Thanksgiving is a traditional American holiday. As the name suggests, the holiday is a time to be thankful. Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration held on the fourth Thursday of November. The Thanksgiving celebration has been around for some time. Many people trace the origins of the holiday to 1621 when the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Mass., had a little get-together. Of course, the holiday has changed a bit since then. We now get out of school and have parades and festivals.
Thanksgiving also marks the start of the Christmas season. At least, that was the case in the past. But now Christmas decorations are found in abundance in most stores weeks before Thanksgiving. Even what is purported to be the largest shopping day of the year - Black Friday - is now being pushed earlier. We can’t even get our Thanksgiving feast eaten, much less digested, before grabbing our credit cards and heading out for a purchasing foray.
But the hallmark of Thanksgiving to many of us is that it’s a time when we join with families and friends for a special meal. Traditionally, that menu has included turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, a vegetable or two, and pumpkin pie for dessert. Almost any type of food might be included. Almost.
One type of food you are unlikely to find on the Thanksgiving menu is something of the insect variety. To be sure, some arthropods do end up crossing our pallets on this day. So do a few shrimp, a crayfish or two, maybe even a lobster. We have also been known to consume some bivalve mollusks called oysters in our turkey dressing. But no insects!
Around the rest of the world, however, festivals that involve food are more likely to incorporate insect fare. Some Oriental cultures consume silkworm pupae. Mopane worms, caterpillars that feed on the mopane trees of southern Africa, are commonly eaten in that part of the world. Caterpillars called maguey worms, the immature forms of a butterfly, are a food item in Mexico.
Here in North America, the Native Americans who participated in the first Thanksgiving feast with the Pilgrims probably had chowed down on cicadas. Large populations of periodical cicadas provided an abundance of food just for the picking. Great populations of migratory locusts during Biblical times were a food item for people, including John the Baptist.
When it comes to our modern Thanksgiving celebration, we shun insects as a food item. Or so we think. As it turns out, insects probably creep into our Thanksgiving cuisine anyway. Almost any food item that is plant derived has the possibility of containing a few insect parts. That is because insects feed on plants, and it is almost impossible to keep plants entirely free of insects. So some insect pieces and parts are likely to end up in any product that comes from plants.
Because of this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has included insects in the guidelines for contaminants in the food we eat. The information is found in the “Defect Levels Handbook” subtitled “Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in food that present no health hazard to humans.”
For example, apple butter can have an average of five or more whole or equivalent - pieces and parts - insects per 100 grams. Those ground spices also come with a bit of an added kick. Ten grams of ground spices can have up to 30 insect fragments included. Tomato paste can have the following in 100 grams: 30 fly eggs or 15 fly eggs and one maggot, or two fly maggots. Any amount above these limits means that the item has reached the “defect level.” Any amount below that is permissible to consume.
So it is almost certain that your Thanksgiving meal contains a few insects, either whole or in bits and pieces. Don’t think of your meal as contaminated; just think of it as containing a little added protein and vitamins. On the other hand, if you claim you are a vegetarian just because you only consume plants, you might want to reconsider the accuracy of that statement!