Butterflies in my stomach. Yum!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

July 2008

During my career as a medical school Clinical Professor and a lecturer for lay audiences I was no stranger to "butterflies in the stomach," a sensation that probably goes back to antiquity. A flurry of articles in recent months gives that expression new meaning: insects as a source of food.

Economists tell us that the price of corn is going up because of the demand for ethanol but they offer no logical explanation for the increase in the cost of rice and other foods. There is a disconnect between reason and reality; the rising fear of famine appears media-driven but it's making people think about where our food will come from in the future. Should we take another look at insects?

Diners have been known to threaten to sue a restaurant if they find a worm or beetle in their salad. Little do they know that in the preceding year they have eaten between one and two pounds of insect parts hidden among their corn flakes, pieces of pasta or lettuce leaves. It helps to know that these critters are actually good for us!

Government regulators allow a certain number in insect parts and whole insects to creep (sorry!) into our food supply. It just isn't possible to remove them all during growing, harvesting, storage and processing. If that bothers you, keep in mind that bees make honey — all of it — by regurgitating it.

Except for raccoons — maybe — animals don't wash their food. Stone-Agers didn't either. When they crunched a bug with a mouthful of some fruit they probably enjoyed it. Someday in the not-so-distant future we might, too.

Among the planet's million's of species of insects there are hundreds that form part of the diet on every continent except Antarctica. (There are insects there but none on the research scientists' menu.) The first time that I saw hunter-gatherer children eating slithery worms I felt a little queasy. Then I remembered the look on a college girlfriend's face as she watched me eat raw oysters.

Harvesting insects as food is big business outside the United States and Canada. In Central and South America, Africa, Australia and Asia, humans have been relying on insects as a valuable source of protein for thousands of years. These microlivestock are better at converting plants to animal protein than any of our domestic farm species. Compared to beef cattle, insects are 6 times as efficient and they are twice as efficient as pigs or chickens. In an economy that uses more than 50 barrels of oil to produce an acre of corn-derived food, insects are beginning to look like a bargain, provided that we can get over our collective queasiness.

Although chocolate chirpie chip cookies (recipe available at the University of Iowa) will take some getting used to it's likely that the trend toward using insects as food will get some traction over the next few years. Some readers have probably already tasted chocolate-covered ants or crickets as kinky party fare but an insect-derived protein supplement that can be added to baked goods is probably not far off.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.