How eating insects and algae could save our planet
As I write this, our family is sheltering at home in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic. Freezers at our nearby Whole Foods have been emptied of frozen fruits and vegetables; other food staples like milk are being sold in limited quantities. Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about food, including sourcing and supply chains. Looking forward, we must focus on alternative sources with smaller carbon footprints, which means revisiting our hunter-gatherer roots and rediscovering ingredients like insects and algae.
In his Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, Chef David George Gordon (“The Bug Chef”) writes that eating bugs has been practiced for centuries throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and North, South and Central America. “Native Americans ate all sorts of insects, including grasshoppers,” he says. The ancient Aztecs sold corn infested with the corn earworm caterpillar for more money than corn without this nutritionally supportive bug, which contains lysine, an essential amino acid deficient in the corn-centric diets of many rural Latin Americans. Mexican dishes like chapulines (sun-dried grasshopper nymphs sprinkled with salt and seasoned with chile and lime) and cazuela de escamoles a la bilbaina (fried larval red ants dusted with dry red Chile) have been passed down through generations, and are served as delicacies in gourmet restaurants in Mexico City today.
“The UN FAO [United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization] report says that 80 percent of the world’s cultures eat insects, or some sort of bugs,” says Gordon. “And we’re in that 20 percent Northern European culture that thinks it’s weird. I like to point out that chicken eggs, when you come right down to it, are pretty weird,” he continues. Still, incorporating entomophagy—bug-eating—into the American culinary consciousness will likely require some prominent supporters. “If Brad Pitt starts eating bugs and talks about how delicious they are, then everyone is going to want them,” he says.
Many protein-rich bugs are good sources of vitamins, minerals and fats. “[Most] insects have omega-3 fatty acids—normally you would get that from eating salmon or oily fish,” Gordon says. “They’re also antioxidants, so they’re actually great for preventing aging and also for warding off certain kinds of cancers.” Gordon writes that a grasshopper’s body is more than 20 percent protein, compared to lean ground beef, which has 27 percent protein—but unlike livestock’s large carbon footprint, few harmful effects are associated with the commercial cultivation of insects for food.
Aspire Food Group (aspirefg.com), an industry leader in the edible insect movement, raises food-grade crickets on a commercial scale. “Aspire’s goal is to be a sustainability leader in an industry that was created as a sustainable solution to the world’s unsustainable food system,” says Cofounder and CEO Mohammed Ashour. “Our planet is growing in population and appetite at the same time it is shrinking in resources. To feed our growing planet, it will become not only preferable but necessary to rely on food—particularly protein—sources that are nutrient-dense and eco-friendly,” he continues. “Insects are arguably the most sustainable form of livestock in existence, consuming only a fraction of what other animals require in order to generate the same quality protein.” Aspire’s chef-developed EXO cricket protein bars (exoprotein.com) also contain ingredients like fruits, coconut and honey.
Chef Joseph Yoon, founder of Brooklyn Bugs (brooklynbugs.com), strives to introduce edible insects and normalize them in America as a sustainable source of protein. Yoon makes favorite dishes from his catering and private-client experience and determines the best way to “buggify” them. “One of the most widely appreciated is the use of black ants, which have formic acid, and that gives a tangy note,” says Yoon. Most recently, Yoon has incorporated black ants with grilled prawns to fortify the flavor and give the dish a unique acidic note. One of Yoon’s Instagram cooking videos (@nakedseoul) shows how insect protein can help develop flavor in a quick 30-minute Cricket Miso Soup, which also contains nutritious seaweed.
Yoon grew up with a cuisine that incorporated seaweed. “I’m Korean-American; my older sister was born in Korea, and my parents immigrated to New York, where my brother and I were born,” he says. “After a woman gives birth, the grandmother often makes Miyeok Guk (Korean seaweed soup) for their daughters, because it’s supposed to be really good for them. Growing up, we’ve eaten kimbap, which is the Korean version of sushi rolls. Seaweed is really a big part of my DNA, and I’ve always had a great appreciation for it. It’s interesting to see how much seaweed and the acceptance of seaweed has evolved: Now, you have seaweed snacks, and you can get sushi at grocery stores and gas stations.”
Seaweed is a type of algae—a sustainable, high-protein superfood source. Alkaline and nutrient-dense, algae has been used for decades in Asia to improve health and longevity. Research and clinical trials have shown spirulina and chlorella algae even help boost the immune system and fight viruses. When Catharine Arnston, founder and CEO of ENERGYbits (energybits.com), learned of her sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, an oncologist advised that an alkaline diet could help her sister heal. “Whether you’re facing a crisis like corona or chemotherapy, you need a strong immune system, and chlorophyll is one of the known ways to do that,” Arnston says. “Algae has the highest concentration of chlorophyll in the world; it has 25 times more chlorophyll than even wheatgrass.” She says the chemical compositions of chlorophyll and hemoglobin are virtually identical. “Chlorophyll builds your blood, it builds your immune system, your antibodies, your antioxidants—it builds everything that helps you be healthy.”
Arnston developed naturally grown non-GMO algae tablets to give a boost of nutrition and steady energy; she says one bag of 1,000 tablets contain the same nutrients as 551 pounds of fruits and vegetables. In fact, she notes, according to the UN, spirulina algae is possibly the answer to world hunger. “Algae, especially spirulina algae, has the highest concentration of protein in the world. Spirulina has 64 percent protein— three times more protein than anything else in the world; it has the highest concentration of other nutrients; and it is the most eco-friendly, sustainable crop in the world.” Like insects, algae’s carbon footprint is small: According to Arnston, it takes 200 times more acreage to generate one pound of animal protein than it does to grow spirulina.
I remember reading the book How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell in elementary school, and then the class made fried nightcrawlers and some brave kids (including me) tried them. As a mother to a 19-month-old, I wonder how we can inspire the next generation to eat bugs and algae and incorporate the concept into our culture, similar to the way consuming seaweed and sushi rolls are now widely accepted. “Americans don’t really view [insects] as a food source,” Yoon says. “We really have to change this perception of insects as pests, to something that’s sustainable and very nutritious—and really, how delicious they can be.”