If you want to try something new for Thanksgiving, Matthew Krisiloff has a suggestion: add some insects to the meal.
Many Americans would respond to such a suggestion with a definite "Ew, no thanks," but not Krisiloff. The University of Chicago freshman is the president of Entom Foods, a startup encouraging people to seriously consider insects as a food source. He and four other students started the company last year.
Entom Foods aims to make Americans feel more comfortable eating bugs by removing elements that turn many people off — eyes, wings, legs and crunchy exoskeletons. Eventually, the company hopes to produce processed bug-based foods, such as insect cutlets. Krisiloff hopes marketing the insects in a familiar form will remove the "ick" factor and encourage more people to add insects to their diets.
The company plans to market insects such as crickets, mealworms and grasshoppers, which are already farmed commercially for use as animal feed.
Entom Foods is still investigating different methods for processing the insects. One possibility is high-pressure processing, a technology used in the shellfish industry. In this process, a machine is used to break the bond between the exoskeleton and the protein inside.
"That's practical for shellfish like lobster and shrimp, but we're not sure if it would be economical for insects, just because they're so much smaller," Krisiloff said. "There would be a lot more manual labor, because incisions still have to be made to extract the meat."
While they research processing options, Krisiloff and his colleagues are also educating people on the benefits of adding insects to their diets.
According to Krisiloff, these insects are more environmentally sustainable than traditional livestock.
"From every 10 kilograms of livestock feed, you can produce about one kilogram of beef," he said. "For every 10 kilograms of feed, you can produce anywhere between seven and nine kilograms of insect meat. That's a significantly larger yield than traditional livestock."
When it comes to nutritional value, some insects have as many nutrients as conventional sources of protein. Grasshoppers, for example, have 20.6 grams of protein per 100 grams of insect, compared with the 25.8 grams of protein provided by an equivalent amount of lean beef.
Every 100 grams of grasshopper contains 35.2 milligrams of calcium, about three times the amount found in beef.
According to Krisiloff, the flavor isn't bad, either. The most delicious insect he's tried so far is male bee larvae.
"They taste kind of like a combination of honey and bacon," he said. "They're very tasty. You just sauté them, don't even have to add any seasonings or anything."
The insect may be delicious, but Krisiloff doesn't advocate consuming it in mass quantities just yet because an epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder has ravaged bee populations in recent years.
Krisiloff hopes to change this in the future, though. He's working with a beekeeper to come up with a more sustainable way to produce his favorite insect.
Meanwhile, Krisiloff suggests sampling other insects, including the giant water bug, which he says tastes like a green apple.
Krisiloff said despite the environmental, nutritional and culinary advantages of eating bugs, erasing the stigma surrounding insects will be a challenge.
The practice of consuming insects, also known as entomophagy, is common in many countries, but bugs have never been a staple of American diets. Rob Walker, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri, said this is because people make culinary choices based on return rates.
"Return rate is how many calories you're going to get out of a food, divided by the amount of time it takes to get it," he said.
People consume the foods with the highest available return rates, and essentially ignore everything else.
"In some places in the world, there are insects that are large and not all that hard to get," Walker said. "In those places, you find these nice insects that are good to eat, and people, sure enough, will eat them."
One such place is Paraguay, where palm grubs are large and plentiful. The insects congregate in rotting logs, so it's easy to harvest a bunch at once.
They have a high return rate, too. An hour of harvesting and preparation yields 1,500 to 2,400 kilocalories' worth of food, making the insects a popular protein source for Paraguayans.
To get that kind of return rate from grocery stores in America, however, insects need a boost in their palatability factor — with or without wings.