Students are known for their terrible eating habits, but few have diets as strange as Peter Bickerton, whose recipes for homemade locust burgers and waxworm tacos have been translated into Italian, Indonesian and Arabic as they do the rounds on the Internet.
Bickerton has become famous as the guy who eats bugs, but this is no party trick — Bickerton began eating insects after a serious health scare in his family.
“My uncle died of a heart attack when he was 45, and then three months later my other uncle, Michael, had triple bypass heart surgery,” Bickerton said.
A family history of heart disease put Bickerton at an increased risk of the condition, which is related to high levels of cholesterol. After his mother discovered that she too had high cholesterol, she started taking statins. However, Peter decided to try something different.
Bickerton, a doctorate student in plant sciences, started reading about the nutritional value of insects. He discovered that insects were high in protein, contained less saturated fat than meat and were more environmentally friendly to produce than beef, lamb and pork.
“Insects are extremely efficient at converting feed to body weight,” said Arnold van Huis, professor of entomology and lead author of Edible Insects, a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Agency released last year. “If you take a cricket for example, it only takes 2.1kg of feed to produce 1kg of edible body weight. To produce one kilogram of beef, you need 25kg of feed.”
It is this staggeringly efficient conversion that makes the UN want to put insects on the menu. By 2050, Earth’s population is expected to rise to 9 billion, to feed all these new arrivals, the world will need to produce nearly twice as much food as we do today.
Insects are already part of the diets of 2 billion people worldwide: Crispy fried beetles are a common street food in Thailand, caterpillars are a popular snack in sub-Saharan Africa and grasshoppers are fried in garlic and eaten in parts of Mexico. However, in the West, the idea of eating insects fills people with disgust; they are fed to squirming celebrities on our reality TV shows.
The disgust reaction protects us from things that might carry parasites and disease, according to “disgustologist” Valerie Curtis, an expert on hygiene and behavior at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Humans have a rule of thumb, which is only ever eat what your mother feeds you,” Curtis said.
Disgust, like culture, is passed down from generation to generation.
It can be a powerful thing. While it might be a way to avoid disease, disgust can guide manners and behavior and even politics.
“Many issues like flag burning or sexual violations stimulate disgust,” said Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who is working on the psychology of resistance to eating insects.
Despite its power over our lives, there are ways to overcome disgust. If people were entirely governed by it, they would never try new things. However, changing the eating habits of billions of people is quite a challenge. After all, getting people to try something that they find disgusting is hard enough, let alone a whole culture.
Despite this, it has happened before. Lobster used to be so abundant along the east coast of the US and Canada that it was seen as a poor man’s food.