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The new beetlemania: Raising bugs for human consumption

Tourists and locals are buzzing, so to speak, about an item on the menu at the highly regarded Toloache Mexican restaurants in New York City: tacos made with dried grasshoppers brought in from Mexico's Oaxaca state.

The chapulines are lightly sautéed and served with onions, cilantro, jalapeño, salsa verde and a little bit of guacamole, according to the restaurant's event manager, Temple Kemezis.

Some customers, she told CBS MoneyWatch, will try to prank each other with the grasshopper tacos or eat them on a dare. But others, she said, "really enjoy them and will order another."

Are edible insects the future of nutrition?

She added that patrons of Mexican descent are excited to discover "a taste of Mexico that reminds them of their childhood."

Insects as food goes well beyond trendy dishes served in America's big-city restaurants. With the world's human population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, researchers and businesses are closely scrutinizing some bug varieties as a new sources of protein.

According to a 2013 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), insects are already part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people around the world, with more than 1,900 species used for food.

The FAO also noted that, along with producing high-quality protein, insects require far fewer resources than traditional livestock. For example, it said, crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and two times less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. They also produce fewer greenhouse gases, ammonia and other waste products.

The FAO said insect "mini-livestock" is also quite versatile as a food source because it can be eaten directly, mixed in with other foods or used as feed for meat-producing animals.

All well and good, especially in places where insects have long been on the menu, But will most Americans and other Westerners put aside their old-school hamburgers for a patty made from ground-up mealworms?

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), France, Belgium and the Netherlands have already begun risk assessments regarding the use of insects as food or feed. And earlier this week the EFSA noted the importance of identifying possible biological, chemical, environmental and allergy hazards when looking at the future of "farmed" insects for human consumption.

Raising insects on an industrial scale is already taking place in some parts of the U.S. and Canada.

Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio, founded last year, now produces around 8,000 pounds of crickets per month, most of which are sold to restaurants and health food companies. But CEO Kevin Bachhuber hopes to at least triple that capacity in the near future.

"We're constantly slammed by orders. We simply can't keep up," Bachhuber told the Associated Press in April. "The speed at which people have been willing to eat bugs is crazy. It's cool."

Big Cricket's website also points out the cost-efficiency of raising its crickets, which use only about two pounds of feed and one gallon of water for each pound of usable meat they produce. In comparison, beef requires about 25 pounds of feed and 2,000 gallons of water for each pound of meat produced.

Last November, an industrial cricket farmer in Ontario, Canada, told the CBC he was selling cricket flour for $40 Canadian (at the time, about $45 U.S.) per pound. And he said raising insects for human consumption is a market worth around $25 million U.S. in North America.

Analysts suggest that many Americans appear ready to at least consider the idea of putting insects on the menu. According to a survey conducted in June by San Francisco-based Blueshift Research, nearly one-third of the more than 1,100 people polled said they were "likely" to buy an edible product with an insect-based ingredient.

Blueshift also noted that information on edible insects and related products "has exploded" over the past year. And given the low-fat, low-carb and high nutritional levels of most insect meat, the firm believes it's just a "matter of time" until U.S. consumers open up to the idea of sampling or even regularly consuming insects.

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