were nearly a billion chronically hungry people worldwide. And really this report just emphasises how to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. The subject of insect consumption has to be brought to the table as it were. So there will be no avoiding, uh, looking to.

Dr Lara Anderson:

Insects.

Professor Deirdre Coleman:

New ways of growing food.

Dr Lara Anderson:

And as countries get wealthier, people want to eat more meat and protein and that’s just not sustainable.

Dr Paula Gonzales-Rivas:

Exactly. That is expected that due to the wealthiest communities, the need for proteins will increase by 60% in the next year. So we need to find a better way to provide protein to 2 billion people. So there is, this is a very important topic that we normally talk about in the edible insect area. That insects are normally compared with the sushi phenomenon, like sushi took nearly or more than 20 years to become mainstream in Western societies because people was really afraid to eat raw fish. But now sushi is everywhere. Yeah. We think that insect will take maybe less than 20 years to become mainstream because we are now in an era of communication and social media, and the experience and the benefits of insects can be spread easily by social media and using chefs that that they can include the insects in their own recipes and sharing them everywhere. It will be a good way to start teaching them what are the benefits and that insects are very versatile and high nutrient ingredients for the diet.

Dr Lara Anderson:

You make a good point. I think social media will have a huge impact on making insect eating more mainstream. I’d like to thank our guests, Deirdre, Juan Pablo and Paula. Be sure to keep up with every episode of the secret life of language podcast by following us on the Apple podcast app, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. The Secret Life of Language is a podcast from the University of Melbourne School of Languages and Linguistics and is licensed under creative commons. Copyright 2020 the University of Melbourne.

Thanks for listening and buen provecho!