When I was a little boy, I read a funny children’s book called How to Eat Fried Worms. This book was made into a movie in 2006. Billy, the main character, makes a bet that he can eat fifteen worms in fifteen days. The worms get cooked up in all sorts of interesting ways and as it becomes certain that Billy will win the bet the boys he placed the bet with try to make the challenge harder and harder. But, as a parent, you’d ask: Is this safe? Can people eat worms? Billy’s parents asked the doctor, and then took it in stride, even helping him.
The Western World sees worms as disgusting and inedible. They are something that lives in waste and eats into your brain after you die. They are potent enough to have been a lynchpin in the portrayal of fast food as dirty and evil, and legends of the McWorm Buger forced McDonald’s to print full-page ads in newspapers on the West Coast, where the legend was most active (discussed below). If you’ve ever bought a small bucket of nightcrawlers for bait, though, you’d know that beef is a whole lot cheaper and McDonald’s would not make money off a worm burger. Mealworms, the larval form of the mealworm beetle, or Tenebrio molitor, which is also a perfectly edible by humans, and used in some cultures, have also been said to have been a protein source in McDonald’s burgers. Again, this would make for one expensive burger.
In Consuming the Inedible: Neglected Dimensions of Food Choice, the authors recount an American folk song, which apparently came from a 1930’s cartoon called “Minnie the Moocher,” where the miserable European immigrant child sang 1:
I know what I’ll do by and by
I’ll eat some worms, and then I’ll die
And when I’m gone, just wait you see
They’ll all be sorry that they picked on me
And then another children’s song:
Nobody loves me
Everybody hates me
Think I’ll go eat worms
The worms crawl in
The worms crawl out
They eat your guts
And spit them out
So, eating worms, as far as these chants are concerned, is eating the inedible, not only as a rebellious act, but as suicidal one. And lots of kids, similar to Billy, have eaten a worm on a dare, or even gotten one shoved down their throat by bullies. To no ill effects. If worms weren’t such a symbol, the gummy worm would never have been so successful! But this is a hangup of the West. People in other parts of the world eat worms, grubs, and insects, not as a matter of survival, but with enthusiasm.
The fact is that all species of earthworms are edible by humans. They are considered a delicacy by the Maoris of New Zealand. They even make them into pies in Japan. They are eaten also in parts of Africa, New Guinea, and, it is believed, South America. In the Philippines, the Perionyx excavatus species is bred in vegetable waste and then processed with herbs and seasoning to make steaklets for humans to eat. There was also a food supplement called Eugeton, made out of cultured African Nightcrawlers. They have also been used for medicinal purposes. 2 Earthworms may also be a valuable source of high protein food for livestock, and of course, they are fish food.
Pygmy Chimpanzees regularly eat earthworms, as well, but it is hard to understand why. They will dig for them, by hand, for hours, and they do not get a lot for such a labor-intensive and long foraging session. Perhaps even more weird is the fact that they hardly seem to chew them at all, and the worms remain intact in the feces. 3 They probably do not get much nutrition from them so perhaps they like the feel of them slivering down their throats! Bonobos and Gorillas eat them as well, but I have found no reference as to whether they chew them or not.
But if you were to chew, the earthworm, pound for pound, is packed with protein, at 82% of the body weight of the worm. You’ll also be eating the decaying organic matter inside them. They eat soil, which is ground in a gizzard, and then the waste is ejected as a casting out their rear end. These castings are used to line the burrow or are deposited at the entrance. Anything in the soil, including pesticides and parasites, could be inside the worm.
Earthworms harbor infectious parasites.
Our canine friends sometimes like to munch on them, but note that it is dangerous dangerous for dogs to eat earthworms.
If there are pesticides in the soil, they will be in the worm. And of course, any bacteria, etc. So, you may want to think twice before rushing to the backyard to forage for earthworms to nibble on and if you may want to try to stop your dog from eating them, if possible.
