A Thanksgiving Day meal with intentional insect ingredients is hardly the norm for most Americans, but it could be our future due to the cost, nutritional and environmental benefits of edible bugs. Such dishes already are on the menu at the Audubon Butterfly Garden Insectarium in New Orleans, with its "Bug Appétit" daily cooking shows and samples. "We certainly don't serve anything other than terrific food in New Orleans -- haven’t you heard?" asked Zack Lemann, animal and visitor programs manager at Audubon. "And we like upholding our city's reputation as an outstanding food town. So even though insects may seem odd, you can bet that ours will be tasty."
The right edible insect can provide an incredible protein punch. For example, Lemann said that house crickets, per 100 grams, contain about 13 grams of protein and 5 grams each of carbohydrate and fat. "This is actually a very good nutritional balance for humans," he told Discovery News, adding that roasted crickets taste a lot like sunflower seeds. "So a diet that includes a lot of these insects would by yummy and healthy."
The Insectarium recipe for turkey stuffing includes a half-cup of mealworms per cup of stuffing. They are boiled for 10-15 minutes with, if desired, a seasoning blend for extra spice kick. After straining, they are mixed into the stuffing. Lemann and his team get their edible insects from a few different "farms" in the United States that otherwise supply to the zoo industry and the pet trade. As small creatures, insects can absorb pollutants, so harvesting them on your own is not advisable.
Cranberry sauce is on virtually all Thanksgiving Day tables. "I'm certain your old stand-by, maybe handed down from grandma, is superb," Lemann said, "but wouldn't it be even more wonderful with poached wax worms added?" He first poaches the wax worms in hot -- not quite boiling water -- for about 3 minutes. One-half cup of insects per cup of the regular cranberry sauce mixture "should provide a good ratio so you can see and taste the bugs."
Pecan and pumpkin pie can be "nuttier by adding roasted house crickets," Lemann shared. "Use enough crickets to mostly cover a standard sized baking tray and cook them at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes." When baked or roasted, the crickets become crunchy and retain their sunflower seed taste. "They make dessert hoppin' good."
Like all food ingredients, edible insects aren't just for holiday-time consumption. Chocolate chip cookies, for example, often include nuts. Instead of nuts, Lemann adds toasted edible insects for extra crunch and flavor.
Even diners who have tried every food imaginable probably have not sampled a dish of dragonflies and mushrooms. "Fried dragonflies taste like soft shell crab and are just fabulous," Lemann said. "We like to collect wild specimens when we can. It's definitely a specialty dish. After we fry them they go atop a sautéed mushroom slice with a small dollop of Dijon-soy butter. Outstanding!"
A University of Amsterdam study looked at how motivated people are to eat more environmentally friendly proteins. The study included a snack made out of locusts, along with foods containing lentils, seaweed and a "hybrid meat" that was part meat and part meat substitute. "In answering the question which snack they would least like to taste, most participants chose the snack made from insects," the study reported. The hybrid meat item struck test subjects as being more palatable.
Early humans likely ate a lot of insects. While certain Latin, African and other cultures have no problem with such foods today, many people clearly are put off by the idea. Lemann points out that crustaceans (shrimp, crab, lobster...) are acceptable on menus, and yet each of these creatures is "basically just a bug that lives in the water. For that matter, we eat some mammals (cattle and swine, for example) and not others. Explanations can be hard to come by for these varying choices and practices."
Crickets seem to be tasty good eats, for animals and willing humans, but not all insect species are edible. A general rule of warning is when an insect displays patterns of red, orange, yellow or white spots/bands on black. These usually are visual signals meaning "I taste bad" or "I will sting you," Lemann said. "Camouflage insects are trying to hide from vertebrates that want to eat them because, in many instances, they taste good,” he said. "Second if you look at cultures around the world that eat insects, you'll see that generally 'on the menu' are many types of grasshoppers and their kin, caterpillars and beetle larvae."
