Anyone for a honey-glazed cockroach? Grasshopper soup? Locust-enriched meusli? The answer is most likely a strong ‘no thanks’, unless, of course, you’re one of the scientists working on a €3m EU project to see if Europeans can be induced to eat insects as an alternative to beef.
Right now, the research project’s bid to study “the potential of insects as an alternative source of protein” may read like a Monty Python restaurant sketch, but there is a genuine concern at the core — will Europe have enough meat to feed its citizens in future generations? The EU’s instinctive answer to that question, like most people’s answer to an offer of deep-fried beetle, is a strongly worded ‘no.’
While it might seem a giggle now, future generations of Europeans can expect to spend longer periods out of work. Will they be able to afford beef? Or will they be willing to eat insects?
People will need to consume protein. EU member states won’t want their hospitals stuffed with people suffering from health issues caused by a lack of protein intake. Ireland’s failing healthcare system will want to avoid a new stream of patients.
Promoting the research, the UN’s Food Standards Authority said: “While insects have not traditionally been used for food in the UK, or elsewhere in the European Union, it is estimated that about 2.5bn people across the world have diets that routinely include insects.
“While many insects are regarded as pests, the UN’s Food and Agriculture authority is interested in promoting edible insects as a highly sustainable source of nutrition.”
Insects have many of the same essential nutrients as meat. They are high in protein, they contain iron and calcium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, and D.
Edible insects are considerably lower in fat than pork or beef.
The UN’s research suggests that worms contain three times as much protein as beef, and just four crickets contain as much calcium as a glass of milk.
“Insects are very nutritious,” says Eva Ursula Muller, director of forestry, economics, policy and products with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). “They play a major role in food security. Two billion people in the world — that means one third of the population — already eats insects.”
Anyone who has visited big cities in Asia, for instance, will have seen the outdoor stalls offering all manner of roasted insects on sticks. Dipped in sweet and savoury sauces, they still look like bugs on sticks, complete with their sugar-coated antennae flopping in the breeze.
Appetising they are not, at least not to European tourists. However, they go down well with the locals. And, frankly, most Asians look far healthier than many of us Europeans.
We may look on in horror as they chew on something we’d kill with an aerosol can, but, then, they’re probably equally horrified to see us gulping down reconstituted meats, grease-soaked potatoes, and fast food.
Closer to home, some people are already happy to bite into bugs. London’s Archipelago restaurant is also doing a roaring trade in ants, locusts, and bees in honey.
And, in Paris, start-up food business, Ynsect, is enjoying success with its new animal feed from insect meal.
Ynsect co-founder, Jean-Gabriel Levon, wanted to make insect food for people, but his partners decided to take one step at a time. Instead, they’ve gone with their sawdust-like, insect-based animal feed.
“It smells like fish food,” Mr Levon told German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle (DW). “Fish love our product.”
Gourmet spice company, Terre Exotique, is going one further, and selling grasshopper snacks to Europeans. Viewed as a delicacy in Mexico, the tiny, grilled grasshoppers come in a jar.
DW took to the streets of Paris with a jar of the toasted, well, maggots. A bit like the contents of their jar, the responses were mixed.
Nonetheless, with seven billion people in the world and a projected nine billion by 2050, concerns over food security will not go away in a hurry.
If the UN has its way, Irish food exporters may soon have a new microscopic competitor when it comes to winning over the hearts, minds and taste buds of European consumers.
On the plus side, farmers may soon have less need for insecticides.