We Made Our Writer Eat Bugs for a Week (to Save the World)

Our writer replaced all her protein with insects for a week to see how difficult, expensive, and tasty it can be. The result: a guide to the real-life, (mostly) non-gross-out logistics of being an insectivore.

Sep 6, 2016
Outside Magazine
We Made Our Writer Eat Bugs for a Week (to Save the World)

Pro tip: Roll whole roasted crickets between your palms to get rid of some stray antennae and legs that could cause... textural problems.    Photo: Giada Canu

I promised myself this piece would be different from the canon of shock insect food writing that has been done ad (literal) nauseam. It would be well reported and thorough, and I would not get grossed out. And then I got a cricket leg stuck in my throat. On day one, meal two, I was trying—and failing—not to dry heave. So I couldn’t completely avoid the yuck factor. But it wasn’t all bad.

As you’ve probably heard, bugs are the new superfood. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations urged the world to look seriously at insects as a sustainable protein source. They require very little food and water input: while beef takes about 22 pounds of feed to produce about two pounds of meat, the same amount of crickets requires just four pounds of grain. Also, insects can be raised just about anywhere. There’s no need to destroy vast swaths of rainforest to develop pastures for bugs like we currently do for cattle. And bugs don’t fart methane. For every two pounds of beef raised, six grams of greenhouse gasses are emitted. The same amount of crickets produces only a fraction of an ounce.

Crickets, mealworms, wax worms, and grasshoppers are also incredibly healthy. Species vary, of course, but most are high in B vitamins, protein, and certain amino acids, and most are relatively low in fat. If you were skimming the nutrition label on an otherwise unmarked package, you’d think, Hey, I should probably be eating more of whatever this is.

So it’s not that surprising the editors at Outside wanted to know how realistic it is to fuel a week of training with bugs. Here’s what we found.

Monday: Experiencing the Full Spectrum of Insectivore Emotions

I log long runs on Sunday nights, so I wake up ravenous on Mondays. My normal routine is to gobble a bowl of whole-milk yogurt with nuts and chia seeds, plus coffee. Then I head to the barn for an hour of mucking out stalls and moving hay bales. (I call it CrossFit for the rural girl—you spend a small fortune for the privilege of doing hard physical labor.)

On this Monday, however, I grabbed an Exo Cricket Flour Protein Bar and coffee as I hopped into my car. Interestingly, the bar has a pretty similar macronutrient breakdown to my normal breakfast: 300 calories, 10 grams of protein, 20 grams of fat, and 23 grams of carbs, plus about 13 grams of sugar. In technical food-writing terms, I’d describe the Cocoa Nut-flavored bar as a “meh.” It certainly wasn’t bad, but I’d never wake up and crave it. It was nutrition for nutrition’s sake. 

By 10 a.m., I was hungry again. (This is my norm, so I can’t blame it on the bar.) On a typical day, I’d grab a handful of pistachios and a second cup of coffee. Instead, I grabbed a bag of Bitty Foods Chiridos, a cricket flour–based tortilla chip with five grams of protein. Now, I don’t actually eat chips very often (don’t worry, I have plenty of other vices), so maybe my frame of reference is off. But these rocked: super crispy, with an aggressive salt level and just a hint of heat. I had to move them away from my desk to keep myself from devouring the entire six-ounce bag. 

I eat basically the same thing for lunch every day: a kale-based salad topped with some sort of lean protein and an olive oil–based dressing. (Please note: I do not eat kale out of some sense of holier-than-thou nutritional piety. I eat it because I planted too many kale plants this year and have been overrun by the stuff. I am, in fact, really sick of kale.)

I built my salad with all the regular ingredients: diced carrots and red onion, roasted beets, a few slices of avocado, some fresh tomato, and a dab of goat cheese. But instead of chopping up cooked chicken breast or opening a can of chickpeas for protein, I reached for a bag of Entomo Farms Whole Roasted Crickets

One-third of a cup of these crickets has ten grams of protein, two grams of fat, and only one gram of carbs, so it was nutritionally similar to what I would have been getting had I opted for part of a chicken breast. But here’s the thing: a third of a cup of crickets is actually kind of a lot. Especially when you’ve just gotten a leg stuck in your throat and another two dozen carcasses are staring up from the bottom of your salad bowl. They taste fine—good, even. They’re a bit like roasted pumpkin seeds: nutty and toasty. But it’s harder to love the legs, antennae, and eyes that seemingly watch you as you eat (crickets are the Mona Lisa of proteins). 

