Lately, more and more scientists are becoming interested in insects.
They, as well as nutrition-curious people, are asking whether we might be missing a trick by not enriching our diets with a handful of ants, or a cricket or two.
A study published earlier this year found that insects are no harder to digest than any other foods in our day-to-day diets, and populations that do eat them regularly report that they are actually quite tasty, too.
Recently, Valerie Stull — a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison— decided to focus her attention on what effects eating crickets would have on a person's health, and whether they would be a helpful addition to someone's diet.
Stull was inspired to look into the benefits of integrating insects into the diet following her own surprising introduction to this source of nutrients.
"I was on a trip with my parents in Central America and we were served fried ants," she recounts. "I remember being so grossed out initially, but when I put the ant in my mouth, I was really surprised because it tasted like food — and it was good!" she adds.
Recently, Stull and colleagues conducted a pilot clinical trial examining the impact of eating crickets on the human gut microbiota. The researchers report their findings in a paper published in Scientific Reports.
Crickets may boost good bacteria
For the trial, Stull and team recruited 20 healthy participants aged 18–48. For 2 weeks, some of them ate a regular breakfast (the control breakfast), while the others ate a breakfast featuring muffins or shakes made with 25 grams of powdered crickets.
Then, for an additional 2 weeks, all the participants reverted to regular, cricket-free diets. This was the "washout period." Finally, over 2 more weeks, those who had at first eaten control breakfasts consumed cricket-based breakfasts, and vice versa.
The scientists collected biological samples — of blood and feces — as well as information about the participants' gastrointestinal health at three points throughout the trial: at the very beginning, after the first 2-week intervention, and at the very end of the study, after the final 2-week intervention.
Stull and team analyzed the samples, testing for relevant biomarkers such as blood sugars, markers indicating liver health, signs of inflammation, and changes in the gut microbiota.
They found no significant changes to the health of the participants' gastrointestinal health, and no modifications to bacterial gut populations.
There was no evidence of changes to the participants' levels of gut inflammation either, and the volunteers reported no side effects due to their respective diets. However, the researchers did observe two notable changes following the integration of crickets into the participants' diets.
First, they saw that levels of a metabolic enzyme tied to better gut health had increased to some extent. Then, they noticed that levels a blood protein linked to inflammation — TNF-alpha — had decreased.
Moreover, Stull and colleagues observed a certain increase in the populations of good gut bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium animalis.
'Benefits beyond nutrition?'
"There is a lot of interest right now in edible insects," notes Stull, adding, "It's gaining traction in Europe and in the [United States] as a sustainable, environmentally friendly protein source compared to traditional livestock."
The researchers explain that turning to insects as a source of protein would not only be better for the environment, but also better for humans, as it would be a more healthful nutritional alternative to meat.
Crickets and other insects, the team adds, are also a good source of fiber, though the type of fiber they contain — such as chitin — is different from what we get from some fruits or vegetables.
Fibers are important in sustaining the growth of probiotics, or healthful gut bacteria, and the fiber provided by insects could thus sustain gut health.
"This study is important because insects represent a novel component in Western diets and their health effects in human populations haven't really been studied," says study co-author Tiffany Weir.
"With what we now know about the gut microbiota and its relationship to human health, it's important to establish how a novel food might affect gut microbial populations. We found that cricket consumption may actually offer benefits beyond nutrition."
The researchers note, however, that their trial was a small one, and that larger studies with more participants should seek to replicate their findings.
These new results are nevertheless important for Stull, who is convinced that insects are an often untapped sourced of nutrients — one that takes less money and fewer natural resources to farm.
She has, in fact, co-founded a startup project aiming to provide insect-farming kits to small, perhaps impoverished, communities around the world, to allow them to better support themselves.