A few weeks ago I watched a TED talk by Mark Bittman entitled ‘What’s Wrong With What We Eat?‘ which highlighted the imbalance in the diets of most developed nations. It would appear our reliance on beef and chicken as a source of sustenance, and fast food has led to an imbalance in our diet with other food stuffs such as fresh fruits and vegetables as well as good old home cooked meals being left behind. I then watched a talk by Marcel Dicke entitled ‘Why Not Eat Insects‘ which focused on getting the audience to reconsider their perception of insects and showed how entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) could solve many of the world’s hunger and malnutrition issues. Although the two talks were not linked, watching them back to back inspired me to find out more about edible insects and whether or not this was just a trend in some high end restaurants (particularly those in South America) or if this was possibly a sustainable and eco-friendly way towards solving malnutrition and hunger.

Coincidentally; a few days later the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a massive new report arguing that we should all have more insects in our diet. This seemed like the right place to start, so I visited their website and downloaded the report entitled ‘Edible Insects; Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security‘.

Perceptions:

Insect eating may be frowned upon in the west but termites, mealybugs, dung beetles, stink bugs, leaf cutter ants, paper wasps, even some species of mosquitoes are all relished by someone, somewhere, suggests the study. Eighty grasshopper species are regularly eaten; in Ghana during the spring rains, winged termites are collected and fried or made into bread. In South Africa they are eaten with a maize porridge. Chocolate-coated bees are popular in Nigeria, certain caterpillars are favoured in Zimbabwe, and rice cooked with crunchy wasps was a favourite meal of the late Emperor Hirohito in Japan.

“In the past there has been a tendency to say insects are for primitive, stupid people. This is nonsense, a misconception that must be corrected,” says lead author Arnold van Huis, who has helped write a Dutch insect recipe book that includes mealyworm pizza and locust ravioli.

Westerners barely know what they are missing, he suggests. Dragonflies boiled in coconut milk with ginger are an Indonesian delicacy; beekeepers in parts of China are considered virile because they eat larvae from their hives, and tarantulas are popular in Cambodia. Europe gave up eating them centuries ago, but Pliny the elder, the Roman scholar, wrote that aristocrats “loved to eat beetle larvae reared on flour and wine” while Aristotle described the best time to harvest cicadas: “The larva on attaining full size becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken. At first the males are better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs,” he wrote.

Nutritional Value:

The authors point out that insects are nutritious, with high protein, fat and mineral content. They are “particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children”. Insects are also “extremely efficient” in converting feed into edible meat. Crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein, according to the report.

Food source Protein (g) Calcium (mg) Iron (mg)
SOURCE: MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY
Caterpillar 28.2 n/a 35.5
Grasshopper 20.6 35.2 5
Dung beetle 17.2 30.9 7.7
Minced beef 27.4 n/a 3.5

 

So far, the UN says that more than 1,900 species of insects have been identified as human food, with insects forming part of the traditional diets of possibly 2 billion people. The most consumed insects are the beetles (468 species), followed by ants, bees and wasps (351), crickets, locusts and cockroaches (267), and butterflies, moths and silkworms (253).

Cost and Environmental Factors:

Most insects are are likely to produce fewer environmentally harmful greenhouse gases than other livestock. The ammonia emissions associated with insect-rearing are far lower than those linked to conventional livestock such as pigs, says the report.

The crunch factor for governments and food producers may be the lower costs. Cattle and poultry are poor at converting food to body weight, but crickets, says the report, need just two kilograms of feed for every one kilogram of weight gained. “In addition, insects can be reared on organic side-streams including human and animal waste, and can help reduce contamination. Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and they require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing,” says the report.

It is because insects are metabolically more efficient that it is potentially far cheaper to raise them om a large scale than any other animal, says Van Huis. But because of the psychological factors [of many people not liking the idea of eating insects directly] the greatest potential in the short term at least, could be to rear insects to provide animal feed, he said.

Eva Muller, director of the FAO’s forest economic policy and products division, which co-authored the report, said: “We are not saying that people should be eating bugs. We are saying that insects are just one resource provided by forests, and insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed.”

Insects, say the authors, are widely misunderstood. “[They] deliver a host of ecological services that are fundamental to the survival of humankind. They play an important role as pollinators in plant reproduction, in improving soil fertility through waste bioconversion, and in natural biocontrol for harmful pest species, and they provide a variety of valuable products for humans such as honey and silk and medical applications such as maggot therapy.”

The Netherlands is now the centre for research into industrial-scale insect rearing with several companies and universities working on ways to scale up production. “The larvae of mealworm species and the superworm are [now] reared as feed for reptile, fish and avian pets [in the Netherlands]. They are also considered particularly fit for human consumption and are offered as human food in specialised shops,” says the report.

Entomophagy and Gastronomy:

In many Latin American countries where insects remain a popular food chef’s such as Alex Atala are also serving up insects as part of refined dishes served. Even European chefs like Noma’s Rene Redzepi have tried to popularize the trend by taking the ‘yuck’ factor out of consuming crawling critters. ”I know it’s taboo to eat bugs in the western world, but why not?” Redzepi told The Guardian news paper. ”You go to south-east Asia and this is a common thing. You read about it from all over the world, that people are eating bugs. If you like mushrooms, you’ve eaten so many worms you cannot imagine. But also we eat honey, and honey is the vomit of a bee. Think of that next time you pour it into your tea.” In fact over the course of one year it is estimated we consume around half a kilo of insects through processed foods.

 

Eating Insects food Infographic

By Jozef Youssef