Feeling hungry? How about some spicy grasshoppers with a side of buffalo worms? The thought of consuming such a meal might turn your stomach, but the practice of eating insects is common across many areas of the globe, largely due to its nutritional benefits.
According to a 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), around 2 billion people worldwide eat insects as part of a traditional diet – a practice known as entomophagy.
Beetles are the most commonly consumed insect, followed by caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets. All in all, more than 1,900 insect species are considered edible.
Entomophagy is a common practice in many parts of the world, including China, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and some developing regions of Central and South America.
In the Western world, however, it seems bugs fail to tickle the taste buds; a study published last year in the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed found that 72 percent of Americans are unwilling to consider eating insects.
According to the FAO report, in the majority of Western countries, “people view entomophagy with disgust and associate eating insects with primitive behavior.”
If you fall into this category, read on; learning about the possible health benefits of insect consumption might just change your mind.
Insects are considered highly nutritional; the majority of them are rich in protein, healthy fats, iron, and calcium, and low in carbohydrates.
In fact, the authors of the FAO report claim that insects are just as – if not more – nutritious than commonly consumed meats, such as beef.
For example, 100 grams of cricket contains around 121 calories, 12.9 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of fat, and 5.1 grams of carbohydrates. While 100 grams of ground beef contains more protein – around 23.5 grams – it is also much higher in fat, containing around 21.2 grams.
The low fat content of insects has led some researchers – such as those involved in the FAO report – to suggest that entomophagy may be an effective way to combat obesity and its related diseases.
In 2014, the Daily Mail reported on one man from the U.S. who shifted from a typical Western diet to a bug-filled one after mistaking a bowl of crispy crickets for peanuts – and he claims the addition of insects helped him lose weight.
Talking about the potential benefits of eating insects, 29-year-old Jason Brink said:
“We have the ability to transform our diets from the steady stream of junk food, to which so many are accustomed, to an entirely different and decidedly broader global culinary adventure.
It is up to us to make decisions about the future of our waistlines and our planet, and the best option might be a little more creepy-crawly than we initially suspected.”
The benefits of entomophagy do not stop at weight loss; the UN say eating insects could help combat malnutrition, which is widespread in developing countries.
According to UNICEF, worldwide, almost half of all deaths among children under the age of 5 years are a result of malnutrition, with most of these deaths occurring in Asia and Africa.
A lack of nutrition, whether due to not having enough to eat or the inability to digest the food that is eaten, can increase the risk of life-threatening disease. What is more, malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of life can lead to stunted growth, which can impair cognitive function.
As well as being a very good source of healthy fats and protein, insects are everywhere, meaning they are a very accessible, cheap source of food – a fact that could really benefit low- and middle-income countries where malnutrition is common.
The FAO explain:
“Protein and other nutritional deficiencies are typically more widespread in disadvantaged segments of society and during times of social conflict and natural disaster.
Because of their nutritional composition, accessibility, simple rearing techniques and quick growth rates, insects can offer a cheap and efficient opportunity to counter nutritional insecurity by providing emergency food and by improving livelihoods and the quality of traditional diets among vulnerable people.”
The FAO say entomophagy could also offer a solution to the food shortage that is expected to occur with the growing population.
According to The World Bank, the global population is expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, which means we need to produce around 50 percent more food in order to feed an extra 2 billion people.
With climate change expected to reduce crop yields by more than 25 percent, there is an urgent need to identify alternative ways to meet the need for additional food.
The FAO say their current programs for food sustainability consider entomophagy as a feasible option.
“The underlying objective is to improve food and nutritional security and provide more ecologically sound food recommendations to consumers and policymakers, including clarifying what is meant by an environmentally sustainable food system,” they note.
“Edible insects as food fit comfortably within this environmentally sound scenario and, by extension, ought to be considered prime candidates as both food staples and supplements, as well as more generally for their role in sustainable diets.”
If you’re still not sold on the idea of introducing insects into your diet, you probably won’t welcome the next piece of information with open arms: you might already be eating them.
The organization states that it is acceptable for 100 grams of chocolate to contain up to 60 “insect fragments” within six 100-gram samples, while peanut butter can contain up to 30 insect fragments per 100 grams.
Such an allowance shows that, in the most part, insect consumption is not harmful to health.
In fact, researchers claim it is less harmful than eating meat; insects pose a much lower risk of infecting humans with zoonotic diseases than livestock, though it is recommended that insects be cooked prior to consumption to destroy any potentially harmful pathogens they may be carrying.
Still, even after hearing about the possible benefits of entomophagy, why are people in the Western world so reluctant to eat insects?
For many of us, just the thought of placing a crispy grasshopper into our mouth and chewing it induces a feeling of disgust, which the FAO say stems from one’s cultural background.
“Feelings of disgust are mostly triggered by questions such as: ‘What is it?’ or ‘Where has it been?’ Aside from basic human emotions, the origins of disgust are rooted in culture (i.e. ‘taste is culture’), which undoubtedly has a major effect on food habits,” they explain.
“Culture, under the influence of environment, history, community structure, human endeavor, mobility and politicoeconomic systems, defines the rules on what is edible and what is not. In short, the acceptance or rejection of entomophagy is a question of culture.”
But will we ever overcome this cultural battle and embrace the idea of eating insects? It seems we’re getting there.
There are a number of food establishments in the U.S. that sell dishes containing insects, such as Don Bugito, which serves spicy worms and chile-lime crickets.
And in October last year, the United Kingdom welcomed its first ever insect restaurant – Grub Kitchen – serving delights such as smoked chipotle cricket and black ant and olive goats cheese.
With its increasing popularity, it is possible that entomophagy could one day become such an accepted part of Western culture that it will be the norm to grab a cricket sandwich from the lunchtime food cart.
In the meantime, it seems most of us will be sticking to the foods we know best – just watch out for that insect leg in your chocolate.