Eating insects: The next revolution in the American diet

Chef Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs and his team of cooking staff and student volunteers pose for a photo for the Edible Insects Event in the SEC on April 18. (Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts welcomed chef Joseph Yoon, the executive director of Brooklyn Bugs Wednesday, April 17, to host an educational workshop on the health and environmental benefits of incorporating insects into the daily American diet. This workshop was part of the first Edible Insect Festival at Tufts, co-hosted by the Tufts Department of Biology and the Environmental Studies Program, which included another workshop on “How to Move Toward Food Sustainability” and a meal catered by Yoon.

One of the main organizers of the Edible Insects Festival was Professor Sara Lewis from the Department of Biology. Lewis explained that the inspiration behind the Edible Insects Festival came from her class “Biology 196: Edible Insects.”

“Together with my students, we’ve had a blast learning about all the different kinds of insects consumed by people around the world as part of their daily diets. Of course, we also got to sample quite a few different insects … and discovered that they’re quite delicious,” she told the Daily in an email.

Lewis spoke further to the stereotypes against eating insects.

“[My] students & I were surprised that so many of our friends & colleagues were unwilling to even taste an insect, in spite of the many nutritional and environmental benefits that edible insects hold,” Lewis said. “What could we do to help dismantle those deeply ingrained psychological and cultural barriers and open their eyes to this new, more sustainable food possibility?”

Lewis said the Department of Biology, the Environmental Studies Program and Tufts’ Green Fund partnered to invite Yoon to educate the Tufts community on the benefits of consuming insects.

Brooklyn Bugs works with universities, chefs, restaurants and popular media to advocate for wide consumption of insects as a sustainable alternative source of protein to livestock. They have also partnered with three universities to conduct research on the proper processing of insect-based food and to make insects not only safe but also delicious for consumption.

The workshop started with an educational presentation by Yoon. Following the presentation was a tasting session, during which the audience sampled various insect-featuring dishes. The dishes included superworms served on top of kiwi slices, crickets with honeycrisp apple slices, chapulines on top of guacamole-dipped tortilla chips, cocktail shrimp covered in black ants, vespula flaviceps with striped sea bass crudo, Manchurian scorpions with cucumber and fried wontons and finally a dessert — bamboo worms on sweet wontons with chocolate mousse and berries. The distribution of food was facilitated by student volunteers from Lewis’ “Edible Insects” class.

Yoon started the presentation with an explanation of the significance of promoting edible insects. According to Yoon, partially adopting insects as an  alternative to livestock meat can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Did you guys know that the livestock industry creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all of our transportations? Would that make you consider an alternative protein source that only creates a fraction of greenhouse gas emissions [than livestock meat]?” Yoon asked.

Eating insects can also be environmentally friendly because the  insect food industry can help protect potentially endangered insect species by raising insects agriculturally.

“With the alarming disappearance of insects, entomophagy can help save the insects by redefining them as a food source and as something that is necessary for human sustainability,” Yoon said.

For Yoon, changing the American aversion to  eating insects is one of the biggest tasks in the process of normalizing insect consumption.  To change this negative perception of eating insects, insects must be rebranded as a food source.

“If you think about it, we eat beef and steak, we don’t eat cow; we eat pork and bacon, not pig. We need to come up with new words for the entire practice of eating insects,” Yoon said.

Yoon further emphasized  the significance of marketing in shaping connotations of supposedly neutral subjects with the example of the heart being the symbol of love.

“Consider [the] St. Valentine’s [Day] marketing of the heart,” he said. “The heart is a human organ … and somehow the genius of St. Valentine [had] all of us thinking of the heart as a universally recognized symbol of love. That’s the type of shift that we need to take with edible insects.”

Yoon explained that the normalization of eating insects is a widely relevant campaign that needs recruits from various disciplines.

“[Promoting edible insects] is a movement that will require more than just entomologists or foodies … This is a movement that requires new words, new dishes, chefs, new techniques, new policies and regulations, new ideas … So … every single academic department can be vital for the normalization of edible insects,” he said.

That being said, Yoon clarified that his goal was not to fundamentally transform the American diet to exclusively have insects as its animal-based protein source but rather to supplement people’s existing diets.

“[Eating] insects doesn’t mean giving everything away. This is for everyone: vegetarians, pescatarians, meat eaters; there [is]  even a group of people calling themselves ‘ento-vegans,’ that have a vegan lifestyle and are supplementing their diets solely with edible insect proteins,” she said.

Given the historical transformation of the American perception of sushi and the continued effort of insect advocates now, Yoon foresees a bright future for the normalization of edible insects.

“Edible insects will be widely accepted and normalized in America within five to 10 years … Think about how sushi, 30 years ago, people [were]  like ‘oh, this is weird, exotic, raw fish …’ And look at where it is now,” Yoon said.

The Edible Insects Festival is a great way to open conversations and possibilities of action in building healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyles. The sustained and successful pursuit of such goals must extend beyond workshops and into people’s daily lives. Yoon encouraged the Tufts community to reach out to him or check out his social media for any questions regarding the significance or logistics of eating insects.


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