As the world population increases the growth of the livestock sector is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Therefore, alternative sources of protein must be identified. Insects can be farmed at a relatively low economic and environmental cost, so could we be adding insects to our shopping lists in the future?
Insects are not a new food. We have eaten insects for thousands of years and over 2 billion people around the world enjoy eating them on a regular basis. You may be familiar with watching TV celebrities eat crickets, mealworms and caterpillars during bush tucker trials, but there is a huge variety of insects – over 2000 known edible insect species!
Insects also have a wide variety of flavours. Mealworms taste like roasted nuts, locusts have a similar flavour to prawns and crickets have an aroma similar to popcorn. Although insects can be eaten whole, Western consumers are likely to be more accepting of insects that have been ground into flour or paste before being incorporated into foods such as biscuits or pasta.
As for the nutritional content, insects are generally high in protein, high in the healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fats and rich in several micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc (Rumpold & Schluter, 2013). However, when compared with conventional livestock, many insects have a higher calorie content and higher salt and saturated fat content (Payne, 2016).
Recent analysis of nutrient data of several edible insects and commonly consumed meats found no evidence that the insects were significantly preferable to meat in terms of combating diet-related disease caused by over-nutrition (Payne, 2016). Interestingly, offal and meat by-products, were shown to be potentially healthier alternatives to commonly consumed cuts of meat. So although edible insects could provide a nutritious alternative protein source that is environmentally sustainable, encouraging greater consumption of offal may be a more palatable and acceptable option for many consumers.
As Western consumers become more accustomed to the idea of insects on the menu, it may well become a delicacy of the future. Some insects are after all just like a miniature lobster!
Here’s a summary of some pros and cons of edible insects:
High in protein. For example, beetles and grubs have an average 40% protein and crickets, grasshoppers and locusts have an average of 61% protein.
High in healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids.
Some insects contain useful levels of vitamins and minerals such as: copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
Over 2000 known edible insects to choose from with a wide variety of flavours.
Some insects have favourable nutrient profiles compared with meat.
Insects offer a cheaper and more environmentally sustainable option to conventional livestock.
Insects can be used as a sustainable source of food for livestock
There is also huge variation in the nutritional content of insects.
Many insects have a higher calorie content and higher salt and saturated fat content compared to conventional meat.
Some insects have less favourable nutrient profiles compared with meat.
Insects are not suitable for vegans or vegetarians.
The presence of potentially harmful ingredients such as toxin, allergens and anti-nutrients (compounds that interfere with absorption of nutrients) needs to be investigated further.
Short shelf-life due to rapid spoilage of raw edible insects.
Consumer attitudes and taste preferences in the Western world may take some time to accept eating insects.
Here’s the interesting presentation slides from C-fu Foods and One Hop Kitchen from the Food Matters Live event in London in November 2016 –
Cadesky L (2016) One Hop Kitchen: From bug to Bolognese, a case study. Food Matters Live presentation
Payne et al (2016) Are edible insects more or less ‘healthy’ than commonly consumed meats? A comparison using two nutrient profiling models developed to combat over- and undernutrition EJCN 70: 285-291.
Rumpold BA and Schulter (2013) Nutritional composition and safety aspects of edible insects Mol Nutr Food Res 57: 802-23.