Podcast S2 E1 | 27 min

Eating Insects and the Yuck Factor

30 Jul 2019
Why do some people think consuming insects is gross? In this podcast episode, anthropologist Julie Lesnik explains the history and culture behind the aversion to including insects for dinner.

How come some people think eating insects is disgusting? Join SAPIENS hosts Jen Shannon and Chip Colwell as they dine on many-legged delicacies and delve into the world of entomophagy with Julie Lesnik, anthropologist and author of the new book Edible Insects and Human Evolution.

Julie Lesnik is a professor of anthropology at Wayne State University. Follow her on Twitter @JulieLesnik.

Learn more about eating insects and why more humans don’t eat bugs.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

eating insects - Testing their own cultural reflexes, the SAPIENS Podcast team sampled ants and crickets at Linger, a restaurant in Denver, Colorado. (Credit: Cat Jaffee/SAPIENS)

Testing their own cultural reflexes, the SAPIENS Podcast team sampled ants and crickets at Linger, a restaurant in Denver, Colorado.

Cat Jaffee/SAPIENS

Read a transcript of this episode

Jen: Chip, can I be honest with you about something?

Chip: Sure, yeah, of course.

Jen: I think insects are totally fascinating.

Chip: Mmmm … OK, so, like moths?

[sound design of a moth]

Jen: Yeah, they’re fun.

Chip: Hmmm, what about beetles?

[sound design of beetle]

Jen: Yeah, oh my gosh, beetles are really beautiful. Just yesterday I was on a hike, and we totally braked for a beautiful beetle because I just wanted to take a closer look. They’re so colorful and interesting looking and—

Chip: and delicious?

Jen: What? No. No. What are you talking about? Eww.

Chip: You know, we had a piece at SAPIENS.org recently about the future of food. It was all about how uncertain it is, with our climate catastrophe and all the resulting changes.

Jen: OK, sure, I’m with you so far.

Chip: And how some open-minded chefs, environmentalists, entrepreneurs—and anthropologists—have all been looking to insects for answers. From what I’ve read, this new movement is only a few years old, but it’s already producing some really interesting results.

Jen: [not excited about this] Like what?

Chip: Well, there’s artisanal chocolate bars made with insect parts; crispy, salty, snack-able mealworms and grasshoppers; pancake mixes and fruit smoothies blended with powdered crickets.

Jen: I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Chip: Think about it this way, Jen. Insects are super nutritious, with high levels of fiber and protein. And compared to cows, chickens, or pigs, they require far less land, water, energy, and feed to get the same amount of food.

Jen: [still not into it] OK, all right, I get it. I guess eating insects makes a lot of sense.

Chip: And that’s why we’re dedicating our whole show this time to entomophagy. And, actually, I’m just learning how to pronounce that word. I hope I pronounced it right. It’s the scientific word for eating insects. We’re going behind this new food craze to understand why some humans can’t get enough insects for dinner—

Jen: and why some of us aren’t quite ready to order that particular dish.

[SAPIENS intro]

Chip: First things first: Jen and I figured we had to taste for ourselves what all the excitement is about. So, a few weeks ago, we took our producers, Paul and Cat, and my 7-year-old daughter, Mina, out to dinner.

Jen: There are actually a number of restaurants here in the Denver metro area with insects on the menu: a couple Mexican spots, a Welsh bistro up the road in Fort Collins, and the place we managed to get a good reservation, Linger, a very hip, very cool restaurant that operates out of a building that used to be something else entirely.

[fade in restaurant sounds]

Jen: A mortuary?

Chip: Slash mortuary. I did not know that. Totally changes the meal for me.

Jen: And what Linger means!

Chip: Thanks, yeah. That’s actually worse for me than the crickets. I didn’t know that.

Jen: I just found out when we walked in the door.

Chip: For two people who do a lot with repatriation, this is perfect—

Jen: yeah, awkward.

Chip: Yeah, that was a side note.

Jen: The host seated us in an out-of-the-way corner of the restaurant, and our server Beau came over to greet us.

Beau: So just kind of a few quick notes on the menu as well as the restaurant concept. It’s going to be globally inspired street food from around the world. Next to some of these items you might see a small GF or V. These are going to be dishes that we can do gluten-free or vegan upon request.

