People Should Have No Problem Digesting Bugs. but Will Anyone Eat Them?

Spider on person's tongue
Natalie Kämpf / EyeEm / Getty Images

The human revulsion against eating insects stems mostly from the fact that bugs are a constant part of our lives, creeping and crawling around our house, yard, car, and office. (Also, for the record: Spiders are not insects, nor are we recommending that people eat spiders.)

Insects move weirdly. They’re sort of alien, in a way. And while insects aren’t really that different from shrimp or lobster—which people will pay handsomely to serve at fancy parties—most Westerners don’t really want to think about getting protein from bugs. But here’s the thing: The United Nations estimates that around two billion people across the globe regularly eat bugs (at least 1,900 species are considered edible and nutritious), which are far more ecologically sustainable than other forms of animal protein, and which happen to contain healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

So why the trepidation in the U.S. and other places? For one thing, Americans can choose from plenty of other food. For another, lots of Westerners fear that insects’ tough carapaces (or exoskeletons) aren’t digestible.

But fear not, meek Americans: Primates have a specific piece of DNA for digesting bugs, says recent research that appeared in Molecular Biology and Evolution. The study, which focused mainly on the genomes of 34 primates, found that most primates still have at least one copy of the genes that evolved to help early primates digest an insect-heavy diet by creating an enzyme that breaks down the chitin in insect carapaces.

“Unfortunately, most of the human research so far has been done using Western-culture participants rather than comparing people from various cultures that actually eat insects regularly,” said lead author Mareike Janiak, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers. “But for humans, even if we didn’t have an enzyme, the exoskeleton becomes a lot easier to chew and digest once the insect has been cooked.”

And as it happens, cooked insects are finding their way onto American menus. Back in 2017, the Seattle Mariners introduced roasted grasshoppers—aka chapulines, a Mexican specialty—from nearby restaurant Poquitos. They expected a tepid response from ballpark fans. But in three games, the Mariners sold more roasted grasshoppers than Poquitos usually sells in an entire year.

“It’s not much of a secret recipe,” Manny Arce, a Poquitos chef, told Men’s Fitness in June. “Once the grasshoppers are dried, we roast them and spice them with chili lime salt.” (Try the recipe for yourself.)

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