Mealworms served up on a plate

Insekten essen: Was Mehlwurm & Co für die Gesundheit bieten

Crickets, locusts and mealworms are now allowed to be served as food in Switzerland. The health benefits of eating insects – and how to swallow your disgust.

They’re nutritious, tasty and a popular delicacy in large parts of the world: around two billion people regularly eat insects, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recommends we all do the same. It describes insects as the food of the future. Because eating insects is a way of feeding the growing global population and – compared with livestock farming and meat production – of protecting the environment.

In Switzerland, there are now multiple opportunities to eat insects. Mealworms, crickets and migratory locusts have been approved as foodstuffs for almost a year. They can be sold whole, crushed or ground into powder. Some start-ups are specialising in insect breeding while also offering cooking classes and recipe books. The supermarket chain Coop has three edible insect products in its range, including mealworm burgers. They're similar to those made from minced beef or the vegetarian variants quorn and tofu.

We tried them out, and they mainly taste of spices with just a hint of the added vegetables. The slightly nutty flavour typical of mealworms is hardly noticeable. A few restaurants are also putting special insect-based dishes on the menu. Basel’s "Bug a Thai" serves up a curry featuring whole insects, for example. Diners appreciate its pleasant consistency and subtle yet distinct flavour.

The yuck factor

Biting into a mealworm or cricket – an idea very few of us find appetising. It’s true that Europeans enjoy eating other invertebrates such as shrimps, crabs and prawns. And May bug soup was a popular and satisfying meal until the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the newly approved edible insects can trigger feelings of disgust. According to behavioural researchers, the yuck factor has been instilled in us and is strongly pronounced, especially in Western culture.

But the disgust reaction can be overcome. For example, by using insects as ingredients in processed food products that don't remind us any more of the animal from which they originate. Or by watching others consume them with delight, giving you the courage to try it for yourself. What’s more, a high price tag apparently helps to lower people’s inhibitions. Because labelling something as expensive suggests exclusive quality and special indulgence.

Nutritious honey bee drones

Whether or not we need insects as part of a balanced diet here in Switzerland is controversial. Swissveg recommends using unprocessed plant-based food to meet our protein requirements, instead of taking the more circuitous route of breeding insects. According to researchers from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) there are better alternatives. The larvae of male bees for example, are considered particularly valuable and tasty. Beekeepers consider drone brood as a waste product; up to 100 tons of it are removed and thrown away each year in Switzerland.

“Insects actually do contain significant amounts of protein as well as other valuable ingredients that aren't to be underestimated,” says Stéphanie Bieler of the Swiss Society for Nutrition (SGE-SSN). However, this doesn't make them superior to other foods such as dairy products, meat, fish, eggs or tofu. Bieler's recommendation: pay attention to variety, because each of these foods has a different range of nutritional values. Insects can certainly be part of a balanced diet. But no one should feel forced to eat them.

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