Are Processed Insect Food Products Still Commercially Available In The United States?

Marston Bates, the eminent zoologist, wrote in 1960 in The American Scholar(29:43-52): “In our household, I am left in complete command of one department – the things to eat with drinks. In the store where I do most of the buying, there is a wonderful assortment of temptations: fish eggs of many kinds other than the authentic but impossibly expensive caviar; fish themselves of many species, prepared in many ways; a wide variety of cheeses and sausages, of crispy fried things, of olives and nuts and minced clams and smoked oysters. Lately several kinds of insects have appeared on the shelves – canned ants and silkworm pupae from Japan, maguey worms from Mexico, fried grasshoppers – the can doesn’t say where they are from. Insects are an important element in human diet in many parts of the world, but they have long been taboo in European civilizations. It is possible that they will get back into the Western diet by way of the cocktail hour.”

Bates continued: “The maguey worms [larvae of the giant skipper butterfly, Aegiale hesperiaris] have been canned for the local market in Mexico for some time, and now they are being imported into the United States by the stores that specialize in fancy foods. The canned worms are best if eaten hot; they have a pleasant, nutty flavor, which blends as well with a martini as with mescal, the potent drink that the Mexicans distill from the fermented pulque. In my home we have been trying these worms on cocktail guests. As yet we haven’t found anyone who disliked them, although our guests have shown considerable variation in the degree of their enthusiasm. The worms at least provide a topic of conversation.”

In concluding this particular bit of discussion, Bates said, “From these experiments of ours with guests, I get the idea that while Americans may be prejudiced, they are far from being proud of their prejudices.”

Lucy Clausen of Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History, and author of Insect Fact and Folklore (1963), also mentioned maguey worms but by another name, saying that people in the United States are eating fried “gusanos” [=maguey worms] with relish. “Close to the Mexican border, ‘gusanos’ are served as thirst-producers at cocktail parties. In recent years Mexico has been canning and exporting ‘gusanos’ and they may now be purchased in the better delicatessen and department stores of our larger cities. They are advertised as “delicious delicacies, especially with cocktails.”

In 1960, Hocking and Matsumura, of the University of Alberta noted that a product canned in Japan under the name “Baby Bees” (fried bee pupae with soy sauce) had been available for some time on the Canadian market at a price of $2.20 per 2 ounces (Bee World 41:113-120).

James Trager, in The Food Book (1972), after discussing several insects that are classed as delicacies in other countries, stated: “But the only insects in American supermarkets, at least the only kinds offeredfor sale [italics added], are fried grasshoppers, Japanese ants, bees and silkworm pupae, and Mexican maguey worms…. All are sold in cans, ostensibly as cocktail snacks but basically for their entertainment value. Americans’ propensity for ‘impulse purchases’ is prodigious.” Trager’s book, by the way, was formerly titled, “The Enriched, Fortified, Concentrated, Country-fresh, Lip-smacking, Finger-licking, International, Unexpurgated Foodbook.”

Finally, Ronald Taylor devoted 14 pages in his book, Butterflies in My Stomach (1975; pp. 83-96), to a description of 19 processed, mostly canned, insect foods available in the American marketplace. Most of these products (11 of them) were offered by Reese Finer Foods, Inc., who imported them from Japan. They were sold primarily as novelty items with highest sales around the New Year.

In view of the above, we were surprised to find a couple of years ago that imported insect products could not be found in specialty food shops here in Madison, Wisconsin. A number of long-time residents to whom we mentioned this were also surprised, saying that such products were formerly available. A more superficial search in Minneapolis-St. Paul was also unsuccessful. A letter to Reese, Inc., brought the information that they no longer import these products. We heard from a Chicagoan that, until recently at least, the Marshall Field Company catalog listed several insect food products, but the Madison store knew nothing about this.

