Updated 2nd November 2022

Are edible insects the future?

The idea of eating insects might strike many readers as a step too far — a diet with variety is important, but six-legged critters? No, thanks. 

But as we’ll see, they are nutritious, tasty, and might help protect the planet.

To Western sensibilities, eating insects — or entomophagy, if you’re feeling fancy — might seem gross, but we are the exception to the rule.

Our ancient relatives ate insects, and people in 113 countries today still regularly include them in their diet. 

An incredible 2,000 insect species are consumed globally. Some of the most popular types are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, and cicadas.

In this article, we’ll ask whether we in the West should revisit the idea of eating insects more regularly. Spoiler alert: We probably should. Sorry.

Why even consider insects?

By 2050, some scientists estimate that the Earth’s population will swell to 9 billion people. And experts are concerned that we won’t be able to meet everyone’s food requirements.

We may need to find alternative food sources, and insects could fit the bill.

Secondly, livestock farming has a major impact on the environment, including:

  • sewage runoff polluting rivers

  • methane from cow farts adding to global warming

  • ecosystems being destroyed to make way for farms

Insects, however, could be a more environmentally friendly solution. They produce much less sewage, and only a few types of insects produce any methane at all. 

They are also more efficient.

The efficiency of insects

Because insects aren’t “warm-blooded,” they don’t have to spend energy on keeping their temperature so tightly regulated. This means they turn food into protein more efficiently than warm-blooded farm animals. 

Compared with chickens, the house cricket needs half the amount of food to produce the same amount of protein. And they need four times less than sheep and 12 times less than cattle. 

Farm animals require two lots of land: one to live on and the other to grow food to feed them.

Insects, on the other hand, are more compact and need much less space. Also, people often harvest them in the wild, so there’s far less environmental impact.

And because rearing this so-called mini-livestock can be a fairly low-tech endeavor, anyone can give it a shot — whether they live in the jungle or the center of a city.

Another interesting benefit of rearing mini-livestock is reducing the need to use pesticides: If people collect pests to eat, they may be less reliant on chemical pesticides to keep plants healthy.

Are insects nutritious?

Insects might be more environmentally friendly than more familiar farm animals, but are they nutritious? It turns out they are, which is convenient.

As you might imagine, with 2,000 edible species, the nutritional content varies greatly. And, because insects have complex lifecycles, their nutrient content can differ as they move from the cradle to the grave.

Additionally, the nutrient profile can change depending on how the insects are prepared — deep fried, dried, cooked, and so on.

However, research into edible insects shows that most are rich in nutrients. 

An analysis of 78 species of insect calculated the fat, protein, and energy content of dried insects. Again, the scientists found huge variations:

Protein content: 15%–81%

This means that some insects match a steak, which is around 81% protein when water is removed, and many topped milk, which is 31% protein without water.

Fat content: 4.2%–77.2%

To put these fat figures into perspective, avocados are around 29% fat when dried, and peanuts are around 49% fat. 

In general, when insects are in their larval stage, they have a higher fat content. And caterpillars are particularly fatty.

Importantly, insects contain “good” fats, such as omega-3, -6, and -9.

Energy content: 293–762 calories per 100 grams (g) 

As a comparison, an avocado provides around 635 calories per 100 g of dry fruit, and beef provides 515 calories per 100 g of dry weight. 

Fiber content

Fiber is a vital part of your diet with a range of health benefits. And, you’ll be pleased to learn, insects are a high-fiber snack. Chitin is the most abundant fiber in insects, and it accounts for 11.6–137.2 milligrams per kilogram of dried insects.

Most people in the West can’t digest chitin. However, in countries where people commonly eat insects, they have an enzyme that does the job. 

Interestingly, people in countries that don’t eat insects do have that same enzyme, but it doesn’t work.

Vitamins and minerals?

An insect-based lunch will certainly provide you with some vitamins. But again, it varies between species.

An analysis of six insect species — in larval and adult forms — found they contained vitamin D3, vitamin A, vitamin B12, thiamin (vitamin B1), and vitamin E.

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A review explains that “the content of vitamins and minerals in wild edible insects is seasonal, and in the case of farm-bred species, it can be controlled via feed.”

Another analysis of a range of bugs found them high in energy, protein, and good fats. They were also rich in minerals, such as: 

  • copper

  • iron

  • magnesium

  • manganese

  • phosphorous

  • selenium

  • zinc

  • riboflavin

  • pantothenic acid

  • biotin

  • folic acid 

OK, but what do they taste like?

You’ve probably already guessed, but each species has a distinct flavor. 

According to the book Creepy Crawly Cuisine, much of the flavor depends on chemicals called pheromones on the surface of the insect. 

This means that if the critter is cooked in water, the pheromones are washed off, and there’s very little taste.

Their flavor also depends on where they live and what they eat. So, a skillful rearer of mini-livestock can alter their taste.

According to the authors of Creepy Crawly Cuisine, these are some of the flavors you can expect:

  • ants and termites: sweet and almost nutty

  • darkling beetle larvae: like wholemeal bread

  • dragonfly larvae (and other aquatic bugs): fishy

  • cockroaches: mushroomy

  • wasps: pine seeds

  • mealy bugs: fried potato

  • waterboatmen eggs: caviar

  • striped shield bugs: apple

Are there any risks?

While we’ve sung the praises of an insect-heavy diet, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. There are some potential risks involved in eating insects. 

Some risk depends on what the insects have been eating. For instance, if they've feasted on bran that’s high in heavy metals or on organic waste, they might cause harm to health.

Other insects contain toxins to dissuade predators from snacking on them. One example is a moth called Zygaena, which produces a chemical that breaks down into toxic hydrogen cyanide. 

However, the chemical is produced in small quantities, so you would need to eat hundreds of them in a short space of time for it to risk your life. 

And according to the authors of a study on this, you would probably feel dizzy after eating 100 moths, which might make it tricky to catch enough to kill you.

Overall, there’s not been enough research into eating insects to know whether there are significant health concerns. 

A 2015 report from the European Food Safety Authority on the safety of eating and farming insects concludes that scientists need to do more research to understand the risks to human health. 

They also mention that if insects are reared away from their natural habitat, farmers must be careful that they don’t escape. Non-native species can bring new diseases to a region and disturb the local ecosystem.

Overall, there’s a lot to consider, and scientists need to do a lot more work. 

But as the human population steadily grows and the impact of livestock farming continues, it’s well worth exploring our options.

Yeah, but…

We know, eating insects seems a little icky to many of us. But it’s probably just a case of getting used to it. 

After all, many Westerners are happy to consume fluid that came from a cow’s udder, cheese with mold on it, pig’s muscles, and lambs’ thyroid glands.

Also, insects are quite closely related to shrimps and lobsters, which many of us devour eagerly.

It will take some time to adjust, but the planet might thank us. And some companies are already bringing insect products to market in subtle ways.

For instance, cricket flour, energy bars containing chitin, and crispy cricket-based snacks are now widely available. These might be slightly easier to stomach than a raw caterpillar.

At ZOE, we know that a diet with variety is best. Adding insects would certainly add to that variety — but we understand if you give it a rain check for now.

Sources

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Eat Crawlers. (n.d.). https://eatcrawlers.co.nz/products/cricket-flour-50g 

Estimate of chitin in raw whole insects. Zoo Biology. (2007). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/zoo.20123 

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