Thursday, January 14, 2010

Guess I'll go eat worms

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts on entomophagy: the act (and art) of eating bugs. Click here for part 1, and here for part 3.

My stomach is squirming already. As I picked the mealworms out of their sawdusty substrate, as they tried to wriggle free, or clinged to my fingertips in fear of a worse fate, I asked myself "Are you really going to eat these things?"

Answer: probably.

I already picked them up from the pet store this morning. $5.95 for a whopping 50 mealworms. Er... superworms actually. The worms I got were labeled as Zophobas morio, a.k.a. superworms. Tenebrio molitor is the traditional mealworm. Both are species of darkling beetle, and while I couldn't find any specific information on superworms, one reviewer did mention that Zophobas morio was one of the species covered in the Eat-a-bug Cookbook. I imagine preparation is the same, so I'm going full steam ahead on this one.

What am I thinking? It's complicated. I do, as a general rule, abstain from animal products. The reasons are numerous. For starters, the American Dietetic Association notes that "an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates." Since my family has a history of most of these ailments, it seems practical to abstain (not to mention I lost 100 pounds after adopting a plant-based diet). Furthermore, as I don't have the ability to hunt or raise my own animals, I have no guarantee about how the animals are treated, or what hormones, antibiotics, or other chemicals they are treated with. Which brings up concerns about A) what exactly am I putting into my body? and B) are the animals being mistreated?

I was raised by hunters. I've done my share of killing. But, as part of that initiation, I was taught to kill quickly and cleanly in order to minimize pain, and to be respectful by using every last piece of the animal that sacrificed itself. The science seems to back up both of those. Contrary to what popular 19th century science says, vertebrates do have nociceptors and thus can feel pain. Herd animals, like cattle, also mourn for the loss of their offspring. And, of course, whatever can't be eaten can be used as fertilizer, clothing, tools, etc.

Then there are the environmental concerns. With traditional grazing, large amounts of forest are slashed and burned to make room for pasture. With more modern techniques, animals are kept penned up and are fed diets of corn, soybeans, etc. (things that they typically wouldn't eat). In this case, large amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. are used to grow food for the animals. And, in the case of cows, you're putting in 30 calories of plant food to get out 1 calorie of meat. We could be eating that plant food instead and cutting out the middle men. It's wasteful. And the full details of the IPCC report can be read here (I've probably discussed this before, but it's a good refresher).

So, on the one hand, as painful as it might be for the prey, I understand the predator-prey dynamic. If we were actually hunting, and actually hunting for the amounts we needed (rather than an over-abundance), we could help keep certain animal populations under control. But, artificially bolstering a population for our own over-consumption: it's just not ethical.

But let's get back to those worms. As much as they squirm and wriggle, the science says that they have no nociceptors, and thus feel no pain. Science has been wrong before, but the variety and preciseness available to modern scientists is astonishing compared to what was available in the 19th century, so I'm willing to trust them to an extent. And, Peter Singer, considered the father of the animal liberationmovement, doesn't even abstain from mollusks, etc. for this very reason. So, beyond a shadow of a doubt, no pain? Check.

Environmental concerns? Well, since they are decomposers, they can feed off of human wastes. Not only that, but they're much more efficient than cows. I believe one estimate stated that you got 1 calorie out for every 3 calories put in, and since we'd be feeding them human waste, rather than human edible food (like corn and soybeans), we're coming out ahead by a long shot. Not to mention that there aren't any bones or guts to "dispose" of. You're eating every ounce of energy that you put into these things. Further, a small aquarium or similar container is all the space that's needed to raise them, rather than huge tracts of land as in the case of cattle. Since they're using such minimal space, and largely consuming human wastes (which can then be used as fertilizer), environmentally friendly seems to be a "check." And my motto is, as was suggested by the oracle at Delphi, "nothing in excess." Even if they can't feel pain, and even if they aren't an immediate environmental concern, they play an important role in the natural habitat: one should be careful not to upset the natural rhythm by introducing a species that could devastate a location, or by over-harvesting from it's natural habitat.

So then there's the question of health. How do the worms stack up against beef? I couldn't find information on the larva in question, but in a study done on the nutritional value of edible insects in south western Nigeria, the various beetle larva were between 20.1 and 28.42% protein, with an average of 24.84% for all species. According to, 70% lean ground beef only contains 14.3% protein,  and a sirloin steak is slightly better at 20.2% protein. The worms are also lower in fat and higher in fiber than beef. As far as whether a diet including insects will also be lower in instances of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc., I can't say. Reasons suggests it would be better for you than the standard American diet, even if it wasn't as good as a vegan or vegetarian diet. So, healthy? Check.

But, enough of the number crunching. What did I actually do? First I dumped the little guys into a "Tupperware" container. They seemed to be in a sawdust mixture, and this wasn't going to be okay. They need to be on a diet of real food before I put them in my body, both for the sake of flavor and nutrition. I cleaned out their original container and added a mixture of oats and flour. Put the lid on and give it a shake, but be careful, because if your lid is like mine, it has breathing holes that can let some of the flour escape. If I did it again, I'd probably go all oats, or I'd by some bran, since that's what the entomophagy experts seem to suggest. The little guys didn't seem to be able to burrow very well, so I added more oats to make the mixture lighter. That seems to do the trick.

As far as transferring them goes, it can be tricky. I would probably just used a colander over the trash/compost bin the next time around, since the sawdust seemed to be fine enough to keep them from going through. As it was, I found that getting rid of as much sawdust as possible helped me to find them and pluck them out. This was easy, since the superworms naturally burrow as deep as they can. I held the container at angle, almost as if to pour out the sawdust, and then brushed it out when the worms burrowed to the bottom. Once most of the sawdust had been removed, I just plucked the little guys out and put them back in the original container with the new oat/flour mixture. Like I said, I had to add more oats to make it light enough for them to burrow. Your mileage may vary.

If you're squeamish, wearing rubber gloves might make the process of transferring them by hand more pleasant. Personally, I just used my barehands, but it was a weird sensation to have them squirming between my fingers and trying to get loose (one of them actually did), or to latch onto my fingertips with their little legs. They can't hurt you, it just feels weird. Once I got them all back into the original container, I cut off the end of a potato and added it to the container as their water source (potato and apple were the two things I saw recommended). With that, I plopped the lid back on, found them a special spot in my room, and had the rest of the potato for lunch. Yum. I'll actually be gone until Saturday evening, so the eating of them will be postponed for a couple of days. When I get back on Saturday I'll put them in an empty container to fast. I'll be having them for lunch on Monday (before my roommate can get back and ask me why the hell I'm eating bugs). So, Monday, sometime after lunchtime, you'll find out if I could stomach eating these squirmy little guys.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts on entomophagy: the act (and art) of eating bugs. Click here for part 1, and here for part 3.

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