Let’s face it. You haven’t eaten a bug since you were in third grade and your best friend dared you to do it. As far as you’re concerned, eating bugs is fine on “Fear Factor,” but here in the real world, you’ll get your nutrition from the familiar bottles, cans and boxes you find at the supermarket, thank you very much.

I’ve got news for you, Mr. Fussy Britches. You’re already eating insects even if you don’t think you are. Peanut butter? Tons of insect parts. Chocolate? Bug fragments everywhere. Canned fruit juice? You don’t want to know.

The insect parts already in your food includes heads, legs and thoraxes. Nutrition experts suggest that the average person unintentionally ingests a pound of insects per year. It’s a fact of life and you should get comfortable with it. In fact, a growing segment of the population suggests you should make insects a part of your regular diet.

“There are all sorts of good reasons to eat bugs,” says Bill Broadbent, who, with his sister Susan, of Lewiston, runs Freeport-based bugsfordinner.com. “You may think it’s a little bit gross, but how often do you look a cow in the face and think ‘Gee, she looks delicious?'”

Good point, right? And the same could be said about lobster – how is THAT considered a delicacy while the humble cricket is shunned?

The fact is, edible insects prepared the right way aren’t gross at all, and Broadbent spends much of his time trying to convince people of this very fact. A good way to get that message across is to gather a room full of people – kids, their siblings and their parents, mainly – and have them sample the fare.

That’s exactly what was going on one recent January morning as the Junior Naturalists gathered to nibble on fare from Broadbent’s online store and a few extras from Drew Desjardins, an educator known locally as Mr. Drew and His Animals Too.

On the menu from Broadbent’s store: mealworm toffee, chocolate-covered crickets, curry crickets and a cricket crunch bar. Desjardins added Dubai and Madagascar cockroaches and live mealworms to the fun. What resulted sounded a bit like a wine-tasting affair gone mad.

“Nutty,” said 36-year-old Elizabeth Davis, as she chewed a handful of live mealworms. “They pop a little bit in your mouth.”

“Doesn’t taste like bugs at all,” said Donovan Thibodeau, a 10-year-old who was nibbling on chocolate-covered crickets. “It just tastes good.”

When faced with the notion of eating bugs, Davis’ 6-year-old daughter, Piper, made the classic scrunchy face of distaste. No way she was going to eat a bug, she declared. Then, 10 minutes later, she was munching on a handful of mealworms, the anticipated revulsion gone forever.

“That’s not so bad,” she said, and then she was at the table again, rounding up other bugs to eat as if they were candy samples.

It’s a scene that repeated itself over and over while kids and adults alike had their first taste of critters normally avoided. Nobody spit their bugs back into a napkin. Nobody threw up. Nobody cried.

“I’ve been feeding bug cookies to kids for 10 years,” Desjardins said, “and never had a problem.”

Go figure. Insects aren’t just as healthy as anything you will put in your mouth, the fact that they’re taxonomically distant from us means there is very little chance that they will transmit disease. When you eat insects that are raised to be eaten, you’re also not ingesting pesticides, herbicides or growth hormones, advocates said.

“Like any other labeling on food, it (bugs) would have standards set in place by the USDA,” Desjardins said, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I know the cricket vendors I deal with do not use any chemicals that would pass on to the animals. As far as growth hormone, I do not think it would be economical for the relatively short life of a bug.”

Like others who farm insects, Desjardins knows exactly what he’s getting when he eats one of his bugs. They’re raised on grains and grasses, mainly, so there’s never a question about what he’s putting into his mouth.

The gains are tremendous. According to bugsfordinner.com, “crickets have as much protein as beef, as little fat as salmon and use less than 1 percent of the water needed to produce meat. In fact, edible insects can provide protein with all of the amino acids humans need, they have more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and are packed with omega 3s and B12. They are also a prebiotic. In fact, everything about them looks great on paper.”

And it’s not like the idea is just now catching on; it’s estimated that 2 billion people around the world are already making meals out of insects. In fact, in some poorer areas, if you’re not eating bugs, you’re probably starving.

“They’re not doing it for fun,” says Broadbent, “they’re doing it for dinner.”

