From novelty teapots to novel foods
Once upon a time, someone made a teapot that did not look like all the teapots that had been made until then. It must have made a splash because from a certain moment onwards, novelty teapots became A Thing. More novelty things followed. A whole novelty industry grew around such quirky objects.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, authorities just approved the fourth insect species that will be added to foods across the bloc. They’re calling it a novel food. It means food that was not commonly consumed in the EU prior to 1997.
The directive was issued earlier this month and included a detailed description of how the insects will be “sacrificed”, after being starved for 24 hours, and then processed further until they turn into powder.
I thought the phrasing was quite odd but let it slide because there was a more pressing question and this question was, of course, why. Why are insects being added to foods?
It will come as no surprise that no straight answer has been forthcoming. There is, however, a not-so-straight answer that, to my moderately paranoid mind, is worth some worry.
On an FAQ page about the insect additives, the European Commission first tries to be clever.
Then, apparently realising it cannot evade the question forever, it goes on to explain that
So, we have rising costs of animal protein, which the phrasing suggests is irreversible rather than the result of normal market trends, food insecurity (in the EU? Now? Is it the energy crisis or is it something older?), and, of course, “environmental pressures”.
“Environmental pressures” is certainly a delicate and charming way to say “We’re hell bent on cutting carbon dioxide emissions everywhere we can because we just have to and that’s all there is to it.”
More charming still is the other reason for the relevance of insects as food: “increasing demand for protein among the middle classes”. The way I translated this part of the text is: “There are more people who can afford animal protein now but it’s getting more expensive and it’s riddled with emissions, so we should get these people on to insects instead. Gradually.”
Some conspiracy theorists on social media have been spreading alarm that meat will at some point become a food only affordable to the 1% while the rest of us survive on crickets and at the time, of course, I dismissed these alarmist warnings because, well, really? But then I read this FAQ page and I’m not so sure any more.
Look at the next paragraph, where the FAO is quoted as saying how nutritious and healthy insects are and how they can facilitate “the shift towards healthy and sustainable diets”. My suspicious little mind latched onto the last word and another translation emerged.
“We are planning to use arable land for solar farms and wind parks, so there will not be enough land left to support the crops necessary to feed farm animals used to provide sufficient amounts of animal protein to the middle classes. Alternatives must be found because we are building these solar farms and wind parks.”
They are going to get us on to insects, then. For our own good and the good of the planet. I did genuinely try to come up with some other plausible interpretation of this paragraph. There simply isn’t one. There’s no dictionary in which “shift” means “add variety”.
Another thing the Commission appears to be charmingly shy about is potential health risks related to the consumption of insects. It does admit that there is a risk of allergies, especially for people with allergies to molluscs and that’s it. But here’s a study that has a very different warning. And it has to do with parasites. I do apologise if you’re reading this around or during your mealtime.
The study, titled “A parasitological evaluation of edible insects and their role in the transmission of parasitic diseases to humans and animals” and published in 2019, found that parasites are quite common in insects and that about 30% of these parasites can potentially harm humans. Feel free to pin your hopes on the “potentially”.
Whole insects are already being sold and eaten in Europe. It was news to me but I don’t move in novel food circles, so that’s not surprising. The crickets that just got approved will be added in proportions of between 1% and 2.5% in a range of flour-containing foods, such as snacks.
It’s not a whole lot, one percent of a bun. It’s not a lot at all. Yet this one percent could well be just the start. After all, that concern higher demand for animal protein from those middle classes is not going to just vanish on its own. It will have to be dealt with by other means.
The removal of meat from school cafeterias is one way of starting them early and raising a whole new generation that would embrace insect protein for its nutrition and sustainability value without questioning the discouragement of alternatives. Yet it will not be enough.
There are too many post-school-age individuals who have never eaten a single cricket in their lives and will not willingly do so, however many times you repeat that insects have been used as human food for millennia.
True, such an individual would tell those making the insect argument. True, but have you ever stopped to ask why insects have been used as human food for millennia? Because there was nothing better, that’s why. Where are insects traditional food — in wealthy countries or in poor countries? Don’t bother answering that, we both know what the answer is.
So, to overcome the suspicions of the abovementioned individuals, crickets, mealworm larvae, locusts and cockroaches are going to be part of the menu in minuscule amounts and in powdered form in a host of popular foods across the European Union.
They have a lower carbon footprint than beef or lamb, or pork, or chicken. They also have a lower land footprint, which is great for all those European refiners that have huge biofuel production growth plans. It’s also great for emissions but you already knew that.
Insects are packed with proteins, they have been used as human food for millennia, and but for some allergy risks and some potential risk from parasites, they’re perfectly safe. Plus, eating insects is more sustainable, presumably because they breed faster and also non-presumably because they use fewer resources.
You know, no matter how much I repeat the above to myself and tell myself that all of these arguments are perfectly valid and in tune with my inclination towards using all sorts of resources sparingly, my brain is not buying it. This report about pro-insect lobbying didn’t help, either. (It’s in Bulgarian but charts are in English. A million euro is not an enormous sum but still.)
All my brain has to say to all these sensible, rational, and environmentally responsible arguments is “Can you afford your pork shoulder and your chicken legs? You can. Are they still selling them? They are. Stuff the Commission, shut up and go make dinner.”
I almost forgot the silver lining. Since no one in the household has given any indication they are willing to try the new and improved EU snacks, there will be more home baking for me. I have been looking for excuses for so long, it’s embarrassing. Now I have the perfect one.
So, until such time as the Commission decides to reveal home cooking is actually bad for your health and unsustainable, which is may do before too long, it will be all homemade grisini and bretzels for the snack-eaters in my house.
P.S. On a more personal note, crickets have never done anything to me. In fairness, neither have pigs or cows but they are my natural food and I leave it at that. Also, I know that a pig would happily eat me if given the chance, so my conscience is clear.
As for chickens, a hen once pecked my finger. I was little and I got scared, and I never forgot it. Everything since then has been my revenge. As for cockroaches and locusts, I’d be happy to witness their extinction but I won’t participate in it. There is such a thing as too disgusting.