Jen: And there it was under the Asian section of the menu, the dish we came for: crickets and green tea soba noodles. And it didn’t even say ants in the name of the dish, but they were definitely in there!

Chip: How about the insects? What’s your—?

Beau: that’s actually one of my favorite dishes. The very interesting thing about that dish is the black ants, that when they die, they actually release citric acid. So it adds a little bit of a lime flavor and an acidic note to the dish.

Chip: Where do you get your ants from?

Beau: It’s from a farm up in Boulder. I can’t remember the name of the farm itself.

Chip: An ant farm?

Beau: There’s a lot of neat stuff up there right now. Doing protein bars with all insect protein and just kind of the future of feeding the world, so to speak.

Chip: My daughter, Mina, was really excited about the insects. She had been looking forward to the meal, and when the plates arrived, her eyes lit up.

Jen: Let’s put them in the spotlight.

Mina: I see ants!

Jen: I see their antennae!

Chip: Oh, yeah.

Mina: That kind of looks good!

Jen: I think I’ll take the one at the darker end of the table.

Chip: In front of us was a serving of soba noodles adorned with slices of cucumber and radish, and topped with a pile of tiny black ants and not-so-tiny crickets.

Jen: So, just for the record, there’s no disguising that these are ants and crickets. Much to my chagrin, they are not blended into sauce. They are full-on little ants on top with legs and such, like whole crickets. And of all of this, the whole crickets, to me—

Chip: that’s the worst?

Jen: Are the worst.

Chip: If you’re curious, we’ve got a picture of the dish up at SAPIENS.org.

Mina: [laughter]

Jen: It’s like empty crunchy things with an aftertaste of … I don’t know. It doesn’t have flavor.

Chip: Yeah, not a lot of flavor.

Jen: More like texture. But it’s like air pockets. It’s not bad.

Chip: Jen, you really had a reaction to those crickets. What do you think that was all about?

Jen: Yeah, that’s the thing. They didn’t taste bad, and the texture wasn’t totally unpleasant. What I was feeling that night was something else. It really struck me: Why was Mina so excited about the idea of eating insects and I was I so uncomfortable? Where did these feelings come from?

Jen: Well, OK, what would you like to say for our toast?

Mina: Dead crickets.

Jen: Dead crickets? To dead crickets and a wonderful meal with good company! Clink!

Mina: Clink.

Chip: Clink.

[music transition]

Jen: After we left the restaurant, I kept thinking about those crickets and ants, and I really wanted answers, so I called Julie Lesnik. She is an assistant professor of anthropology at Wayne State University, and she’s the author of a new book Edible Insects and Human Evolution. If anyone can help us get to the bottom of this, it’s her.

Julie: The very first time I ate an insect, I was in the field. I was doing my dissertation research in Senegal. I was at the chimpanzee site of Fongoli, and I was working with our local research assistant. And he was taking me around to the different termite mounds that chimpanzees use tools to extract termites out of. And my research assistant, Mbuli, he had no problem eating the termites straight from the mound and challenged me to do it. It took me even a couple days of going out in the field with him, but my adviser’s words were ringing in the back of my mind, saying, “Don’t come home without being able to tell me what a termite tastes like.” So, I took a piece of grass and inserted it into the exit hole of the termite mound and out came a soldier termite. They have pinchers, and they bite that tool. And I bit that termite right off the tool, bit it directly with my teeth. And it basically tasted like dirt because it came straight out of the mound—but maybe a little bit of a lemon zest because they do have a bit of a chemical defense mechanism, so you some acidity. So, it didn’t taste like much, but I definitely reacted like it was the most difficult thing I’d ever done in my life. And gave a very strong, like disgust reaction, which I now try really hard to tell people not to do.

Jen: I had kind of like a similar experience where, so we went to dinner recently, and I knew that insects were going to be on the plate, but I just figured that since we were in this restaurant, that they would somehow be unrecognizable and just be part of the dish. But when it was served up, they were all piled on top, on top of the noodles. It was crickets and ants. I kinda had the same thing; I was not looking forward to it at all. But again, like you, there wasn’t a super strong taste to me. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great either.