I should say that our question results more from curiosity than from any sense of urgent need. Taylor (loc. cit.), an avowed advocate of the palatability of insects, states: “Personally, I find most canned insects unpleasant tasting – some worse than others – or, at the very least, insipid. If, however, you want to eat a canned insect, my suggestion is that you begin with the agave worm [yet another name for the maguey worm].” Taylor, the author (with Barbara Carter) of Entertaining With Insects; or Guide to Insect Cookery [to be reviewed in the next Newsletter] states, “It is unfortunate that there aren’t better prepared insect foods on the American market, and at reasonable prices.” Similarly, Bates (loc. cit.) mentions that, “The Japanese now export canned fried ants to this country, but these canned ants seem to be quite tasteless, lacking the crisp, toasted quality that I remember from my South American experience.” Bates was referring to the winged sexual forms of the leaf-cutter ants (Atta spp.) which are sold in movie theaters in Colombia and serve the same function as popcorn.

Certainly, there is an abundance of testimonials expounding the palatability of various insects when properly prepared. I will mention only one here. Hocking and Matsumura (1960) subjected bee brood, prepared by shallow frying in butter or deep-fat frying in vegetable cooking fat, to an informal taste panel in Canada and reported: “Most reactions were favourable and some were eulogistic; initial prejudice proved easier to overcome than we had expected. When the tasters were asked to compare the material to some more familiar food, those most commonly mentioned were walnuts, pork crackling, sunflower seeds, and rice crispies.” Joseph Alsop, in a Saturday Evening Post review of a Tokyo restaurant, mentioned that he very much enjoyed the appetizer of fried bees, the flavor being “halfway between pork crackling and wild honey.”

The intent here is not to make or remake the case for promoting greater use of insects as food in the United States, Canada and Europe. Scores of respected western writers, both scientists and others, from the ancient Greeks onward have come down on the affirmative side of this question. Aristotle himself partook of cicadas and wrote (3rd century BC) that it is the last-instar nymph that “tastes best.” One can partly agree and partly disagree with the statement by C. H. Curran in 1939 (Natural History 43:84-89): “During the past few years there have been a number of people who have suggested that we should eat insects. They are probably seeking notoriety or being facetious. Some of them have gone so far as to publish menus. There is no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ about the advisability of people eating insects. If they wish to do so there is no reason why they should not, since there are hundreds of different kinds that are perfectly edible. However, it is absurd to urge upon a people blessed with a superabundance of good, delectable food, the advantage of eating something which is likely to prove less agreeable to the palate than the things to which we are now accustomed.”

Curran was not personally squeamish about eating insects, in fact, he liked to point out, and sometimes demonstrate, that we unknowingly eat many of them with our regular food. He

was aware of the wide use of insects as food in Cultures Of non-European origin and was, presumably, personally willing to honor the preferences of their palates just as he wanted his own preferences honored. On the other hand, times change. With the earth’s increasingly apparent vulnerability to ecological abuse, much of it committed in the name of agriculture, we can increasingly recognize the validity of predictions such as one by the late Professor Brian Hocking, “We have about 50 more years of steaks and then perhaps we’ll have to explore other sources of animal protein” (quoted by Catherine Philip, Amer. Bee Jour. 100:444, 1960). Although there is indeed a feverish pitch of activity by food and agricultural scientists aimed at increasing the quantity and quality of food supplies, insects are as studiously ignored today as they were in Hocking’s time. That should change – for more reasons than we have space to discuss here.

To recognize the preferences of different national palates, borrowing from Curran’s line of thinking, we can note that the giant water-bug Lethocerus indicus, a favorite food throughout southeast Asia from eastern India and Burma to Vietnam and southern China is now imported and sold (as whole bugs, paste, or alcohol extract known as “Mangdana essence”) in southeast Asian community food shops in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley (Pemberton, Pan-Pac. Entomologist 64:81-82, 1988). Such products from many lands might become an important new dimension in international trade if we Americans can learn to recognize and appreciate insects as the food resource that they deserve to be. They might also serve to create a whole new class of alternative crops for our hard-pressed small farms, alternative crops that are completely compatible with the principles of sustainable agriculture. Secondary benefits of a more relaxed attitude by Americans might include a reduced zealousness in the cosmetic use of pesticides on our food crops. But these are other stories. In the meantime, any information that this article may elicit on the present availability of commercial food insect products in the western world will be printed in the next issue of the Newsletter.

Gene R. DeFoliart
University of Wisconsin-Madison