Into the mouths of babes

So, why aren’t we all eating bugs? The main thing, advocates say, is the stigma attached to the very idea of it. Bugs are multi-legged things, the stuff of horror movies and double-dog-dares. By and large, we’re taught as very young children that bugs are icky things that should be squashed and forgotten.

But Elizabeth Davis’ son Benjamin is not old enough to have developed these preconceptions. At 6-months-old, Benjamin only knows that if it tastes like food, he might as well eat it, as witnessed by the fact that he eagerly gummed a mealworm offered by his mother.

“He actually whined for more,” Elizabeth said.

For Broadbent, these are all positive steps. With the era of commercially available edible bugs in its infancy, convincing the next generation of the benefits is of high importance to sellers and those concerned about the future.

“I mean, look at these guys,” he said, as the kids continued to hungrily swarm his table. “They’re eating bugs, and now it’s in their heads that they CAN eat bugs.

It’s amazing what could happen in the next few years.”

It’s not just about choice. According to the Finnish company EntoCube, it’s also about sustainability.

“With the Earth’s population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, there is an urgent need for new sustainable sources for food,” according to the EntoCube website. “While resources like arable land and fresh water are growing increasingly scarce, there is an urgent need for more efficient food sources to be discovered and exploited.

“Current animal protein production has numerous devastating impacts,” the site continues. “In Central America alone, 40 percent of deforestation is caused by cattle farming. It takes 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of California beef. Also meat production uses eight times more fossil fuel energy to produce the same amount of protein as opposed to that of grains.”

On the other hand, thousands and thousands of pounds of crickets can be grown on a single acre of land. Which is yet another reason why Broadbent is confident when he tells the kids: “Insects will be a part of your future.”

Nom, nom, nom

Desjardins, who is an educator, author and animal rehabilitator, started out producing insects to feed his lizards and various other creatures – critters he presents all over the place to educate the masses. He’s always recognized the value of insects, he said, and would encourage others to try them.

“When I first started doing it,” Desjardins said, “it was all about the shock factor, seeing people’s reactions and all of that. But after studying and doing the research, I found out that this is really a good thing.”

Now that he promotes the many virtues of bug eating, he sees a lot of different reactions. Some dive right in and will eat all the bugs you can feed them. Some won’t eat them at all, while others fall in the gray area: There are those, for instance, who will gladly eat a tray full of mealworm cookies, but balk at eating them live.

Fair enough. The idea is to get people beyond the old notion that bugs are for swatting and nothing else. The ick factor needs to go away, Desjardins says, so that entomophagy — yup, there’s a word for it — can rise beyond the level of playground dares.

“It’s such a simple solution for the problem of starvation and nutritional deprivation,” Desjardins says. “Right now it’s a fad. It’s a new trend. In generations to come, it will be the norm.”

Do you absolutely, positively have to look at the bug or bug parts before eating them? Not necessarily. There’s cricket flour, for instance, which is made of dried, milled crickets. Make cookies, muffins or energy bars out of that and you’ll get all the great protein, vitamins and minerals without the sight of, say, a mealworm nut cluster.

Because while the kids at the January presentation seemed to have little problem getting past it, there are plenty of grown-ups who aren’t quite there yet. (See sidebar.)

Desjardins, who provided the cookies and nut clusters for a Sun Journal taste test, had advice for the squeamish: Get over it. Bugs are the future, and the sooner people come to grips with it, the sooner we can modify our eating habits.

“It’s just a matter of looking past the bug parts,” he said, “and saying, ‘You know what? Pound for pound, this just makes a lot of sense.'”

Eating bugs: A word of caution

While “Survivorman” Les Stroud is known to eat any old bug that crawls out from under a rock, people who farm insects professionally have a few crucial pieces of advice: Know the source of the bugs you plan to eat. And, when in doubt, don’t eat it.

Insects in the wild may have been exposed to pesticides and other toxins, experts say, and it can’t be known how they’ve been feeding. They may carry bacteria or viruses you don’t want to get familiar with. And they may produce poison.

“One should also never eat raw insects unless they’ve been bred and raised by a trusted source,” according to the website InsectsAreFood.com, “because it is impossible to detect if a raw insect is tainted with pesticides.”