"'Going green' includes embracing agricultural practices that are more environmentally friendly, and rearing insects for human consumption as opposed to cattle, for example, fits the bill," Lemann said. "Insects convert plant matter into edible table 'meat' at a rate of efficiency 10 times better than cows."
"The U.S. is, more and more, seeing insect fairs that include bug tasting," Lemann said. "And you can also find a marked increase in restaurants that offer insect dishes. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that you could find raw fish at restaurants in Arizona and Iowa in such numbers as we see today? But sushi is everywhere, right? Maybe insects will take off in similar fashion."
The average American will consume about 2,500 calories at Thanksgiving dinner. What’s the best way to prep your body for the biggest feast of the year? Nutritionists have several tips -- but, they say, don’t forget that the bottom line is to enjoy the day with family and friends.
Lace up your running shoes, hit the gym, crank up the Zumba DVD. Exercise seems to help people handle the energy from the meal, said Mark Haub, a nutrition professor at Kansas State. Most research has focused on how the body processes pre-mixed concentrations of carbs and fats, not real food, but Haub thinks the general principle would apply to turkey and mashed potatoes, too. And it can’t hurt -- just don’t go sprint a 5K if you’ve never done one before, he advises.
Don’t skimp. “Not eating for a few days would be a bad idea -- you’d end up feeling worse,” said Joanne Slavin, a nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota. “Eating up to it would be better.” Competitive eaters stretch out their stomachs before an event by downing gallons of water, or eating huge amounts of watery vegetables, like entire heads of boiled cabbage.
However, nutritionists tend to frown on treating Thanksgiving as a competitive event.
“I’d want to know why they're wanting to do that,” Haub said. “I’m not sure Thanksgiving is a reason to stretch your stomach from a health outcome.”
Plan. View your calories as a budget. If you’re going to spend more at the feast, eat less upfront, Haub said -- especially if you’re attending two gatherings. If you’re hosting, make sure people are aware of what’s in your recipes, so guests can avoid gluten or dairy or anything they’re sensitive to, Slavin said.
Eat mindfully. These are current buzzwords in the nutrition realm, Haub said, and for good reason. If you approach your holiday feast as free reign, you’ll likely overgorge. Instead, “Why don’t you get a smaller plate? Have one scoop of everything.”
Sensors in the stomach remind us when we’re physically full, so be present to that reflex, experts advise. Food reaches your stomach quickly -- within minutes -- so for some people, having to loosen a belt may be an obvious cue. Hormones will also signal fullness -- but that takes time, so slow down.
“Even when you take in a huge excess of calories, your body has such extra capacity it all gets in,” Slavin said. “If we were starving, that would be good. Digestion and absorption, even when you eat a large meal, are very efficient and complete -- 95 percent of carbohydrate, 94 percent of fat, and 92 percent of protein is digested and absorbed. So even if you eat a huge amount of food, it will get digested and absorbed.”
Nap? The sleepiness associated with post-Thanksgiving dinner may stem from a combination of the tryptophan in turkey, and the amount of energy and insulin being processed from the meal. Your body is pretty drained after spending so much energy on digestion.
It takes two hours for the stomach to empty, so nap first and then get your body moving.
“A friendly game of touch football will increase your metabolic rate -- both while you are playing and for a time afterwards --- so that will help burn some of those calories you just put down,” Slavin said.
Sign up for a Turkey Burner. Many gyms offer festive post-feast workouts the day after Thanksgiving.
“If that kind of notion gets people to be more physically active, great,” Haub said. “It’ll lead to a positive outcome.”
Don’t stress. One feast is unlikely to have any long-term consequences, Slavin said. Many of our Thanksgiving favorites -- sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green beans topped with onion rings, casseroles high in fat and sugar -- are not nutritional gems, but “for one day, it’s not the time to obsess over everything,” Slavin said.
“I think it's fine to eat maybe a little more than what you probably need,” he said. “Finding a balance between enjoying the food, not stressing and not overeating is like a three-legged stool. But it's festive -- it’s supposed to be joyous.”