With a global population close to 8 billion people, rich and poor nations alike need a new, sustainable source of protein.
Written by Marie Sainabou Jeng
She is explaining the taste of a mopane worm. “The texture is similar to prawns, with the softness but it also has a crunchiness.”
Global interest in edible insects has increased rapidly over the past few years.
Thanks to traditional food cultures, innovative top chefs, gutsy food start-ups and modern researchers, edible insects are beginning to be seen as a potential healthy, sustainable source of animal protein.
And Khan - “sovereign food activist” might be an appropriate title for her - is working to revive African indigenous people's food culture, a food culture in which insects are essential.
“People used to eat like this not that many years ago. Today insects are primarily eaten in the rural areas or seasonally such as the mopane worm. They’re still only sold in markets selling traditional African food or at train stations,” Khan says.
She is sure that a new focus on insect foods will become part of a global conversation that will change our food paradigm, and get people to hunt insects, to eat insects and subsequently understand and think of insects differently.
“In South Africa we are impassioned about foreign values. The increasing international focus on insects is a sure way to validate traditional knowledge, our cultural knowledge.
"Now is the time to reengage with our environment and give pride back to the indigenous people. No one else knows this stuff,” she says.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts that the world’s population will reach 9 billion people this year, and that the demand for meat will double along with this growth.
Since 2003, the FAO has actively looked into edible insects as a potential and sustainable solution to this increasing protein-based food demand.
GREEiNSECT, an international collaborative research consortium of universities and private partners is investigating how mass-production of selected insect species can be developed in Kenya as both a nutritious food source for humans and a novel protein source for animal feed.
The design of this project is a new approach to research in its field. It is not done only by health and food security researchers but also chefs, nutritionists, environmentalists, economists, rural development specialists and of course, entomologists, all sharing their knowledge and findings.
One of the intermediate aims of the project is to support a new generation of specialised researchers to influence future development of this new field.
“It is widely accepted that insects provide high-quality protein and nutrients. And we know that the nutritional composition of insects is comparable to other animal foods such as meat,” says Nanna Roos, associate professor at Copenhagen University’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports and head of GREENiNSECT.
“So it is a sound alternative to conventional animal food. However, we can’t state yet whether insects have any special nutritional value that stands out.
“It’s not only a question of eating insects instead of meat. We need more animal food on the market to meet the increasing demand for protein in emerging economies and with the world population’s rapid increase.”
The new area of research doesn’t yet have specific results on insects’ nutritional value to humans, but right now eight PhD scholars, five in Nairobi and three in Copenhagen, are starting up a new research study to focus specifically on this.
“I don’t think insects are the eighth wonder of the world, but it’s a new alternative resource to animal food which we haven’t exploited yet,” says Roos.
“Insects have some environmental and climate-friendly advantages, which mean we can imagine a world, were we can produce enough animal protein for the future. That can solve all sorts of health problems connected to a diet high in meat.
"Then there is the nutrition problem in some parts of the world - too many people are living involuntarily on a substandard diet.
“Undernourishment and malnutrition, where children for instance don’t obtain their potential growth, brings lots of problems.
"A great part of the malnutrition among children can be prevented and corrected when animal protein is supplied in the diet,” Roos says.
At Noma in Copenhagen - a multiple time voted world’s best restaurant but now closed - edible insects were a regular feature on the daily list of ingredients, and in several dishes guests can experience the flavours of grasshoppers, wood ants and grubs.
“The answers to our food problems need to be delicious,” wrote René Redzepi in a Time Magazine column.
“Nobody wants to be preached to at the dinner table. Hunger, obesity and climate change are all problems we can't fix if the solutions aren't appetising.”
Redzepi is the chef and co-owner of Noma, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen.
One of Noma’s masterpieces, live botan-ebi shrimp with live ants from the woods of the Nagano prefecture, got a lot of attention not only because of the restaurant’s extraordinary January pop-up in Tokyo, but because of the living creatures on the plate.
For Noma, though, it is all about the taste and extending the palette, not about the gimmick.
A group of students from the Innovation Design Engineering course at Imperial College, London, also advocate entomophagy.
With a professional love for design strategy, the team of four founded Ento, a food start-up striving to overcome people’s preconceptions.
Founders Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky, Jon Fraser, Jacky Chung and Aran Dasan want to create a business promoting edible insects “as an enjoyable, everyday reality”.
Ento organises pop-up restaurants and tastings, and is currently developing insect food products.
Their effort was rewarded with a nomination for The Observer’s 2014 Ethical Awards.
Across the Atlantic in San Francisco, former trend forecaster Megan Miller has founded Bitty Foods.
She swapped normal flour for cricket flour and sells healthy snacks high in protein.
“Normally, when we think about eating insects we think about desperate people who are in a famine situation or Fear Factor (the American reality show) contestants.
But I’m looking to change that perception by turning insects into an aspirational and highly nutritious food,” said Miller at a recent TEDx Manhattan talk.
She thinks that within the next decade insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a mainstream food source.
To foster that cultural change she starts with the cricket. Her crickets are slow roasted to bring out a nutty, toasted flavour, then milled into flour used for cookies and other baked goods sold online or to upscale groceries.