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At Edible Insects Festival, students squash the ick factor and dive fork first into the future

Slices of kiwi are topped with mealworms during the Edible Insects Festival.
Slices of kiwi are topped with mealworms during the Edible Insects Festival.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

MEDFORD — If anyone’s ever told you to go eat worms, it probably wasn’t from the kindness of their heart. Joseph Yoon is lovingly, sincerely begging you to eat some bugs.

As executive director of Brooklyn Bugs, an organization aiming to educate the masses about eating the world’s most diverse group of organisms, Yoon has become the Sam-I-Am of edible insects.

Before a crowd at Tufts University’s Edible Insects Festival last Wednesday, he wondered what it would take to entice the timid. Would you eat bugs on your favorite dish? How about paired with fish? Would you eat them for your well-being? What if you could eat one without seeing?

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Yoon wants to know and he must try. Because beyond the novelty or intrigue, this, he says, is war — one he’s fighting on behalf of the earth.

“Did you guys know that the livestock industry creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all of our transportation?” Yoon asked his audience. “Would that make you consider an alternative protein source that only creates a fraction of those greenhouse gas emissions?”

He’s referring, of course, to insects, which give off fewer greenhouse gas emissions than most livestock, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They’re also reported to require less feed to create the same amount of meat. In 2013, the FAO published a report that endorsed entomophagy — the practice of eating bugs — as a more eco-friendly, healthy way to feed a rapidly growing world.

Sara Lewis, a professor of biology at Tufts, is teaching a course about edible insects using that report for the first time this year.

“We’ve read the whole thing this semester and we’ve had a whole variety of insect snacks,” Lewis said. “We’ve had caterpillars. We’ve had crickets. We’ve had mealworms. We’ve had, obviously, chocolate chip cookies that are made with cricket flour. We’ve had Chirps Chips. And the students actually really prefer the snacks that actually feature the insect, nothing disguised for them.”

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That’s the kind of enthusiasm Yoon wants to spread. But for many Americans, there’s still a considerable hurdle: “the ick factor.” It’s a term used to describe the cultural and psychological barriers that stop individuals from eating insects. It’s why you can, say, report a piece about edible insects for nearly a week and have some visceral reservations about biting into a cricket.

“It’s definitely not a rational thing,” Lewis said. “Part of it is a neophobia. So, you know, many people just don’t like to try new foods, and a lot of it seems to be learned.”

Around the world, at least 2 billion people already eat insects regularly. In order for Americans to catch up, Yoon said, there needs to be a shift in perception. It could be commercials with families grilling cricket burgers, influencers sharing bug-filled meals, a whole new vocabulary for eating insects.

At Tufts, the shift looked like Thursday’s “BugFeast,” a dinner prepared with Brooklyn Bugs recipes. The space was set up like a cocktail party, but the only drinks available were Cricket Hopper Tea (cricket powder, honey, ice tea) and Mealworm Sours (mealworm powder, lemon, lime, honey, maraschino cherry). Neither tasted all that unique, but they were an easy way to dip my tongue into the edible insect pond without munching on exoskeleton.

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Guests weren’t just curious. They were hungry. Servers arrived with trays full of food, only to be swarmed within seconds. I managed to snag a portion of Cricket Japchae, a Korean dish with cellophane noodles, bell peppers, shiitake mushrooms, onions, and crickets.

The crickets weren’t disguised, but they were easier to overlook within the medley. Crunching into them wasn’t unpleasant, but it was noticeable, sort of like biting into a popcorn kernel, only chalkier. Overall, I’m not sure I would’ve noticed them too much if I weren’t trying to.

“We’re not jimmying [these dishes] full of crickets because we’re really trying to introduce this as food,” Yoon said. “Something that’s not just like, ‘look at how many bugs we could put on there,’ but just to demonstrate, wow, we can cook it into an egg dish, we can top it off on your favorite vegetarian noodle dish. We’re really trying to demonstrate how easy it can be for you to apply these dishes at home.”

For those now interested in trying their first bug, crickets are a popular choice. Professor Lewis has a different suggestion.

“I really, really like mealworms,” Lewis said. “They are a little bit crunchy. They have a great nutty flavor. They’re delicious sprinkled on salads. They’re much, much better than croutons.”


Jenni Todd can be reached at jenni.todd@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenniRTodd.