In 2013, the United Nations suggested that using insects as a food source may reduce agricultural burdens on the environment and boost food security for the world’s growing global population (BBC.com, 2013). This post explores the concept of eating insects (entomophagy) as a potentially healthy, sustainable source of nutrition and protein. What are the claims? What is the evidence? In a future post I will explore what the scriptures say concerning eating insects… (Turns out…quite a bit!), as well as my own experience.
Claims made concerning edible insects
Everyone is doing it–except you…and most Americans…: According to the website Exoprotein.com, a company specializing in protein bars, powders and snacks featuring crickets as a primary ingredient, crickets are “the closest thing to a perfect protein source this planet has ever seen” (Exoprotein.com, 2019, para 1). The website goes on to state that 80% of the world’s population already eats crickets–us non-insect eating westerners may be the weird ones!
Better for the environment: Exoprotein.com (2019) notes that crickets as a food source require literally a fraction of the feed and water resources necessary to create an equivalent amount of protein versus more standard sources.
For example, to produce 1 lb of protein from crickets, you only need 1 gallon of water to sustain them during their life-cycle. Compare this to 567 gallons of water to produce 1 lb of protein from chickens, 800 gallons of water to produce 1 lb of protein from pigs and a massive 2000 gallons of water to produce 1 lb of protein from cows!! (Exoprotein.com, 2019). The difference in feed requirements is substantial as well. For example, the same amount of feed required to produce 5 lbs of protein from cows is able to produce 60 lbs of cricket protein!
The insects-as-food wholesale website Entosense.com (2019) discusses the impact of modern farming methods on the environment. According to the website, the current resources consumed in the production of meat include approximately 1/3rd of all known, arable land and 1/3rd of the world’s fresh water supply. Entosense.com (2019) also argues another benefit of farming insects is that they produce a fraction of the wastes versus more traditional western animal farms. What wastes they do produce can be readily used as fertilizer.
Just in time for a growing global population: Entosense.com (2019) states global food supply demands will increase up to 80% in the next 50 years or less. With concerns about environment and habitat destruction along with pollution that results from meeting current food supply demands, Entosense.com (2019) suggests finding a more efficient means of meeting these demands is the right and moral thing to do for future generations.
Nutritious and tastes…good? Cricket-flour contains 65% protein, versus beef jerky (33%), chicken (23%), salmon (22%) or eggs (12%) according to Exoprotein.com (2019). The protein contained in insects is a “complete” protein (for those that find that important). The site also mentions the iron content in cricket flour as being double the iron contained in spinach. Entosense.com (2019) praises the high natural vitamin B12 content in edible insects, as this vitamin is THE vitamin essential for vegetarians and vegans–it is very low in vegetarian diets and relatively absent in a vegan diet. Further, edible insects tend to be rich in calcium and omega 3 content according to Entosense.com (2019).
Exoprotein.com (2019) describes their process of flash freezing, roasting and milling crickets into a powder that readily blends into their protein bars with a flavor described as “smooth and nutty.” Entosense.com (2019) lists options for consuming insects as nearly limitless in terms of combinations. For example, with over 2000 known edible varieties, the flavor ranges are immense. Further, insects can be served whole, in parts, or blended as a powders and mixed with untold varieties of dishes. With so many options, there is likely something for everyone in terms of finding flavor-friendly meals.
What does the current evidence say?
The claims above are impressive, but are they true? Also, what about food safety? Are there risks to eating insects? What does the current evidence say?
Eating insects is…”normal,” despite European and Western biases. Insects served as a protein source for humans dating back to ancient history with findings of entomophagy (consumption of insects) in the archaeological record (Dobermann, Swift, & Field, 2017). In places such as central Africa, insect protein contributes approximately half of the total protein consumed by humans in that region (Dobermann et al., 2017). Consistent with the claims above, over 2000 insect species serve as a food source in 113 countries globally (Jongema, 2017 as cited in Dobermann et al., 2017). A map of these nations shows world-wide consumption of insects in nations ranging from Japan, Loas, India, China, and Thailand to Australia, Mexico, Brazil, the United States and many others (Jongema, 2017).
Westernization’s spreading global influence including its industrialized farming methods has contributed to a decline in insect consumption globally until a very recent resurgence of interest (Dobermann et al., 2017; Kim, Yong, Kim, Kim, & Choi, 2019). The resurgence of interest is due in part to stakeholders recognizing the growing food supply demands along with environmental concerns (Kim et al., 2019). Biases include perspectives that only “primitive” or “barbaric” people eat insects.
