What Do Ants Taste Like? (Bitter, Sweet, Spicy??)

The eating of insects – or entomophagy, from the Greek entomos (insect) and phagein (to eat) – is often lauded as the new necessity for everyone who wants to have a diet that goes with an ecologically aware and healthy lifestyle. But, when people chose their food, it is not only important that it is nutritious and sustainably sourced, almost everybody places a higher emphasis on taste.  

What do ants taste like? It is often said that some ants taste spicy, sour, our even citrusy, similar to lemons. The reason for this is the acid that ants contain, which they use to defend themselves against predators. This acid is of course not dangerous to eat – just like citrus fruit are not dangerous, unless you are allergic to them.

Renowned science writer and insect chef David George Gordon, who wrote the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, describes the taste of ants as “like cracked pepper” and adds that the “exotic flavor” is “almost impossible to describe.” 

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Often, when you prepare insects for eating you will combine them with other food items as well as spices in a way that makes them less notable for their taste and more for adding a crunchy texture to your meal. Especially for beginner entomophagists who do not want to think too much about what they are eating right now, this is a good way for easing into it. 

An interesting aspect of some insects is how you can feed them in a way that makes them taste like whatever you want. Proponents of this very modern way of eating suggest that you rear larvae yourself and add chili flakes, pepper, or anything else to their feed, that you would like to taste. 

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Since When Have Humans Been Eating Insects? 

Eating insects is not as rare as you might think when you have been socialized in the cultural West. For about two billion people in the world, insects form part of the normal, everyday diet! When you think of it, even Westerners are not even that far removed from eating insects. After all, they eat shrimp and lobsters, which are closely related to insects, since they are all arthropods – invertebrates with an exoskeleton. 

The pre-historic hunters and gatherers ate insects to survive, but questions of taste might have been the least of their concerns. Contrary to the Ancient Romans which are known for their decadent lifestyle – and they, too, loved feasting on insects! In the first century, Pliny the Elder wrote about how the aristocrats loved a dish called cossus, which was prepared with larvae that have been fed with flour and wine. 

Formica rufa, also known as the red wood ant
Formica rufa, also known as the red wood ant

In the fourth century, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about the most delicious time in the life cycle of a cicada. He recommends females just after eating when they are filled with eggs. 

Even the Bible recommends in the Old Testament to eat locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers. 

Rather than asking when and why humans have been eating insects, it makes more sense to ask why some Western societies ever stopped eating insects! An often-cited reason is the advent of agriculture. The consumption of meat replaced the consumption of insects since cattle and other livestock had more uses aside from their purpose as food.

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While you can eat a grasshopper, you cannot drink its milk or get fur and leather from it. Additionally, there was a growing aversion towards insects since they were now mostly considered for the damage they did to crops. As cities grow and some urbanized areas exhibited a high population density with a low living standard insects also were known for carrying diseases. 

This explanation is not perfect, though, since it does not explain the continued eating of insects even in contemporary agricultural and urban areas. 

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Is Eating Insects Healthy? 

Yes, it is. Insects are low in fat, a good source of protein, and contain lots of vitamins like iron and zinc as well as essential fatty acids like Omega-3. 

In some cultures, insects are ascribed medical properties. In the famous Compendium of Materia Medica, a Chinese medical handbook written by Li Shizen in the times of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), there are a lot of recipes containing insects. 

As Richard Vane-Wright argues, a walk through a supermarket will show you that Westerners live on a very limited diet when it comes to the meat, fish, fruits, and also vegetables they consume. Opposed to the small selection of food items you will find in a supermarket, there are 22 000 insect species in the UK alone! Aside from their benefits with regards to sustainability and health, insects could well add a greater variety to our eating.