It’s the Pitts
By Lee Pitts
WARNING! Do not read this column if you are about to eat or have just eaten. It may cause headache, diarrhea, constipation, cramping, bloating and nausea.
Professors at Wonkwang University in South Korea are testing ways to replace beef with meat made from mealworms. Baked or fried mealworms are now eaten in a few countries as snacks, although I don’t think we’ll be seeing Mealworm Doritos® at the next Super Bowl party nor can I see people picking through the peanuts for mealworms as if they were cashews in the Planter’s® Party Mix.
This story raises several troubling questions. First, if you were a doctor would you hang your diploma on the wall if you graduated from a place called Wonkwang University? And what the heck is a mealworm anyway?
I’m glad you asked. A mealworm is the larval stage of the yellow mealworm beetle. They do have a brain and mealworms were the first organisms to circle the moon back in 1968 which has been described as “one small step for mealworms.” They are successfully being raised in labs and also in people’s unkempt houses. (They are said to love Cheerios®, but then, who doesn’t?)
One problem the scientists ran into is that inbreeding such as occurs in a lab really hurts the female’s sex appeal and is a real turn-off to male mealworms. They are commonly used to feed reptiles, fish, birds and are also used for fish bait. So, in this brave new world of the future are we now going to be reduced to eating fish bait? Really? If you want to eat a few I recommend you look up Bassett’s Cricket Ranch where you can get 1,000 mealworms for only $15.99. Bassett’s got high marks for their mealworms although one online critic described them as “putrid, smelly and terrible,” and another said, “If you’re easily grossed out they may not be for you.”
Mealworms are nocturnal and gregarious creatures that are mostly vegetarian but do occasionally go off their diet and eat each other. The cannibals also feed on dead or dying birds and can pass along salmonella, E. coli and numerous other diseases that could threaten your life if you eat too many. If ranchers have the stomach for it, they can get a good look at their competition on the internet. To me mealworms look like a bunch of disgusting maggots at an orgy, crawling all over each other.
One thing mealworms can do that cows haven’t shown an aptitude for yet is they can eat plastic. That’s right, they can digest polystyrene which is a thermoplastic substance and get this, mealworms taste exactly the same whether they’ve been fed Cheerios® or a diet of plastic.
To feed the ever-growing mass of humanity on earth it’s been suggested that cattle ranchers could easily transition into mealworm ranchers and admittedly, I can see some advantages. You wouldn’t have to be constantly worried about a drought, mealworms require little in the way of fencing, they have few, if any, difficult births and even if they are hard calvers who cares? After all, the lady mealworm can give birth to over 500 offspring during her short life, which is more than you can say about your average cow. And if you threw a bunch of empty plastic bottles off the feed truck instead of expensive hay I’m pretty sure the cows wouldn’t eat it.
I have doubts about this entire mealworm-as-human-food concept though and can’t see ranchers selling their cows and buying mealworms. First of all, I doubt the mealworms would survive the branding. Instead of cowboy poets descending every year on Elko, I doubt we’ll hear from mealworm poets, after all, what rhymes with mealworms? I wonder, will there be a mealworm checkoff and will the Cowboy Hall of Fame be expanded to include the lowly mealworm?
South Korean scientists know Americans would never willingly eat mealworms so they suggest a sneaky approach in which the worms could be hidden in savory seasonings “as a way to change consumer’s minds.” They suggest using mealworms as condiments in the same way we use salt and pepper. Can’t you just imagine someone at a dinner party saying, “Please pass the salt and the mealworms.” Or, a chef tasting his latest creation and saying, “Um, I think it needs a pinch more worms.”