If you eat a 500 gram steak, you’re also eating about 7,700 litres of water. Most of that goes into watering the six square metres of corn or grain required to feed each half-kilo of cow. And sure, half a kilo of cow served with salad and fries is a tasty meal, but it’s also a grossly inefficient way of getting protein. And especially when you consider that Planet Earth gains an extra 83 million people every year—all of whom want to eat protein.
But there’s a solution. Food scientists call it entomophagy, which is the practice of eating insects. They say that a bug-heavy diet could provide our swelling population with all the same proteins, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals as traditional livestock, but without the strain on our natural resources.
The United Nations has been instrumental in this push, forcing entomophagy into popular culture with the 2013 paper: Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. The paper was downloaded 2.4 million times in just 24 hours, and as you may recall, 2013 was a big year for people saying stuff like: “apparently hamburgers in the future will be made from locusts.”
But now, five years later, that still isn’t happening. The world’s ecosystems are in worse shape while another half-billion people have been born. And still, no one’s eating bugs, which makes me wonder: is an insect diet really a solution?
I decided to find out.
I started with an online supermarket called Edible Insects, which seems to have cornered the bug market. From there I bought $5 of basil-flavoured grasshoppers, $15 worth of cricket protein powder, $15 in roasted crickets, $6 worth of chapulines, two edible tarantulas at $10 each, $17 of grasshopper salt, $10 worth of mopane worms, and a $5 vial of black ants. It all came to about $170 of edible insects.
Another company called Karma3, which manages biodiversity waste in Melbourne, also graciously supplied me 500 grams of their dry-roasted fly larvae for free. I asked CEO James Sackl how he’d cook the larvae. “I recommend them more in a salad or that sort of thing because they offer crunch,” he said. “Or put them on top of pasta.”
My first meal taught me that crickets taste like dirt. I drank a cricket powder protein shake, which felt a bit like sand sliding down my throat. After drinking two-mouthfuls of sludge, I threw the smoothie in the sink and went to work on an empty stomach, unsatisfied and hungry.
By lunch I was starving and decided to tackle the bugs head-on. So I inundated a vegetable stir-fry with maggots, sort of as James Sackl had recommended. “They’re crunchy and they kind of taste like caramel popcorn,” he’d assured me. I pushed myself into eating as much as I could, but the tropical fly spawn ruined everything. I'd managed two bites before I burst into tears, alone in the staff room.
It suddenly occurred to me that I’d made a horrible mistake.
See, the truth is that I’m afraid of bugs. Deathly afraid. When I was seven I became convinced that if I didn’t cover my face while I slept an earwig or a redback spider would crawl into my ear canal and lay eggs so I slept with a hand over my ear for years. And while don’t do that anymore, I’m now a vegan who is happy to kill spiders. They’re just ugly and hairy. They’re unnatural and I hate them.
And now, I was attempting to derive all my protein needs from insects, for a whole seven days.
Needing help, I contacted Professor Arnold Van Huis, who is the world’s leading expert in entomophagy and co-author on that previously mentioned UN paper. I was honest with Arnold about my fear of bugs, and assured me that most people are more receptive to eating insects when they’re hidden. “There has been quite a number of studies on consumer attitudes and those studies point to a few things like burying the insects in things like bread, noodles, or pastas,” he told me over Skype.
But the challenge, he admitted, was replacing all my vegan protein staples, like tofu and legumes, with bugs. “Don’t make it a snack,” he recommended. “The challenge is to turn it into staple foods.”
Later that night I reheated my lunch and the larvae stir-fry wasn’t terrible. Their hard bodies added a “shallot” texture to the meal, but I could only eat half a bowl because I could see their eyes watching me. I also got paranoid about getting a leg stuck in my teeth and then went to bed feeling like a failure.
I woke up feeling depressed. I had six days to go and I was hungry, but I was also weirdly mad at myself for feeling hungry. I didn’t want to eat, but I’d decided that I could at least get some insects cooked by professionals.
Jethro Canteen is a Melbourne restaurant that serves bugs, and was astounded by how they managed to blend the nutty flavour of crickets with macadamia hummus in my Buddha Bowl. Their food was way better than mine and I had a chat with the co-owner, Billy Zarbos.
Billy told me that they originally served the crickets as a main ingredient in one of their salads but they made it a side because it wasn’t selling. Apparently customers would say they’d come back and try it, but never did. Weirdly, Billy noticed that under-12s took a real shining to the crickets. “We found that kids are really open to it, maybe because bugs haven’t been drummed into their heads as being a bad thing,” he said.
That night I approached dinner in a spirit of competition. If a 12-year-old could eat bugs, why couldn’t I? So I beer-battered some tarantulas, and although the two fist-sized arachnids were the most intimidating of the bug haul, their bodies were leathery and chewy and undeniably gourmet.
As a side note: none of my housemates could watch me eat the tarantulas, which was a little irritating. All of them eat meat on the regular, but they were disgusted by tarantulas. Why?
It’d been 48 hours and I was over it. The days were fused together by the ritual of working myself up to eating a buggy breakfast, then barely eating it, and being angry all day. I wasn’t plucky anymore. I was just furious.
I started my day with another protein smoothie. But this time I had two scoops of Greensect which had spirulina and cinnamon in it. Again, I could only stomach half of it. Inevitably I got angry and wondered about what was stopping me from finishing the food? Why couldn’t I finish a simple goddamn smoothie? I’d been vegan for five years but couldn’t have a simple cricket thick-shake?
