WASHINGTON -- To more than 2 billion people around the world, the soothing sound of crickets chirping might also signal the availability of a delicious snack.
That’s the number of people around the world, mainly in Asia and Africa, who eat insects as part of their regular diet, according to the United Nations.
A new report from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says Western societies should get over their “disgust” at the idea of eating bugs and join in.
Wasps, bees, beetles, ants, grasshoppers, and, yes, crickets are protein-rich, abundant, and have a small environmental footprint compared to other animal food sources, says the report, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects For Food And Feed Security
The FAO says insect farming could address food shortages for both humans and livestock and be especially useful in the fight against childhood malnutrition because insects are nutrient dense.
Ounce for ounce, grasshoppers have three times as much protein as beef and contain essential nutrients like zinc and iron.
That’s not news in places like Southeast Asia, where insect farms already exist and larger-scale industrial production is being tried.
Eva Muller, the director of the FAO’s Forest Economics Policy and Products Division, says that “insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for [animal] feed.”
And she’s optimistic about their future acceptability, even in Western countries. She points out that insects are already on some menus at restaurants in European capitals and says humans’ dietary preferences are constantly evolving, as evidenced by the fact that when Japanese sushi was first introduced to the West, people rejected the idea of eating raw fish. Now many people will pay top dollar to eat it.
Muller is also counting on the fact that eating insects can have health benefits.
"In the longer term, I think insects could also be eaten in Western countries," Muller says. "And why this would be good? Well, we know that the [world] population is growing and there is going to be an increased demand for food, and protein in general, and insects offer one option of providing this protein. And in Western cultures, where we have a huge problem of obesity and overweight, insects are a very nutritious element that could provide a healthy diet."
WATCH: "National Geographic" examined the cottage gourmet insect industry in the United States in 2008:
In the United States, groups like Insects Are Food, Creepy Crawly Cooking, and Bay Area Bug Eating Society are already aware of the benefits of bugs and are trying to convince others.
But insects as food will probably only catch on if people see them on menus. The UN has called on chefs and restaurant owners to “raise the status” of bugs by serving them in dishes.
In a few spots around Europe and the United States, that's already happening.
Famed Spanish chef Jose Andres serves a popular grasshopper taco at his Washington, D.C., restaurant, Oyamel. At Typhoon, a flashy restaurant in Santa Monica, California, that serves food from the Pacific Rim, a dish called Taiwanese Crickets is stir fried with raw garlic, chili pepper, and Asian basil. The restaurant’s “Silk Worm Larvae” is sautéed with soy sauce, sugar, and pepper.
The owner of Guelaguetza, a Los Angeles restaurant serving Mexican dishes like Chapulines a la Mexicana (grasshoppers sautéed with onions, hot peppers, and tomatoes) boasted to “The New Yorker” magazine that diners consider it fashionable to eat bugs.
“Eating grasshoppers is a thing you do here.... There’s more of a cool factor involved,” Bricia Lopez said.
The FAO report comes as people on the East Coast of the United States are bracing for a rare invasion of cicadas -- giant, winged beetlelike bugs that emit a high-pitched whine.
Billions are crawling out of the ground this spring after 17 years of dormancy. During their brief adult lifespan, the swarms are expected to be so thick that drivers in some areas will need to use windshield wipers.
That delights Isa Betancourt, a curatorial assistant of entomology at Philadelphia’s Drexel University Academy of Sciences, who likes to snack on young, soft cicadas that have just emerged from the ground.
To her, it’s no different than eating a soft-shell crab.
"I’m calling them the 'shrimp of the land' because they are in the same biological group as crustaceans," Betancourt says. "They’re all arthropods, which means they all have exoskeletons protecting them. And so, we eat lobsters, we eat shrimp, we eat crabs all the time."
She also points out that cicadas, which feed on plant water, are much cleaner than shrimp, which are sometimes called "the cockroaches of the ocean" because they will eat virtually anything.
But cleanliness is not something most Westerners associate with bugs. Flies, maggots, and cockroaches are indelibly linked with filthy conditions.
Betancourt says plenty of insects live in clean, pure forest environments and dine on plants, which gives them an almost bland taste when cooked.
"Usually insects taste kind of how you make them because they have a very mild flavor," Betancourt says. "I’ve eaten crickets, wax worms, and I’ve also eaten dragonflies. The dragonflies were sautéed on mushrooms and breaded, and that was really delicious. Crickets -- you can make chocolate chip cookies with them."
There is one hurdle for people to get over, she admits: "I think the part that probably [disgusts] people the most when they’re eating insects is the 'pop' that you kind of feel when you’re biting down. That happens when the exoskeleton breaks, because of the insect’s structure."
Once you get past that, she says, "it’s tasty."