Further, biases inherent in western cultures include the view that insects are only eaten by people who are starving, that insects are to be feared, and they should evoke feelings of repulsion (Dobermann et al., 2017). Contrary to these perceptions, many people around the world enjoy insects as delicacies (Dobermann et al., 2017; Kim et al., 2019). In fact, many upscale restaurants in Mexico, Laos, Europe and other nations include insects in their gourmet dishes (Kim et al., 2019).
Insects are high in protein, vitamins, minerals and other key nutrients. Insects vary on nutrition content based on species. High-protein species include crickets, grasshoppers and locusts (Kim et al., 2019). Protein concentration for these species is higher than that of meat or eggs.
Digestibility or bio-availability levels remain uncertain due to lack of research as well as uncertainties concerning the ability of humans to digest the exoskeleton (Kim et al., 2019). However, in processing where the exoskeleton has been removed, digestibility has been show to be between 77-98%. The protein content is really impressive, with cricket powder containing 11 grams of protein in just 2 tablespoons making it a great boost for smoothies (see the following product):
What about Omega 3’s? In terms of fat content, this too varies based on insect species. Insects have more polyunsaturated fatty acids than saturated fat content (Dobermann et al., 2017). Insects do not typically have Omega 3 fatty acids in meaningful quantities, and particularly lack DHA and EPA (Dobermann et al., 2017). DHA and EPA Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for humans, making up cell membranes and believed to contribute to lowering of inflammation (Swanson, Block, & Mousa, 2012). DHA and EPA is found to be in highest abundance in marine foods such as oily fish, seaweed and algae.
While insects fed flaxseeds increased their Omega 3 content (Oonincx, Laurent, Veenenbos, & van Loon, 2019), the Omega 3 content was the same type as found in flaxseeds (not surprisingly). Unfortunately, these types of Omega 3 fatty acids are poorly converted to DHA and EPA (McEwen & Bingham, 2019). It is clear that insects are NOT a meaningful source of DHA and EPA Omega 3 fatty acids. Further, insects contain varying amounts of saturated fats. Hard bodied insects like crickets and grasshoppers contain the least total fat, soft bodied insects contain the most (Dobbermann et al., 2017).
Vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients found in insects also vary by species. Species that are growing in popularity, such as crickets, are high in iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. These specific minerals are the ones that tend to be low in vegan diets (Wegmüller, Schüpbach, Herter-Aeberli, Berguerand & Bui, M., 2017).
The form of iron in insects is not fully understood. It has been shown to have high bio availability (Dobermann et al., 2017). The iron in insects is not in the form of “heme” iron found in animals with circulatory systems that utilize hemoglobin. This is interesting, because specifically the heme form of iron from conventional meats has been shown to be toxic to cells and genes and a potential contributor to cancer development (Bastide, Pierre, & Corpet, 2011). The iron from insects is a different form than the toxic form found in conventional livestock–yet it is absorbed better than the iron from plant sources (Dobermann et al., 2017).
Vitamins found in edible insects include vitamins B1, B2, B6, C, D, E, and vitamin K (Mlcek et al., 2014 as cited in Kim et al., 2019). Research has recently verified substantial quantities of vitamin B12 in common edible insects such as crickets (Schmidt, Call, Macheiner, L., & Mayer, 2019). Once again, edible insects seem to be the perfect compliment nutritionally to an otherwise plant-based diet, as vitamin B12 deficiency (in absence of supplementation) is a danger of vegetarian and vegan diets (Skerrett, 2013).
Insects may contain unique antioxidant, immune stimulating and disease preventive properties (Kim et al., 2019). Silkworms for example have been shown to lower blood sugar and are used to treat diabetes in Korea (Kim et al., 2019). Termites appear to stimulate the immune system. Various insect enzymes when ingested have shown to have ACE inhibiting properties (similar to a common blood pressure medication class), anti-diabetic properties along with strong antioxidant properties (Kim et al., 2019).
Fiber…? I thought only plants had fiber…? Turns out insects’ hard exoskeletons may serve as fiber for humans (The Food and Agricultural Organization, 2019c). The exoskeleton is actually composed of the carbohydrate N-acetyl-D-glucosamine and is poorly digested by humans (Kim et al., 2019). Insect exoskeleton components are comparable to the plant fiber cellulose (The Food and Argiculture Organization, 2019c).