By dinnertime, I was grouchy. Not because I was hungry, but because I was really dreading eating “mealworm bolognese.” I put a pot of water on to boil my cricket-flour pasta. I looked at the literal can of worms I was about to open and briefly thought, You know, no one would know if I never actually ate this. The water boiled, the timer ticked down. My journalist guilt kicked in, and I knew I had to do the right thing. 

Now, hear me out: I’m glad I opted to dig in, because One Hop Kitchen’s Mealworm Bolognese is delicious. The company uses a proprietary process that results in a meaty final product. “The process is kind of like making cheese—you have to find a way to get the proteins to knit together and form textures,” says co-founder Lee Cadesky. The sauce could easily pass for beef. The cricket-flour pasta was good, too—similar in texture to whole-wheat pasta, with just a few more earthy notes. Best of all, the meal had considerably more protein and way less fat than what you’d get from a bowl of traditional spaghetti with bolognese. 

Tuesday: Highs, Lows, and Pro Tips

After Monday’s dinner, I began the day feeling hopeful. I ate another Exo bar for breakfast and kale salad for lunch. (This story made me realize that my breakfast and lunch situation seriously lacks variety. C’est la vie.) I grabbed a graham cracker, smeared on peanut butter, and topped it with dry-roasted crickets for a pre-run snack. As I was arranging the crickets for a photo, I learned a valuable lesson: the more you handle them, the more their legs and antennae fall off and the easier they are to eat. From here on out, I rubbed a handful of the critters around in my hands before adding them to anything, discarding whatever appendages fell off in the process. 

I ran surprisingly well on Tuesday night. I’d planned on six miles with a three-mile tempo session, and while it wasn’t easy, I was able to stay on pace without too much agony. I may have just been enjoying the less-oppressive temps of some unusual late-August weather. But was it the crickets, too?

My normal after-workout routine is to slam a mix of whey protein and whole milk before showering. I’d been sent a package of cricket protein powder, so I subbed that in with my milk, shook vigorously, and took a huge swig. Of everything I ate during the week, this was, by far, the worst. I did a literal spit-take after feeling the grit of ground up antenna floating between my molars. Even worse, it tasted overwhelmingly of earth—and not the innocuous clay you find here in Tennessee. It was like licking the business end of someone’s compost pile. For the rest of the week, I went without post-workout protein. 

Luckily, I had mealworm pasta leftovers hanging out in my fridge. It was just as good on night two. I wondered if I could eat this for every meal the rest of the week. 

Wednesday: Getting Creative!

It was much harder than usual to get up when my alarm chirped (just as my breakfast bar once had) at 5 a.m. Maybe it was because I hadn’t adequately refueled after last night’s workout. Or maybe I was tired of the experiment and really missed eating yogurt for breakfast. I grumbled my way into my barn clothes, grabbed a protein bar, and tried not to think about the yogurt I was missing. 

For lunch, I switched out my kale salad for Austin-based Dai Due’s Tomato and Avocado Salad with Crickets and Machacado. Recipes like this are bugs at their best. See, crickets and grasshoppers are mostly exoskeleton, which makes them extraordinarily crunchy. You really need other textures to offset the pure crackle factor. Avocado, cheese, and punchy tomatoes do that perfectly. Now that I knew the trick for de-legging the beasts, I had no trouble making it to the bottom of my salad bowl. 

I totally flaked on Wednesday’s workout. The weather was storming, so I moved my bike to the trainer. I’d planned for a few sets of subthreshold intervals. Halfway through the first eight-minute effort, I was checked out. I certainly can’t blame the bugs. Hell, I have bad days even when my nutrition is completely dialed. However, I’ve written extensively about the science of willpower, and I firmly believe that humans have limited mental resolve. I felt like I’d used mine up trying to stay true to the bug diet. I rode for 30 minutes, realized I was quite literally spinning my wheels, and called it a day. 

For dinner, I decided to try using a pressure cooker to soften up those hard bodies. I threw dried black beans, cubed yams, and a couple handfuls of roasted crickets into the pot, then set the pressure to blast and came back an hour later. Believe it or not, it worked. I’d created a black bean chili with remnants of crickets so blown to bits that they were hardly noticeable. 

