Insect cuisine lab offers students food for thought
McKenna Conway sat on a stool in her final entomology lab for the semester. With her pet mantis, Morticia, perched atop her head, she looked down at the other insect she held in her hand — a giant water bug. This bug had been freeze-dried for human consumption, unlike the pet mantis with an injured wing that she cares for and brings to class.
Conway, a senior pursuing a degree in environmental and sustainability studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, placed the giant water bug in her mouth, chewed and swallowed.
“I feel like that’s what dried leaves would taste like,” Conway said. “I could feel the texture of the wings in my mouth. Not much flavor — just earthy I guess.”
Armin Moczek, a professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, has taught Entomology BIOL-Z 373 for 14 years. Throughout the fall semester, students in his class gathered an insect collection containing representatives from 40 families and 18 orders of insects. They were given time to round out their collections during the final lab. Moczek wanted to “spice up” the last class of the semester, so he planned a surprise.
Moczek donned a chef’s hat, and his teaching assistants wore aprons as they carted plates of edible insects into the classroom. In response to the curious looks from students, Moczek announced that they were about to embark on a bug-eating adventure. The announcement was met with mixed reactions —some excited and others reticent.
The menu included both savory and sweet options. Among the most popular were chapulines, otherwise known as grasshoppers from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, a medley of crickets prepared with various seasonings like cheesy ranch and buffalo wing annual cicadas and dark chocolate crickets. The more adventurous taste-testers tried chocolate-covered silkworm pupae, diving beetles and a jungle trail mix that included scorpions.
The lab began with a lecture from Moczek on insect cuisine across the globe. He said that while many cultures use bugs as an accessory food, some turn to them as a significant source of protein in their diets. Aboriginal Australians have long eaten “witchetty grubs,” a term that refers to large, white, wood-eating larvae of various moth and longhorn beetle species. Cricket farming industries in China and Vietnam are booming as the crunchy critters are a food staple in those regions.
Moczek said that yields of much of the planet’s food crops have plateaued, yet the population continues to increase. Beyond feeding humans, insects can help fight hunger and support more sustainable farming practices.
“When in the appropriate climatic conditions, you can rear extraordinary amounts of protein on the cheap using things that would otherwise be thrown away,” Moczek said. “You can convert bio waste that you would normally burn or compost into larval biomass which you then basically freeze dry and turn into a high protein supplementary feed for chicken or cattle.”
According to Moczek, using insects for human consumption is far more efficient than conventional meat farming. Crickets require a fraction of feed to produce equivalent protein. The energy input to protein output ratio for crickets is around 4:1. Raised livestock has a ratio closer to 54:1.
When it comes to insects as food for humans, Moczek says Western societies are not as keen on bug cuisine as their counterparts elsewhere. At the same time, he pointed out to his students that they have been eating insects their entire lives, whether they were aware of it or not. He presented them with food defect action levels published by the United States Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The levels define legal amounts of natural or unavoidable contaminants allowed in food. Those contaminants could include insects, mold, rodent hairs and feces.
“I have a whole list of all the contaminations you just had for breakfast today,” Moczek said.
He used several examples from the legal limits set by the FDA, including:
- 100 grams of canned corn may contain up to 2 insects or larvae.
- 100 grams of ketchup may contain up to 30 fruit fly eggs.
- 100 grams of frozen broccoli may contain up to 60 aphids, thrips or mites.
- 10 grams of ground thyme may contain up to 925 insect fragments.
- 10 grams of shredded carrots may contain up to 800 insect fragments.
For context, one can of corn is 400 grams.
Moczek said the bottom line is that where food is produced, insect contamination and incidental consumption are inevitable. This knowledge may help Western consumers be more open to adding insects to their diets, provided the taste and texture are palatable.
“I must admit, the majority of insect dishes I have eaten myself were not that great,” Moczek said.
When a colleague of Moczek’s prepared a dish of sauteed cicadas, during the emergence of Brood X in 2021, it changed his perspective on whether insects could provide a pleasant dining experience.
“That was actually delicious,” Moczek said. “We happily eat shrimp which, taxonomically, are so close to insects.”
Cicadas are sometimes called the “shrimp of the land” due to their crusty exoskeleton and body texture similar to that of a crustacean. There are many cicada recipes available online for the adventurous foodies interested in trying something new.
After snacking on a chocolate covered cricket, Brittni Pemberton, a senior studying animal behavioral science in the College of Arts and Sciences, said, “You know whoppers, how they’re like malted? It kind of tasted like that.”
Most students in the class said they would not seek out insect cuisine as part of their diets, but they appreciated the experience.
“At a minimum, I would like for them to open their eyes to insects as a legitimate food source,” Moczek said.
Julia Hodson is a communications consultant in the Office of the Vice President for Communications and Marketing