By Cassandra Maya
Insects have a bad reputation. Some sting, some ruin our foods, and some even emerge from the depths of the ground every 17 years to scream from the trees. So why are top scientists now telling us that these critters can potentially revolutionize our food system?
The truth is… the population is growing. A lot. By over 9 billion people estimated in the year 2050. This is going to put a tremendous amount of strain on our current food system. Scientists are researching various novel proteins, but interest in edible insects has increased significantly since the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) officially recognized edible insects as a possible solution to the imminent food crisis . From 2012 to 2018, Web of Science saw an 800% increase in edible insect articles , emphasizing the interest in insects as human food. Despite its recent popularity in the foods and nutrition field, entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) remains culturally unacceptable in Western countries.
Is eating insects new?
Not at all! Eating insects is a lot more common than people think. Entomophagy is common in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture organization estimates that 2 billion people already supplemented their diets with insects . Since 2017, over 2000 species of edible insects have been identified .
Many insects play an important role in food security and hold a great amount of cultural significance. In Australia, the Witchetty grub (Endoxyla leucomochla) has historically been a staple food in the diets of Aboriginal women and children, but also used for paintings and medicine [1, 4]. In Mexico, red maguey worms (Comadia redtenbacheri) found on agave plants were an important nutrient source for indigenous communities. Today, they can be found all over restaurants in Mexico and even at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal .
Why are scientists promoting edible insects?
Insects use fewer resources than traditional livestock. According to FAO data, crickets (Acheta domesticus) use 1 liter of water, 1700 grams of feed, and 15 square meters of land to produce 1 kilogram of product. Insects can even be reared on side streams usually considered waste (produce scraps, olive pomace, spent grains). Pigs use 3500 liters of water, 5000 grams of feed, and 50 square meters of land to produce 1 kilogram of product [1,6].
Overall, insects have comparable nutritional quality to animal-sourced foods. Feed can be tailored to influence nutritional composition. Fatty acid profiles, cholesterol, and vitamin A are some of the documented qualities that can be influence by diet. Further research can give us a better picture on amino acid and lipid profiles, since insects vary physiologically by species and developmental stage .
Is this legal?
The FAO report and recent legislation has paved the way for insects. In the European Union (EU), insects for human food are covered by the Novel Food Regulation 2015/2283 but require applications and proof of safety. More recently, the Commission Implementing Regulation (2021/882) has authorized dried yellow mealworms (Tenebrio molitor) for human consumption. Additionally, the EU passed Commission Regulation 2021/1372 in August 2021, allowing processed insect proteins in pig and poultry feed. So, even if you are not consuming insects directly, you may soon be eating animal meat raised on insects.
In the United States, there is no specific legislation regarding edible insects. Currently, they are defined as food and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration under 21 U.S. Code § 321.
That’s great and all, but do they taste good?
I challenge you to decide that for yourself! Personally, I think ants taste like lemon (they have a cool formic acid defense system), crickets taste like peanuts, and frankly, I will eat any insect if it is covered in chili powder. Various companies have started working with insects as a food ingredient. You will most likely find them as snack foods like bars and candy, but animal meat alternatives and powders exist too. With the growing number of products on the market, you can definitely find something that suits your taste and comfort.
- Van Huis, A., Van Itterbeeck, J., Klunder, H., Mertens, E., Halloran, A., Muir, G., & Vantomme, P. (2013). Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security(No. 171). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
- Wade, M., & Hoelle, J. (2020). A review of edible insect industrialization: scales of production and implications for sustainability. Environmental Research Letters, 15(12), 123013.
- Jongema, Y. (2017). List of edible insects of the world (April 1, 2017)–WUR.
- The Australian Museum. (2018, November 11). Witchetty grubs. https://australian.museum/learn/teachers/learning/bugwise/witchetty-grubs/
- Chavez-Bush, L. (n.d.). Maguey Worm. Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/maguey-worm-gusano-del-maguey
- van Huis, A., Rumpold, B., Maya, C., & Roos, N. (2021). Nutritional Qualities and Enhancement of Edible Insects. Annual Review of Nutrition, 41.
Cassandra Maya | Linkedin
SMF Blog Writer
Cassandra earned a B.S. in Food Science and Technology from Cal Poly Pomona and a M.S. in Nutritional Science from San Diego State University. As a Marie Skłodowska-Curie PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen, Cassandra researches the nutrition and acceptability of alternative proteins, but is especially a fan of edible insects. In the future, Cassandra hopes to teach and foster kittens.
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