Skye Blackburn is the owner of Butterfly Skye's Edible Bug Shop, an online store and producer that churns out enough edible insects to fill the damp undersides of endless decaying logs. With degrees in both entomology and food sciences, if someone is going to convince you that eating dried scorpions is a cool idea, it'll be her.
Personally, I needed convincing: I've been a vegetarian for most of my adult life and until a week ago, I was pretty sure I'd never eat anything that was given birth to again. But after a bit of research, even the most militant plant eater would struggle to find an argument against eating insects. Whether you avoid meat because of ethics, the environment, or for health reasons, it turns out bugs are an exception to almost every rule. Unless you believe they have souls. If that's you, well, maybe stop reading.
Despite what your parents told you, eating bugs is one of the smartest choices you can make for yourself and the planet. By weight, they're among the highest sources of protein available and contain almost no fat. Crickets (they're kind of the chicken of bugs) are 30 percent protein fresh, but jump to 65 percent when dried—eclipsing steak, which comes in at 20–28 percent. Silk worms are the real super food though; when cooked or roasted, they're an incredible 95 percent protein, making them a cheaper and less processed alternative to every protein bar or shake on the market.
Being closely related to shellfish, insects are also high in omega 3, essential fatty acids, and micronutrients. They're already being linked to brain health and are recommended as a supporting treatment for dementia and autism.
But it's their role in sustainable farming and option as a revolutionary global food source that's really exciting. Their preference for small, dark spaces mean that, even in cities, bugs can be farmed in commercial quantities. Production-wise, they're easily the most efficient protein: It takes ten kilos of grain to produce one kilo of steak, but nine kilos of cricket meat, while an astounding four thousand liters of water goes into 200 grams of beef, where the same amount of crickets need less than a milliliter.
The Edible Bug Shop's farming techniques are incredibly humane. Before they're prepared, the insects are frozen to euthanize them painlessly. It's a better end than most mammals meet in slaughterhouses.
But for all their benefits, insects still have one hurdle to clear: Who the fuck wants to eat a bug? Skye invited us into the Edible Bug Shop kitchen to give us the rundown on how insects can be part of our diet. She made chocolate chip mealworm cookies as an easy introduction. The mealworms are roasted and ground into a fine powder that's mixed with flour to be 70 percent protein with a pile of extra calcium. The proportions can be customized depending on the nutritional value you're after, what you're cooking, and how many worms you want to eat. The cookies tasted totally normal, but they were just a little better for you than a regular biscuit.
The mealworms themselves were surprisingly tasty. You had to eat a few to get anything from them, but after about half a handful they were similar to sunflower seeds. Skye's serving suggestion is adding them to caramel popcorn for extra crunch. The trick is not thinking about the little shards of exoskeleton in your teeth.
Next were raspberry muffins made with cricket flour. They tasted very nice and normal, but I've eaten muffins before, so I was more interested in getting to the whole crickets. They fry them up with garlic and chili, and they end up looking like dried shallots. It was a little weird to make eye contact with a creature you're eating by the handful. I told myself in the inverse situation the cricket would probably eat me.
Next came the ants, which were the only item I had eaten previously—as a six-year-old. I remember them being very peppery and smelling super weird. When the container was opened, that familiar smell was immediately present and I had some second thoughts.
So here is the thing about ants: They are super-crazy-ass-amazing-delicious. When you first bite them, they pop like quinoa and release a weird zinging feeling that's similar to lime. After the initial bite, they tasted a bit sour and sort of vibrated like Szechuan chilies. My 2015 prediction is they'll be the next super chic ingredient in the same realm of truffle salt or black garlic, so if someone offers you equity in an ant business, get on it.
Things were going pretty well as we got to the pupa (for those not in the know, pupa is the stage between maggot and fly). Skye delicately posited that pupa were to flies what a cocoon is to a butterfly or moth. I appreciated the euphemism but all I could think was: teenage fly, teenage fly, teenage fly. They do have one of the highest levels of amino acids of any food, but yeah, it's fly larva. Thankfully, they tasted like rice bubbles with the texture of fancy wild rice. If you're the kind of person who thinks about the carbs in risotto, eat pupa.
Once I'd made peace with fly pupa, we moved on to silkworm lava. Silkworms are the healthiest of the insect options. I was told their mulberry leaf diet gave them a green, leafy flavor. They tasted like a campfire to me, but they're apparently good in muesli and fry up well.
Finally I was ready for the big finish: dried scorpion. I had to be told about six times that the drying process knocks out their venom before putting one in my mouth. They tasted exactly like rice cakes but with a salty finish. By the end of the tasting, I found myself casually snacking on them like they were beer nuts. Overall, my favorite bugs were definitely the ants, but I was also partial to the mealworms and scorpion.
If all this larva talk has made you hungry, a word of warning: Don't eat bugs out of your garden. These are food grade insects raised in a sterile environment on organic fruit and vegetables, far away from the pesticides that could make you sick in wild bugs.
Obviously, some people aren't going to voluntarily be eating insects anytime soon, but the good news is that you've probably already eaten hundreds of them in your life; it's estimated that the average person eats a kilo of bugs per year. And food standards are surprisingly fluid, allowing for 150 insect parts per 100 grams of flour, five maggots per 100 milliliters of orange juice, and 100 aphids per 100 grams of frozen broccoli. If you stick to organic foods, the numbers are much higher due to the lack of pesticides. Although Skye points out that bugs in organic fruits and vegetables are perfectly safe to eat, quipping that all they offer is an extra protein hit. So enjoy that vision when you're drifting off to sleep tonight.
When you put your squeamishness aside, there is really no reason not to embrace bugs. They're good for you, great for the environment, and, when prepared right, very tasty. Even feeding them to livestock would save millions of dollars and reduce the need for antibiotics and unnatural supplements in their food due to a grain dependant diet. Plus you look totally badass doing it.