food

Tasting notes: wild black ants

Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying out various insect foods on the family. We’ve had pasta and seasonings, falafels and cricket chips. We’ve established that insect foods can be tasty and non-threatening. But I’m curious to see if, now that we’ve broken the ice, we’re ready for something a little more leggy.

I’m concerned that if I jump straight to a locust stir fry it could ruin all my good ground work, so I look around for the smallest insects available. I settle on wild black ants, a delicacy in some parts of the world.

These ants are from Thailand, and they cost £3.49 for 6 grams. It’s about a tablespoon. At that price, a kilo would cost £580 – cheaper than caviar, but still pretty extraordinary. And that brings me to one of the main things I’ve learned so far about insect foods: they’re expensive. I can afford to be curious and try these things once, but I can’t afford to be an early adopter. The market for insect foods is still very young. Supply lines aren’t 100% reliable, as you can tell from the number of retailers with ‘out of stock’ signs up.

If you’re buying cricket flour in Europe or the US, it’s very expensive. Grilo charge $49 for less than half a kilo. At those sorts of prices, this is an elite and highly specialist food. It won’t be that expensive for long though. Crickets sell for $4 a kilo on the markets in Thailand, according to the folks at Bugsolutely. As businesses develop international supply chains and tap into well established insects farms in the East, prices will fall.

Another issue is scale. At the moment every insect food is pioneering, and a pretty risky venture. There are lots of little startups that are essentially cottage industries, and a number of them have gone bust already. At the moment nobody is getting the economies of scale that will bring prices down. But again, that will happen too. The bigger companies are getting on board. You know those meatballs that Ikea sell? There is talk of an insect version as the company experiments with insect food as part of its business accelerator programme. Once you’ve got that kind of brand on board, the economics will change dramatically.

Now to my ants. I crack open the tiny tub. It’s full right to the brim with tiny jet-black creatures, though you can’t really tell what they are from the look of them. It looks like someone has scraped the black bits off burnt toast and, funnily enough, that’s the texture too – very dry, very crispy. Very tasty too. There’s a distinct tang from the formic acid, and this is the first insect food I’ve tried with a strong and distinctive flavour of its own. Ants are genuinely delicious.

Not sure what to do with them though. With this minuscule quantity of them they’re never going to make a meal. I spread some soft cheese on a cracker and sprinkle it with ants for the kids. They’re delighted with the idea. Zach goes first and is impressed. Eden follows and she likes them too. Lou hides in the kitchen, refusing to even look at what we’re eating. As she always said, my wife has drawn the line at eating actual insects as insects.

Where next? I’ve got a couple more things I want to try, and a couple more topics I want to explore. As you can tell, I’m taking each post as an opportunity to investigate insect eating in more detail. I still plan to look at insect meat substitutes, and insects as feed for other animals, including cats and dogs. And then maybe I’ll stop, and it will be safe for my wife to come back into the kitchen.

9 comments

  1. The option I chose to reduce my carbon footprint when it comes to food was veganism combined with as many local options as I can find. Plant based foods can be either really cheap or really expensive. I have found that I actually enjoy food more now that I have cut out the animal products. I definitely recommend experimenting with plant based foods and throwing some vegan recipes into the mix. Personally I would never eat bugs, I don’t see the point when you can get everything you need from plants. But on that note I support any effort to reduce our carbon footprints.

    1. I cook vegan meals on a regular basis, and our diet as a family is mainly plant based. We’re occasional meat eaters, and the insects is largely experimental at the moment.

      The reason I don’t rule out meat altogether is that when it comes to providing a nutritious diet to a global population of potentially 9 billion people or more in future, there will be much more pressure on land. We will particularly need efficient sources of protein, and insects are perfect. Locally produced eggs are excellent too, and I wouldn’t rule those out.

      1. From what I’ve read we actually produce enough food to feed 10-12 billion people but half of it gets feed to livestock. Although I do understand that some remote areas of the world don’t have access to sufficient vegetation to be able to survive on a vegan diet. I ended up excluding eggs for health and ethical reasons, but from a purely environmental and efficiently stand point then yes eggs are an excellent source of protein and iron as well. 2 eggs a day is all the protein one needs. Theoretically chickens could be incorporated into local food systems that have difficulty producing sufficient protein and calories from plants alone.

        1. Yes – 36% of what we grow goes to feed animals, and just under 10% to biofuels. But even with that, we do actually grow enough calories for everyone. The bigger challenge is nutrients, and that’s where a lot of people in the world would benefit from the variety of animal based products – in moderation, and provided ethically. Again, insects are packed with nutrients including iron, and they provide a good option.

          As individuals, the best thing we can do right now is adopt a well-informed and balanced plant-based diet, but we have the luxury of the global food systems to keep that interesting and varied. In other parts of the world it’s not so easy, and a vegetarian diet based on whatever your poor soil will grow is much less appealing.

          1. Have you seen the documentary Greening the Desert? I wonder if in the long term maybe we could work on soil remediation and putting permaculture systems in place to help the shift towards a more green and plant based diet. I would argue that we should be eating as vegan/plant based as is possible for each individual or community, and for some this might be 100% and for other maybe only 10%.

  2. If our survival made it necessary to eat insects, I wonder if Jeremy’s wife and the likes of earthlings305 would still abstain?

      1. Yes Jeremy! I’m not keen on what appears to be squeamish, or ‘never’. So, I was just trying to move it on. Glad to see more written on it.

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