Bug up: entomophagy is a secret weapon for gym junkies

Skye Blackburn makes a living selling expensive bags of powder to gym goers – mainly men in their twenties and thirties.

But in spite of her Walter White-esque science background, she’s no drug dealer. The powder in her bags comprises ground crickets.

Blackburn, owner of the Edible Bug Shop, decided eight years ago to launch an edible insect industry in Australia. She initially assumed her target market was culinary adventurers after a novelty snack. It wasn’t long until she noticed her products – cricket protein powder; roasted mealworms; dehydrated ants – were devoured more eagerly by fitness fanatics than foodies.

Entomophagy’s worker bees

“I resolved to try to convince Australians to start eating insects after a holiday in Thailand, where the locals consume a lot of bugs,” explains Blackburn. “I’ve partnered with celebrity chefs in an attempt to get Australians over ‘the ick factor’ of eating bugs,” she says.

“But it’s now looking like it will be my younger, more open-minded and health-conscious customers who popularise entomophagy [insect eating].”

Blackburn, who studied both food science and entomology at university, currently has around 200 gym goers buying her cricket protein powder. She says these “early adopters” are great advertisements for the benefits of bug eating. “People who are into health and fitness are usually the ones who are willing to experiment with new things, such as the paleo diet. They then encourage their friends and family members to try it.”

Opening a can of worms

The vast majority of Australians – even ones willing to make unpleasant sacrifices to achieve a six-pack – remain revolted by entomophagy.

This disgust would seem to make Blackburn’s ambitions ridiculous, were it not for the fact that it is completely irrational. Humans have been eating insects for millennia. Around a third of the world’s population, mainly located in Africa and Asia, don’t bat an eyelid at the thought of chowing down on locusts, scorpions or caterpillars. Indigenous Australians ate not just witchetty grubs, but also whirligig beetles, wood cockroaches and bibaj, insect larvae found beneath tree bark.

Unless they have all their food raised, stored and prepared in sterile conditions, every Australian has swallowed – albeit usually unknowingly – a goodly amount of cicada wings, cockroach legs and ant thoraxes.

Butterflies in the stomach

If you’re seeking to pack on muscle, you want a diet high in protein, which works to repair the small tears in muscle fibre caused during resistance training. If you don’t want that muscle obscured under flab, you also need your diet to be low in carbs and fat. Which pretty much limits you to skinless chicken or perhaps a lean cut of steak, all washed down with some raw eggs if you want to lash out.

Or there’s insects, which are usually at least 50 per cent protein.

Hannah Brantley is a nutritionist who has also worked as a personal chef and chocolatier. She doesn’t just recommend insect eating to her clients; she does it herself.

“I’m gluten intolerant and eat a fairly paleo diet. When I heard about cricket powder 18 months ago I incorporated it into my diet,” she says. “I was already eating healthily so it’s hard to identify what positive effects it had on me.

“The limited research that has been done on entomophagy shows, as well as being packeted with protein and being a good source of fibre, insects contain lots of other goodies such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, selenium, phosphorus and zinc. Insects have a similar macronutrient ratio to beef.

“So with insects you’re getting the benefits you would from eating meat without the environmental consequences of cattle farming. Entomophagy isn’t a magic bullet, but it is a way for mindful people to get lots of protein without risking putting toxins in their body or damaging the planet.”

Will bug-eating ever fly?

Science student Todd Clarke first heard of Blackburn’s cricket powder six months ago while discussing protein substitutes with a few university friends. After doing some internet research, he decided to experiment.

“I hate the taste of whey protein shakes,” the 25-year-old says. “I don’t compete professionally but I am into bodybuilding and at the gym six days a week. The cricket protein shakes had a mild, nutty flavour and a grainy texture. They were a lot easier to get down prior to a workout than the whey ones.

“But the main reason I’ve stuck with them is that I seem to be gaining more muscle on them. Insects aren’t cheap; a 200-gram bag of cricket protein powder, which lasts me a week, costs $40. But bodybuilding is an expensive hobby in general.”

Clarke has been singing the praises of cricket powder to all his friends. However, Brantley believes a more culturally influential demographic than buff blokes will need to champion chowing down on bugs if entomophagy is going to cross over to the mainstream.

“As population pressure grows, westerners may have no choice but to embrace insects as a source of protein,” she says. “In the short term, foods fall in and out of fashion. If entomophagy is going to become popular, I suspect it will be more due to hipsters raving about eating mealworms at Kylie Kwong’s restaurant than bodybuilders swapping cricket protein shake recipes on internet forums.”