Thursday: Hitting the Bug Wall (and Overcoming It with Tacos)

If this week were a marathon, Thursday was when I hit the point where you think, I’m never signing up for this sh*t again. The end was near but still too far away to feel particularly gleeful about it. Another morning, another protein bar, another fantasy about yogurt, another round of heavy lifting at the barn. 

Lunch was leftovers. I was running out of meal ideas. Seeing that Tupperware of last night’s beans was comforting. 

Two hours before heading out the door for a run, I had another round of graham crackers topped with peanut butter and roasted crickets. I did two HIIT sets and surprised myself by hitting really solid times. Who knows, maybe bug protein was what I needed to hit a new PR. 

I ended the day with grasshopper tacos, something you can find almost anywhere in Mexico. I’d ordered some chipotle-flavored grasshoppers (yup, that’s a thing) from Amazon, and as I opened the jar, I thought, Oh wow, they have their wings and legs removed. That’s awesome! My next thought? I need a new job.

I was working off a recipe from La Condesa, a restaurant in Austin. The instructions called for sautéing the critters with garlic, then tossing them into a tortilla with a squeeze of lime and a few epazote leaves, an herb that’s sort of in the vein of oregano but much stronger. It might have been an authentic take on chapulines tacos, but to me it was a disaster. Grasshoppers, like crickets, are mainly exoskeleton, and the exoskeleton-to-other-stuff ratio was way, way off. Every bite was like chomping on a taco full of peanut shells.

The good news is that tacos are easy to fix. I added some refried beans, several slices of avocado, some sautéed onions, and fresh salsa—and the whole thing changed. The taco wasn’t just edible, it was also really good. I went to bed feeling proud and full. 

Friday: The Insectivore’s Dilemma

Honestly, I’d been waiting for this day all week. But it wasn’t because eating bugs was grossing me out. Eating bugs isn’t gross. The longer the week went on, the easier it was to not think twice as a popped a cricket into my mouth. 

However, it was limiting. My biggest takeaway from the week was that we don’t yet have the diversity of bug products necessary to make eating them easy. The pasta and pasta sauce were both fantastic products, but getting my hands on them was difficult. So was getting the chips and protein bars. And nobody can subsist on pasta and protein bars alone.

To make entomophagy happen, we’re going to need more options like the pasta and bolognese. These products are a perfect entry point: no eyeballs are staring up at you, but they are real, nutritious food, not something you buy as a gag gift. Bugs can and should be considered real food, but until Americans can wrap their brains around eating them, we’re going to need “gateway” foods.

But back to Friday. For breakfast, I had yet another bar. For lunch, I had another taco, but my grand plans were for my last supper: cricket pizza. 

Honestly, I should have been worried when I saw the words “gluten free” on the cricket flour. Determined to make this work, I measured out the flour, yeast, and salt before mixing the dough with warm water. My optimism faded as I tried to knead the slimy ball. It was completely lacking in elasticity. It was like trying to knead Play-Doh—you could push it down onto the board, but it wouldn’t spring back up unless you pried it with your fingernails. I persevered—kneading, smashing, and yanking for a full five minutes before leaving the dough to rise.

An hour later, it was the same-size booger of sadness I’d left sitting in the bowl. My dinner plans were looking bleaker by the second. Maybe it will turn out okay, I thought as I fished around for my pizza pan. I wanted this story to have a happy ending. 

It didn’t turn out okay. It was like eating mozzarella and tomato sauce off a soggy cardboard cracker. But the problem wasn’t the crickets: the flour was a mix of ground crickets with cassava. Had it been ground crickets and wheat, the result probably would have worked, since the lack of gluten (plus a chef not wise in gluten-free hacks) was really bumming my crust out.

I ate exactly .07 percent of the pizza, sliding the rest into the trash with a loud “thwap.” It was the end of my five days. Surely I could eat a frozen burrito and no one would hold it against me? Oh, but I’d come so far. Giving up now seemed weak. So I did the only logical thing: I gorged myself on the remaining Chiridos chips, drank a bunch of beer, and fell asleep on the sofa, dreaming of yogurt for breakfast.

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