Getting over the “yuck factor” wasn’t the hardest thing for Camren Brantley-Rios, the 21-year-old college student whose pledge to eat insects three times daily for an entire month — a personal challenge chronicled on his blog, 30 Days of Bugs — made international headlines. Locating enough ants, crickets and other crawly critters to ingest wasn’t terribly difficult, either. The biggest challenge, he says, was the actual cooking.
“I had never really cooked before doing this,” confesses Brantley-Rios, a graduating senior at Alabama’s Auburn University. Despite that inexperience in the kitchen, his experimental and attention-grabbing diet turned out to be a culinary success, thanks to his friends and classmates, who proved eager to try out recipes ranging from earthworm omelets to deep-fried tarantulas.
“I feel great that I actually finished the month,” says Brantley-Rios, who completed his 30-day invertebrate diet back on February 28. “The last week was hard. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”
It all started as something of an accident, but it has turned into a passion for Brantley-Rios. The idea originated over the winter, when he was seized with a desire to do something good for the world, something that would utilize his studies in public relations. “I stumbled upon an article about entomophagy and thought it was cool,” he says. “I’d never heard of it in regard to sustainability.”
Brantley-Rios kept reading, especially Daniela Martin’s popular Girl Meets Bugs blog. He learned that bugs are an excellent source of protein, consumed by cultures around the world including in Mexico and Thailand. He also learned about the environmental perks, how farming insects takes less energy and less water than, say, cattle or chicken. Martin gave him some tips on where he could order bugs, and he dug right in, enlisting friends to help him in the kitchen. “It’s a good conversation starter: ‘Wanna come over for dinner and eat bugs?’” Brantley-Rios says. “It’s cool to see people’s reactions.”
Within a few days of launching, his 30 Days of Bugs website had generated significant local and national media attention, and makers of insect foods were sending him products, like cricket granola, cricket protein bars, and cricket powder for smoothies. Brantley-Rios became a sort of voluntary brand ambassador for these products, showcasing his daily eats with photos accompanied by stories about cooking with friends and offering discount codes so his readers could buy the products online.
The month started out with Brantley-Rios mostly eating crickets, which don’t look terribly unappetizing, and mealworms, which are creepy and crawly but still palatable. Within a few weeks, however, he was taking on the ultimate mental challenge: cockroaches.
“Eating cockroaches was necessary, because at some point you get bored eating just crickets and worms every day,” he says. “You need to switch it up.” The roaches proved to be an interesting alternative. “It’s confusing because it felt gross, but it tasted good,” he says with a laugh. “No one’s really a big fan of cockroaches.” It took him three days to find the courage to eat the roaches, which he sourced from a farmer in Oregon. (While roaches might be a familiar sight in the stereotypically slobby environs of student housing, insect gourmands prefer to source “food-grade” specimens from legitimate commercial producers.) He and a friend prepared the roaches by sautéing them with rosemary, thyme, garlic, onion and mushrooms.
Although eating insects was entirely new to Brantley-Rios, interest in the practice has been steadily increasing in recent years, even here in the United States. And the college crowd has played an active role. Consider the case of Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz, who founded Exo Protein, which manufactures a line of energy bars made from cricket flour, during their senior year at Brown University in 2013. That was the same year that the United Nations put out a 200-page report about edible insects, which notably became the most downloaded UN report ever. (Read our interview with Exo’s consulting chef, Kyle Connaughton, here.)
Sewitz attributes the company’s success to a confluence of microtrends beyond mere interest in insects. Above all, he notes, protein is the leading trend in the food industry, partly because of the anti-carb movement. “Bugs are the most paleo protein you can find,” says Sewitz. He describes “a perfect storm of things that make the moment ripe for edible bugs,” including “the rise of foodie culture, chefs as celebrities, adventurous nose-to-tail eating in the fine-dining world.”
The acclaimed Noma in Copenhagen was one of the first big-name restaurants to put insects on the menu, and its proprietor, René Redzepi, has written for Time about insects’ potential role in our food system. The fact is, if insects are going to be part of a global solution to a rapidly expanding population and an agricultural system largely dependent on unlimited water and energy, there need to be more chefs like René Redzepis, and more eaters like Camren Brantley-Rios.
For now, Brantley-Rios is looking forward to postcollege life, starting with an unpaid internship in public relations in his native San Francisco Bay Area, where he’ll be moving back in with his parents. It’s a housing situation that he claims to be actually looking forward to, he says, because his dad is a good cook, and he’s hoping they’ll work on some insect recipes together. Plus, Brantley-Rios has heard about a food truck in San Francisco called Don Bugito, which sells worm and cricket tacos. And though he doesn’t have enough capital right now, Brantley-Rios fantasizes about operating his own “bug burger” truck someday. After all, he says, the mealworm burgers he made with his friends turned out pretty tasty.
Read more about edible insects on Food Republic: