Bugs give us the willies.
We cringe when we watch “Fear Factor.” We close our eyes during “Arachnophobia” and quiver in our seats during that scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” (You know, the one where Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw are covered in thousands of crawling, slithering insects? Ick.)
When we see a spider crawling down the wall or spy a mealworm in our pantry, we freak. Papillion-La Vista schools recalled food from nine district elementary schools and St. Columbkille Catholic School on Wednesday after sawtoothed grain beetles were found in soup. School officials sent boxes of noodles back to their distributor.
But other parts of the world — lots of other parts, where eating bugs is common — people would tell us to get over it. Even some Americans enjoy a good chocolate-covered ant or fried worm. And most of us eat bugs without even knowing it.
In far-flung countries (and just south of the border), people eat waterbugs, silkworms, mealworms, termites, grasshoppers, stinkbugs, beetle grubs, honey bees and honeypot ants. And that's only a few of the delicacies.
In some regions of Mexico, you can buy sauteed grasshoppers or pizza with stinkbugs on it, said Leon Higley, a professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who lectures on insects and nutrition.
Two hot spots for insect consumption are Africa and Southeast Asia. In Thailand and Vietnam, giant waterbugs are sauteed and served on a skewer. In parts of Africa, native people fish for termites, which may be one of the oldest human foods, Higley said.
You gag at the thought, but it's a cultural thing.
“It's not based on anything very rational,” Higley said. “In our culture, insects don't belong to that group of things one eats. In other cultures, they do.”
But Americans do eat bugs — some intentionally, some not so intentionally.
Hollywood Candy carries Hot Lix suckers, which contain scorpions, tequila worms, crickets and other insects. The shop at 12th and Jackson Streets in the Old Market also has Crick-Ettes and Larvets, small boxes of dried insects that come in flavors such as Salt N' Vinegar and Bacon & Cheese. A Hollywood Candy employee said the bugs, which have a Rice Krispie-type texture, are mostly popular with kids who dare their friends to try them.
Distributors have tried — without success — to persuade the Old Market Candy Shop to carry prepackaged chocolate-covered bugs.
“We'd rather sell our customers things we'd eat ourselves,” said Jeff Jorgenson, co-owner of the shop at 10th and Howard. “People talk about them, but they never ask for them.”
At pet stores, some people buy bugs to cook at home, including the mealworms Higley once ate. Sauteed, the bugs had a crunch, but he wasn't a big fan. Whatever seasonings they're cooked with are the dominant flavor, he said.
Omahan Adam Desanto ate insects for the first time a few weeks ago. He was in Thailand and tried crickets and grubs. He said it was fun.
“Once we saw the street bug cart, we had to try it,” he said. “It tasted like soy popcorn.”
Most people eat some insects unknowingly.
This is where you should be prepared to get grossed out: Though folks might not order a plate of bugs, Higley said they're still in everyday food.
“All human beings eat quite a few insects,” he said. “That's especially true of Americans eating a diet of processed foods. There's literally — and I mean that in the true sense of the word — no way to keep them out.”
The federal government has standards for how many insect parts are acceptable in food, and many producers have entomologists on staff.
For instance, FDA guidelines state that chocolate is safe with less than 60 insect fragments per 100 grams. That means one 1.55-ounce Hershey bar is considered safe if it has 25 insect fragments or fewer. According to an ABC News report, the average chocolate bar contains eight insect parts.
Experts say most people who are allergic to chocolate are actually allergic to cockroach parts found in it. The insects are attracted to cocoa beans. Tiny, ground-up insect parts often show up in items made from cocoa beans.
On the other hand, the presence of insects actually can tell you your food is safe.
If you've eaten grape jelly, you've probably consumed fruit flies or fruit fly eggs, Higley said. Treating grapevines with more insecticide — a lot more — would keep bugs out of your jelly but would greatly increase the chemical content in the condiment.
Regardless of whether you want to eat insects, if you need to eat them for survival, they're not bad nutritionally.
They can be high in protein. (They're also low in fat and are extremely low in carbohydrates, though at crunch time you probably don't care about that.) Each 100 grams of caterpillars, for example, contains 28.2 grams of protein and negligible fat and carbohydrate content, according to the Iowa State University entomology department website.
Beetle grubs, for example, are highly nutritious, nontoxic and found in nearly every part of the world.
So if you're ever stuck in a jungle or stranded on an island, turn up some grass or a rock, look for the C-shaped white larvae and dig in.
Just be careful.
“Sometimes, they live under rotten logs, which is kind of a good scorpion habitat,” Higley said, laughing.
Contact the writer: email@example.com, 402-444-1557, twitter.com/owhmusicguy