Generally, when earthworms are eaten, the soil is first removed from the gut of the worms and they are cooked by boiling, baking, or other cooking method to a temperature that is sufficient to kill most parasites.
Are Nightcrawlers Edible?
Large and robust earthworms known as nightcrawlers are the most common type of earthworm in the United States and they are as edible as any other earthworm. Their scientific name is actually Lumbricus terrestris. In Britain this is called the lob worm or common earthworm, and in Europe it might be called simply the red worm. In Canada they are called the dew worm or Grandaddy Earthworm. Ironically, the “common” nightcrawler in North America is an invasive, introduced species. In fact, a great many of the earthworms found in the United States, 45 to 60 species or more, were introduced. The nightcrawler, the largest of these invasive earthworms, came to North America with European settlers, along with others, beginning in the 16th century. These worms probably arrived in the soil used as ballast on ships, or on the root balls of plants. They continued to arrive with imported ornamental plants, but also as intentional and permitted importations of live bait into the the U.S from Canada.8 If you are old enough to remember that old commercial jingle on the TV show WKRP, you know another of the most common introduced species: “Red wrigglers, the Cadillac of worms!”
Red wrigglers were what were usually sold as bait or for composting, when I was growing up in the South…at least as far as I can remember, and we sometimes found them in the ground. But the nightcrawler was by far the most plentiful, and was easier to find, especially when it was growing dark, at which time they come closer to the surface.
We usually think of earthworms as beneficial to the soil, however, these invasive species can be destructive when introduced into areas where earthworms did not exist before, especially in forests, where there decomposing action on the leaf litter can alter the ecology in such a way as to make the environment unsuitable for certain trees and plants. Earthworms do not normally spread very quickly if left to their own devices, but they are easily helped along by humans, such as fishermen who dump leftover bait worms onto the ground.
Worm Burger Controversy
When I was a kid, maybe around the time I was reading How to Eat Fried Worms, there was an urban legend circulating: McDonald’s hamburgers were made with ground worms, meaning, of course, earthworms. In fact, the rumor originally started about Wendy’s but was switched to McDonalds, since the chain was so much larger.
More recently, in 2012, a Russian woman claimed that her McDonald’s hamburger was full of worms. 4 This was never substantiated and, of course, the urban legend about ground worm burgers is just a myth. It plays on the image of fast food as garbage that is destructive to our bodies. Worms are a symbol of both waste and inner rot, a perfect metaphor for the perception that fast food franchises knowingly sell us dangerous food. 5
A ground worm burger, as you can see from reading this, would not cause such controversy everywhere in the world. McDonald’s in some countries might be able to develop just such a burger! (Additional sources: 6 7 8)
You may also be interested: Are Grasshoppers Edible?
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- MacClancy, Jeremy, C. J. K. Henry, and Helen M. Macbeth. Consuming the Inedible: Neglected Dimensions of Food Choice. New York: Berghahn, 2009.
- Sims, R. W., and B. M. Gerard. Earthworms: Keys and Notes for the Identification and Study of the Species. London: Published for the Linnean Society of London and the Estuarine and Brackish-Water Sciences Association by E.J. Brill, 1985.
- Kanō, Takayoshi. The Last Ape: Pygmy Chimpanzee Behavior and Ecology. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992.
- Chaykovskaya, Evgeniya. “McDonald’s Denies Worms in Their Hamburgers.” The Moscow News. N.p., 24 July 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.
- De, Vos Gail. Tales, Rumors, and Gossip: Exploring Contemporary Folk Literature in Grades 7-12. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.
- Edwards, C. A., P. J. Bohlen, and C. A. Edwards. Biology and Ecology of Earthworms. London: Chapman & Hall, 1996
- Woodward, Susan L., and Joyce Ann. Quinn. Encyclopedia of Invasive Species: From Africanized Honey Bees to Zebra Mussels. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.
- Kahn, Cynthia M. The Merck Manual / Merial Manual for Pet Health. Whithouse Station, NJ: Merck, 2007.