Julie: It’s a very psychological thing. And definitely seeing the eyes and the antennae are so different than, you know, the foods we eat, that it really triggers a strong disgust mechanism in most people here in the United States today. And they really don’t taste that strong. But it is a taste that we are very unfamiliar with. It takes, you know, acquiring a palate for it where you then want to kind of crave that flavor. When you first try it, it’s hard to describe. Yes, I can say that crickets are kind of shellfish-y, and I can say mealworms are kind of nutty, but they really are distinct when you eat them, and it really tastes like their own flavor. And so, until you’re kind of used to it and find ways to kind of pair it with other things in different meals you enjoy, then it becomes crave-worthy. Then it’s a taste you want again. Until you get over those big hurdles, there’s a lot blocking us from eating them.


Jen: In the years after Julie’s first experience with those termites in Senegal, she managed to acquire her own taste for insects. And along with it, she also acquired a new interest in studying this phenomenon around the world. But when she looked around for research into why and how humans eat insects, there really wasn’t much to go on.

Julie: When it comes to understanding how people eat insects, it’s not that it’s not out there, it’s just really hard to collect because it’s something people kind of just collect anecdotes about. I think there’s this sort of bias in, sort of, the history of anthropology, you know, in the history of studying the human condition, because it’s primarily been done by people of European descent, right, the academy comes from that historical background, you have Europeans trying to understand this food source, but from their point of view, it really isn’t food. It becomes an exotic thing or a novel thing that maybe they want to document to show how kind of weird and fascinating the people they’re studying are. But it took a long time for people to start studying insects as a real food that has nutritional value and that is valued for its flavor by millions of people around the world.

Jen: I’m hearing that there are some cultural reasons why insect eating hasn’t been studied as much, but what about the global divide in insect eating itself? If insects are so nutritious, how do you explain why some cultures embrace eating them and others don’t?

Julie: That’s a really good question to try to explain why some people really embrace insects as food. And then not only why some don’t eat it but why in our culture, we have such a negative reaction to it. And that really drove my research. So, in 2013, when the U.N. put out their statement, so it was the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, put out a big statement about insects as a potential food source for the future, there was a map compiled of the number of insect species consumed per country.

When I looked at the map, your basic heat map, you know, the darker the country the more insect species that are consumed, definitely around the equator were the darkest countries. And then as you gradually go away from the equator, the countries were getting lighter and lighter, until you end up kind of in Canada, where it wasn’t even on the map. But just glancing at that first map, it looked like insects were a tropical resource. And so that’s where I started with kind of my human insect-consumption today research was, could I actually use data and demonstrate that there is an environmental pattern here?


Jen: And of course, she did. And if you want to understand her reasoning and methodology a bit better, you can pick up a copy of her book Edible Insects and Human Evolution. In it, she tracks how the human practice of eating insects developed over time—from Neanderthals trudging across insect-bereft frozen tundras all the way to today, where tropical cuisines around the world include all kinds of insects.

[sound design of mosquitos buzzing around a tropical climate]

Julie: The other thing about the tropics that I think about, just from my travels, is that people generally have a very different relationship with insects in the tropics because you can’t win. It’s their world, and we just live in it. Up here, we have a season of the year where, you know, they’re really not prevalent. Because we heat our homes, we are so concerned about keeping our homes very sealed, and so in keeping our homes sealed, we also keep those insects out. But in the tropics, you’re mostly trying to keep airflow through your home. You’re trying to stay cool as best you can, and not everybody has the luxury of air conditioning. So if you have your windows open to keep a breeze going through your house, you kind of have to learn in tropical environments which insects are harmful, which ones are helpful, and then also which ones might be delicious.

Jen: So, I want to go to this idea of deliciousness and back to that other reason that you started to talk about. So we get the sense that there is a geography argument about why certain cultures embrace insect eating and others don’t, but it doesn’t really explain that, yuck, that gut-twisting feeling I had when our waiter put a plate full of crickets and ants on the table in front of me. So how do you explain this?

Julie: The disgust reaction that you feel when you see insects is real. I mean, it’s visceral. You feel it in your gut, you might want to gag, your whole body might tingle.

Jen: They were belly up. They were belly up; we could just see them. Haha.