Additionally, people with shellfish allergies should avoid eating insects until they know their tolerance levels.

Your best bet is to vet the source of your bugs before making a meal out of bugs. Don’t just pick up the first bug you see and put it in your mouth. “Field and Stream” offers some additional words of wisdom, including:

“What to avoid? Pass on bugs that are covered in fuzz – bees and wasps are safe to eat if you remove their stingers. Beware of brightly colored insects, or for that matter any slow-moving insects that you find in the open; they don’t give a damn about predators because they know they’re poisonous. Disease-carrying species including flies, mosquitoes and ticks also are to be strictly avoided, as is any bug that emits a strong odor.”

Extra! Extra! Newsroom staff hesitate to eat free food!

We set out a plate of mealworm cookies and a box of mealworm nut clusters in the Sun Journal newsroom, a place where most folks (you know who you are, sports department) will eat anything. There were takers, but it wasn’t the usual rush of hungry news people.

“This actually just tastes like a good, sweet cookie,” said Sun Journal web guru Carl Natale. “Once you get past the first step, it’s not bad at all.”

Managing Editor Judith Meyer, though, one of the bravest journalists in the game, would have none of it, even after she was told you can’t taste the bugs.

“Yes,” she said, “But you can SEE the bugs.”

Photographer Russ Dillingham? No hesitation at all, especially given that his son is undergoing survival training and has had to perform much crazier feats.

“If my son can eat a bunny’s eye,” Dillingham said, “I think I can handle a few mealworms.”

He had three of the cookies, one of the nut clusters and probably pocketed a few for later.

Managing Editor Mark Mogensen had a cookie – which is only fair, really, since he assigned this story.

“I couldn’t even tell there were bugs in it,” Mogensen said, an alleged vegetarian. “They blended in with the crunchiness. No discernible taste. For my virginal foray into the world of edible bugs, it wasn’t too bad, but I have this desire to chirp now.”

Sports reporter and editor Tony Blasi actually started munching on a cookie before pausing to wonder what was in it.

“I told him to look at the top of the cookie,” Dillingham said. “Priceless. But he manned up and finished it.”

But some newsroom folk not only declined to eat the snacks, they actually widened their berths when walking past the table.

Former Sun Journal cops reporter Doug McIntire declined to reacquaint with his old colleagues over buggy snacks.

“Even having a survival background,” McIntire said, in response to a Facebook query, “me and the bugs have a deal: I don’t eat them and they don’t get me until I’m in the ground.”

Pre-press Operator Randy Baril is a guy who will eat anything — I once saw him take a bite out of a leather glove because it had a little steak sauce on it — yet he wouldn’t even consider eating one of the mealworm cookies. Not even close. Wouldn’t even sniff it.

Me? I’m considered annoyingly fussy, yet I’ve found myself astounded by the almost universal aversion to insects among my colleagues. I sampled several of these snacks and didn’t have a problem with any of them. I’ll tell you this: I’ll happily take mealworm cookies over carrots or green beans any old time.

For what it’s worth, none of those who sampled the buggy fare at the newspaper were women. This probably doesn’t mean anything since, back at the Junior Naturalists event, grown women and little girls went at the goods with abandon.

Who are the Junior Naturalists?

Sponsored by the Stanton Bird Club, the Junior Naturalists Club is an educational nature program for children in grades 2 to 6. Leaders conduct classes on a variety of natural science and environmental educational topics. Followup field trips in the Lewiston-Auburn area to explore natural habitats and make discoveries are part of each program. Guest speakers and special programs are frequent. The program’s goal is to help children learn about nature and help them recognize the importance of their role in protecting our natural resources in Maine.

Find out more: stantonbirdclub.org/junior-naturalist-program

Down on the bug farm

* In Thailand alone there are an estimated 20,000 bug farms

* 80 percent of the the world’s population eats bugs, yet the market for edible insects is new in the United States

* The people of BugsForDinner.com, based in Freeport, are believed to be the first bug farmers in Maine

* Want to be a bug farmer? Visit bugfarmers.com and get started.

Source: Bugsfordinner.com

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