Maybe I needed a little hand-holding. So I hassled my boyfriend into eating cricket fritters with me, made from processed vegetables and crickets. And although the burgers were sloppy, watching him eat a critter-quarter-pounder made me feel safe. I managed to eat half the burger before he suddenly felt sick. Then I felt sick too.
Not being able to eat all the food I prepared also upset me on a ethical vegan level. Before the diet I’d always polished off every plate—literally licking bowls and knives in restaurants because I figured it was better digested in my stomach than at a tip. But now I was pouring these $15 smoothies down the drain without a second thought. And as someone who loves animals and callously chastises anyone for eating meat, it made no sense.
Noma, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, famously serves lobster mains with live ants. So I tried the next best thing for breakfast: black ants and vegemite smeared on toast. My housemate Brad had a slice and revered the taste, saying: “this is next level woke!" Watching Brad eat the ants gave me a little confidence in the meal.
I ate the whole meal and felt a tiny surge of pride. The diet was no longer about the quality of the bugs, but about how I could get them into my body. And they were finally in there.
I skipped lunch, still full of confidence, and went straight for dinner. But that night I was making chapuline tortillas when I discovered a blonde hair sealed into the packaging. Already revolted, the chapulines—which were a very large and very intimidating species of brown grasshopper—now seemed dangerously unhygienic. So again, everything snowballed and I had another meltdown in the kitchen.
Interestingly, Professor Arnold Van Hius had told me that bugs are an infinitely safer meal than livestock. Pigs are a lot closer to humans, he explained. “If they have pathogens that means their pathogens can be dangerous for humans.” So I reminded myself that grasshoppers are too taxonomically distant to present a pathogen threat and forced down the tortilla. But then I threw it up and continued to cry.
By this point I was having a really bad time. Some quotes from my food diary read: “I hate everyone,” and “I don’t want anyone to look at me or ask me why I’m eating these fucking things,” and, the worst of them: “I wish I was dead.” I felt suicidal and stupid even though I was aware that it was just a simple lack of food. These manic episodes were just a byproduct of inadequate kilojoule consumption, but knowing that didn’t help.
Traumatised from the night before, I skipped breakfast and rode to work on my bike and my vision began to fade. The ground slipped beneath me. I wasn’t consuming food and my body had gone into starvation mode: I was hallucinating. I kept seeing Studio Ghibli’s translucent clouds hovering above my bike’s handlebars.
That afternoon, I went to visit my doctor. But in the waiting room I put my phone number as my last name, and my boyfriend and my housemates noticed I was pale and frowning a lot. I asked my GP Dr. Lisa Whitmarsh if I would die. She told me I wouldn't, but with a warning. “If you continue this diet for an extended period of time it can cause significant harm.” She said that the harm was related to my weight loss—I’d lost one kilo in four days—and that I was capricious and frustrated because I had no energy.
What I’d learned was that the nutritional value of a bug is irrelevant if you can’t eat it. I’d also discovered it was easier to tolerate starvation than the thought of bugs.
I put off lunch, instead opting for something to cheer me up. A novelty scorpion lollipop. The banana-flavouring was nice but I kept looking at the lollipop and wondering how much it hurt the scorpion getting entombed in molten sugar.
Earlier in the week I'd spoken with an expert in the psychology of diet and perceptions of food, American lecturer Dr. Mathew Ruby. He'd said something that had really resounded with me. “As far as we know insects aren’t suffering that much, but if we’re wrong, we’re wrong times how many more lives? How many more insects would have to die to contribute to one kilo of food?”
An argument for the meat industry is that the slaughter of one cow feeds dozens. But if we want to satisfy one person’s hunger with bugs, we have to kill thousands. To me, this feels like an ethical pitfall.
But it was Saturday night and my housemate had a dinner party. While they ate a simple spaghetti I tried to eat my pasta with a larvae-laced tomato sauce. It was isolating eating by myself. One of the lovely guests, Lauren, told me encouragingly that the maggots looked like capers, but I ended up crying. I tried to convince myself that maybe this was what it was like for the first vegan to eat tofu, but one of my housemates reminded me that tofu doesn’t crunch like a dried-out maggot.
It was now day six of my seven-day entomophagy trial and I wasn’t any closer to adopting bugs into my diet. And with that realisation, I decided the world has no hope. If I’m reluctant to eat bugs, what’s the likelihood of a blue collar type in a conservative seat adopting entomophagy in front of his mates? None, I thought. No chance at all.
I called my dad, who became a vegan in the 90s, and he reminded me that it was also hard when he abstained from meat products 20 years ago. Veganism was relatively new back then, he told me. “But bugs could be the new vegan. You could really impact people’s attitudes about what they consume and how the things they’re eating are cultivated.”
It was the last day and I owed it to myself to not let the rest of the bugs die in vain. So I made a childhood favourite: banana bug pancakes. I flipped pancakes and thought about the last seven days. My conservative Greek grandparents didn’t understand the diet, and neither did my vegan dad. Actually I wasn’t sure if I’d understood it myself, which I guess is why I hated the pancakes, as per usual.
While scraping them into the bin I remembered what Arnold Van Huis said about bugs being disgusting: “It’s an absolute cultural bias,” he said. “But it’s just a matter of educating the public, and it’s important to make insects favourable for the common people.”
I hadn’t done that at all. But now I was sure that insects weren’t the future of food, I was only too happy to eat something antiquated, environmentally dubious, and delicious. Peanut butter on toast. No bugs.