Julie: So, yeah, it can be really hard to explain to people that this visceral reaction we have is actually cultural. From the American frame of mind, because it’s so easy to chart in your own body as a real response, it must be biological. There must be something inherent, there must be an evolutionary way we evolved to avoid insects, but that’s not true. Disgust is one of the few emotions that are learned. So, what you’re actually experiencing is an emotion, but what triggers that emotion is programmed in us at a young age.

I like to pose it this way: If you think about a 2-year-old, they will put anything in their mouth. And so it’s the parents who need to teach that kid not to play in the trash can, not to play in the toilet. And how we train them is by making big disgust reactions. It’s those disgust reactions from the adults that train in that kid to stay away from that.

So, this does have an evolutionary mechanism because it can protect us from really harmful things, like things that are disease salient, things that can make us sick. But we can also kind of trick our bodies and put that same disgust mechanism onto things that won’t actually hurt us. That’s where insects fall as a food source. It’s like, if you raise kids that they are food, they won’t be disgusted by them. That’s why millions of people around the world today have absolutely no problem eating insects, but here we have pushed this disgust mechanism generation after generation to our children, so they all grow up and perpetuate it to the next generation.

Jen: So, you said generation after generation, where do you see that, kind of, idea of disgust coming from in a historical lens?

Julie: So, in thinking about it, I really wanted to understand Americans. And generally, when people talk about it, they’ll talk about Western culture—put “Western” in quotes, because Western is kind of a tough thing to define. But typically, it’s Europe and countries that have had continued migration after a colonial history from a European power, and so the U.S. and Canada definitely fit that definition. So, I started thinking about it, and I really went to the Age of Exploration. I started thinking about Columbus because Columbus with his ships was able to cross latitudes in a way that had never been done before.

[sound of waves crashing on a ship’s hull]

Voice actor: From the diary of Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, fleet physician on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the Caribbean, 1493.

“None of the natives of all these islands we have visited possess any iron. They have, however, many implements, also hatchets and axes, all made of stone, which are so handsome and well-finished that it is a wonder how they can contrive to make them without employing iron. …

They eat all the snakes, lizards, spiders, and worms that they find upon the ground so that, according to my judgment, their beastiality is greater than that of any other beast on the face of the earth.”

Julie: And so, it was propaganda, right? So most of the European populace was still in Europe, and so the only understanding they had of the people being encountered was from these letters, from these journals. So, they had zero idea of anything related to insects as food and now all of a sudden, they’re just being told that it’s gross and animal-like. And it starts making that disgust mechanism. You think of it as something that only maybe the chickens in your yard eat, but something that humans should never do.


Jen: So, from all that we’ve talked about, how do you feel about this new wave of interest in eating insects in certain parts of the United States?

Julie: The interest in eating insects now in the U.S. is amazing. It’s fascinating. People are starting to kind of see past these veils of what we’ve been told is good to eat and making their own decisions. And I think I love that! And one reason I love it is because if you think about the world as an ecosystem and what’s available to us as food, insects are the base of the faunal food chain.

Humans are omnivores, we need both plants and animals in our diet, and the most efficient way to do that is to get it from the source, right? So if you eat the plants, you’re getting energy that came straight from the sun to that plant to you. And so insects kind of represent the animal version of plants in some ways. They might be detritivores; they might be eating, you know, what’s breaking down of dead plants. So, they’re food for plants. Like, insects are food for everything, and so just now in the U.S. people are like, oh, maybe they could be food for us too. It took having an environmental crisis: We need something efficient. We need to look to the base of the food chain, and so I think it’s a really smart way to dig ourselves out of this hole we’ve been digging because we’ve been using resources like they are unlimited. And so now we have an opportunity to kind of change things up, and insects offer a nice way to do that.

Jen: So, are you seeing any tension between people for whom insect eating has been a part of their culture for a long time and these new companies that are trying to create a market for insects as food in places like the United States?

Julie: That’s a really great question. I can’t say I’ve witnessed any actual tension. I think the anthropologist in me is so sensitive and worried about it, and so I’m always trying to tell people, “Be careful that you’re not appropriating.” You know, if you’re an insect food startup, the only thing you need to do is make sure that if you’re going to use a specific culture that inspires your food, if it inspires your product, that you are knowledgeable of that culture, and that you are giving them credit, and you are sharing information about them in a way that’s positive and not just exoticized. And, I think, in a lot of ways, it’s been done well.