Of interest, some populations possess enzymes necessary to digest insect exoskeletons. In cases where the exoskeleton is not digested it may act as fiber for humans (The Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019c). Chitin, a major component of insect exoskeletons appears to have anti-allergenic and anti-parasitic properties (The Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019c). Also fascinating, small scale research as found chitosan (a derivative of chitin) to improve HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol (Koide, 1998 as cited in Dobermann et al., 2017). The research is still developing concerning the health benefits and impacts of insect exoskeleton matter (Dobermann et al., 2017; The Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019c).
Insects are a viable, environmentally friendlier alternative to current westernized farming methods. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (2019a) has endorsed farming insects for human consumption. This has led to growth, investment and even government collaborative efforts in building the market (Kim et al., 2019). The market for insects is expected to exceed $500 million globally and continue expansion.
Consumers are beginning to move past fears, enjoying the novelty (for them) of insects as food and becoming increasingly aware of the nutritional value of insects (Kim et al., 2019). Acceptance is increasing as consumers discover numerous ways to incorporate insects into foods of which they are already familiar. For example, cricket flour can be readily added into baked goods for a notable protein and nutrient boost. One product example is as follows (though clearly consumers can make their own combinations):
The Food and Agriculture Organization (2019a) confirms the environmental benefits of replacing conventional western animal protein sources with insect protein. Insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of mass, versus cows requiring four times that amount of feed to produce the same amount. Further, of that mass created, only 40-50% of western livestock such as cows is actually edible (Dobermann et al., 2017). Compare this to insects, which are 80-100% edible with variance based on species.
Conventional livestock produce 10-100 times more greenhouse gasses than some insect species per kg of body weight (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019a). Further, insects per kg require less land and water than conventional livestock. It is clear from an environmental standpoint, insect protein is superior to other forms of livestock. Sustainable farming of insects while respecting the need to maintain wild stock, preserve genetic diversity and prevent invasive species issues seems to offer promise over the current conventional livestock farming methods (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019a).
Are insects safe to eat? What are the risks?
Perhaps the most significant concern (assuming the edible insects have been ordered from a reputable vendor) is the risk of an allergic reaction (Dobermann et al., 2017; The Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019a). People who are allergic to shellfish may be at the highest risk for an allergic reaction. Common edible insect species have tested negative for significant or harmful levels of toxins (Dobermann et al., 2017).
It is essential that edible insects are obtained from reputable vendors. Similar to other animal products, using Good Manufacturing Practices such as blanching (heating) and washing dramatically reduces contaminants such as bacteria and molds (Dobermann et al., 2017). Based on current research, there is no evidence that insects pose a higher risk of microbial or toxin contamination than meat (Dobermann et al., 2017).
Edible insects farmed in the United States have to meet Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards and the feed they are raised on is also regulated (Dobermann et al., 2017). Canada has similar regulations. Standards vary widely outside the United States and in some cases regulations are absent entirely. For this reason, I strongly recommend purchasing insects from nations with regulatory standards in place (such as the U.S.)!!!
Although some nations have more strict regulations than others, insect farming is relatively novel in terms of western farming methodology. Regulations continue to be explored in terms of proper rearing, processing, storage, and transporting methods (Dobermann et al., 2017). Global consensus for standards has not yet been established (Dobermann et al., 2017).
In summary, the claims concerning insects by the vendors noted above are largely supported by the evidence. It appears that insects are a high protein resource packed with vitamins, minerals, and possibly fiber. Edible insects’ nutrition profile seems to perfectly compliment an otherwise plant-based diet except in DHA and EPA Omega 3 fatty acids. Edible insects may also possess unique health promoting properties (though more research is needed). The research is still young regarding the health impacts of insects on humans, though appears promising overall.
Farming insects is substantially more efficient than conventional livestock. As such, insect farming is more environmentally friendly than conventional livestock. Edible insects appear to be as safe as other animal based products in terms of toxin levels (low) and transmission of disease IF THEY ARE farmed and processed in accordance with Good Manufacture Practices and regulatory standards. As such, consumers would be wise to purchase insects only from countries like the U.S. with regulatory standards in place for insect farming.
My take? A little goes a long way. Consistent with recommendations I note in my article Plant-Based Diet: Claims, Evidence, and…What do the Scriptures Say? my personal goal is to eat approximately 90% or more of my calories and protein from plant-based sources. For me, a small amount of crickets (blended in my smoothie) serve as an easy way to get natural vitamin B12 and other nutrients that are otherwise low or lacking in a plant-based diet. Exoprotein.com (not an affiliate at the time of writing this article) appears to be a trustworthy company.
Thanks and hope you enjoyed this post! Feel free to leave comments!
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