It seems that in the past insects were likely an important part of human diet. Why are they so unpalatable to us today, when other arthropods such as lobsters are considered delicacies?

I think the reason is mostly cultural. Humans in Western culture do not like their food unprocessed. Many people are even repulsed by the sight of raw meat. Shellfish tend to be hit-or-miss with people (depending on exposure). Invertebrates from the sea tend to be treated with an open mind - most people don't get to see whet they are up to when they are alive. Most seafood also comes packaged (in pretty shells), which people like, since they can't see the gooey mess with tubes and eyes that they are about to swallow. Lobsters and crabs taste good, but there tends to be a lot of bravado that accompanies preparing and eating them - it is a status symbol as much as a meal.

Also, insects are commonly associated with noxious bites or stings (wasps, bees, ants) and decay (mmm flies and maggots), which are in turn associated with pain, illness, etc. I am sure this will also put people off, particularly if they are unaware of the difference between different sorts of insects (a rather common occurence). Also, different parts of the world have different insects. Those in Europe (which is where many modern tastes evolved and have been exported from) tend not to be as big and juicy as those in tropical regions - all chitin and no meat. This may also explain some of our prejudices against eating insects.

I agree with Paolo, it is largely cultural.  Indigenous Australians still following a traditional way of life in the outback will eat honey ants, Witchetty grubs, cicadas etc without thinking twice about it.  It is quite common for tourists to go on "bush tucker" tours and be offered traditional indigenous foods such as Witchetty grubs which the Aboriginals will often pluck off the bush and eat alive, however the tourists, if they try them at all, will often only try a cooked sample.  It's all about what we have grown up with to be considered the norm.

Surely it's because prawns consist of a gorgeous, delicious chunk of delicate, delectable flesh, firm yet yielding of texture, while insects are gross?

How many insects did you try?
I would tend to agree with Paolo which gave very good reasons. In particular the diet of our would-be prey could have an influence on our tastes.
Maggots might taste just the same as prawn.... But no thanks...

Last edited by Jerome Feldmann (11th Apr 2008 15:36:44)

How many insects did I try?  Are you insane?  None, of course!  They're gross!

One of things that characterises humans is our amazing adaptability and flexibility - and that includes our diet. It means we can swap our eating habits to suit what happens to be around, which is a great survival tool.  I think most of us would consider breaking taboos if we were starving - I'm a vegetarian for ethical reasons, but if it was a matter of life and death, I'd certainly eat flesh (or insects). Although Jared Diamond thinks one of the reasons that the Greenland Eskimos fared so badly was that they didn't do as the Inuit did - and eat fish.

It occurred to me today that this discussion might benefit from a bit of empirical input. Fortunately, I live in Beijing, where the consumption of insects is not completely unheard of. Near the Oriental Plaza, a major downtown shopping centre, there's a small street of little stalls that hawk souvenirs and a wide variety of snacks - including scorpions, cephalopods, seahorses, starfish, sparrows, and yes, insects. I suspect that these exotic delicacies are intended more for curious tourists than for the locals, but that's beside the point.

The princely sum of 15 yuan bought me four insects, which I'm fairly sure were larval cicadas, impaled on a wooden skewer. Each of them was 3 or 4 cm long and rather plump, so I hoped they would be large enough to avoid the "all chitin and no meat" problem mentioned by Paolo. They were cooked and heavily dusted with some kind of seasoning, but I hoped this wouldn't compromise the results of my little experiment too badly.

**FAIR WARNING: Mike Taylor, if the very idea of entomophagy bothers you as much as your posts seem to imply, you might want to stop reading now**

With only slight trepidation, I grasped the first cicada in my incisors, dragged it off the stick, and slurped it into my mouth. The exoskeleton was unexpectedly thin and crispy, a bit like that of a small prawn, and the admittedly small amount of muscle and organ tissue inside was soft and chewy. Even though the texture was a pleasant surprise, there wasn't much flavour beyond that of the seasoning, although my palate picked up an undercurrent that registered as staleness or even mild rancidness. However, it wasn't sufficiently discouraging to make me want to throw away the other three cicadas. One by one, they passed off the stick and down my gullet.

The conclusion, I suppose, is that I'm not going to add cicadas to my list of culinary delicacies any time soon. They're rather bland, and I suspect that it would take a lot of them to add up to a satisfying meal. (And how much chitin does it take to give a human indigestion, anyway?) On the other hand, if I'm ever marooned on a desert island with nothing to eat but cicadas, I certainly won't wait until I'm approaching the point of starvation before I tuck in.

When it comes to the aversion of most westerners to eating insects, Paolo's list of possible factors makes a lot of sense to me. I'm sure that purely arbitrary cultural fashions play a substantial role too. However, I would also note that prawns and lobsters are perhaps a bit more anatomically suited to human consumption, because of their large muscular tails. Even large insects really have nothing equivalent to that "delicious chunk of delicate, delectable flesh", as Mike put it. Prawns aren't a particular favourite of mine, but I found my cicadas even less satisfying because there wasn't very much muscle tissue inside the exoskeleton.

That is very interesting...I would have thought cicada larvae would have more meat to them considering how plump they look...

Anyway, although being so close to China, we in Japan don't really have any insect delicacies except for grasshoppers of the family Catantopidae boiled down with soysauce and sugar. Sadly I have not tried this myself but those who have (including my mother) say they are just crunchy and taste nothing but the thickly condensed sauce which is sweet and spicy. Historically, grasshoppers have been eaten by Japanese rice farmers as a means of supplimenting proteins and calcium which tend to be lacking from the diets of purely rice-growing agricultures. More recently, some Japanese citizens survived the post-world war famine by supplimenting their diets with grasshoppers. Apparently due to its similar texture to prawn/shrimp, grasshoppers are called "????(????OKA-EBI)" or "land prawn/shrimp" in some regions of Japan. Nowadays, eating grasshoppers is considered an oddity and not many people will try them, although I am curious to try them myself...

Last edited by Manabu Sakamoto (13th Apr 2008 16:18:52)

For my part, I have eaten insects out of curiosity - mostly ants and aphids. The were slightly bitter, but not bad. Wood ants have quite a nice "vinegary" flavour - presumably from the formic acid. Since I like vinegar (enough to drink it from the bottle on occasion) I found this rather pleasant.

I've also had a few creepy-crawlies and found them not unpleasant ot the taste. Living in China I have access to what we might consider a truly bizarre menu across numerous restauruants including dog, snake, frog, jellysih, scorpions, silkworm larvae and sea cucumber. There is even a penis restaurant!

Just becuase they are available doesn't mean they appeal though, and I would have to agree with those above and say the bias is primarily cultural.