One of the most common things that I see for an option of insects as food in the U.S. is chapulines in tacos. So chapulines are a toasted grasshopper that is a very important cultural symbol of the people of Oaxaca, Mexico. We tend to see those here in the U.S. being used how they’re supposed to be used, like in tacos, in Mexican cuisine. And so as long as it’s kind of being used in a way that’s celebrating that culture and not just kind of taking aspects so that people buy it, it’s safe. It’s easy to not appropriate it; it’s just you’ve got to be respectful.

Jen: Before we go, Julie, I want to invite you to speculate about the future of food. So, given all the things that we’ve talked about today—climate change, in part this idea of a more sustainable food, colonialism, even that ick factor we were talking about—do you think insects are going to be part of the everyday American’s diet someday?

Julie: I don’t know if they’ll be every day. And that’s the thing. For me, what I want people to do with insects is just start thinking differently about how they eat. And even if just one day a week, you don’t eat other livestock and you get your animal-based protein from insects, just one day a week, if every single American did that, we would make a huge impact. We already see a big trend in people looking for meat alternatives. Those alternatives tend to be highly processed: soy or whey products that are morphed into a fake chicken nugget, or whatever it is. So, they’re highly processed. So, we go from meat to this fake meat, but as people start wanting maybe something less processed, more real, more wholesome, truer to what the ecosystem offers us, the next step is to go to insects. And so I think we’ll start seeing them increase in market value just how, sort of, those soy-based alternatives increased over time. So, it’ll never replace meat; it’ll never replace soy-based products. But I think it’ll be a very important contribution to a very multifaceted approach to trying to figure out better ways to save our environment.


Jen: So, Chip, what did you think about all that?

Chip: I really love Julie’s ideas and arguments. I mean, to me the clarity of it is really convincing. And so first you have this idea of the environment and geography and simply, where do you find bugs and insects? And, of course, you’re not going to eat insects and bugs in places where they’re really hard to find. So, for me, that really sets the stage. Then, you bring in the 500 years of colonial history of European explorers going to places all around the world, and they see people eating insects and bugs when they didn’t do that at home. And so, they need to explain that to themselves to make sense of it, and they do it through this colonial framework of hierarchies, you know, they need to distinguish us versus them, and often, tragically, to denigrate the people they’re encountering.

Jeb: Yeah, I have to say that idea of, um, that the disgust factor is actually tied into these legacies of colonialism and the idea that it was really about people who didn’t eat insects encountering others and deciding that it was a bad thing—I don’t want to continue that legacy.

Chip: Right, right.

Jen: The environmental argument is really strong for me, so I would absolutely consider bringing more insects into my diet.  But—

Chip: uh-huh, but—

Jen: but I would really like it to be part of a cuisine with recipes that don’t necessarily just plop them on top of the dish.

Chip: Yeah, like we ate? Yeah, so, this is where we could do a listener interactive. Let’s get our listeners to tweet or Facebook post recipes where you don’t just simply drop ants on top of a plate of spaghetti. What are some great recipes out there, listeners? #sapienspodcast. We would love to hear from you.

Jen: This is a whole new world, folks. For those of you who don’t live in tropical environments and you want to start experimenting with new cuisines, I feel like the door is wide open to create really innovative dishes that will appeal to our own cultural norms of what’s delicious but also incorporate these new ingredients.

Chip: So, you want to come over for dinner on Friday?

Jen: Mina will be happy.

Chip: Mina will be there with a bag of ants.

Jen:  Actually, she liked the crickets.

Chip: Oh, that’s right. Crickets it is.


Jen: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, and mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. And it was hosted by me, Jen Shannon.

Chip: And me, Chip Colwell.

SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with lion-hearted contributions from Executive Producer Cat Jaffee and intern Freda Kreier, who provided additional support.

Jen: Meral Agish is our fact-checker. Matthew Simonson composed our theme. Giancarlos Hernandez Mejias performed the excerpt from the diary of Diego Alvarez Chanca.

And a special thanks this time to Beau and everyone else at Linger, as well as Julie Lesnik.

Chip: This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support through Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and its staff, board, and advisory council.

Additional support was provided by the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas.

Jen: Thanks always to Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org.

Chip: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Jen: Until next time, be well, fellow sapiens.


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