Are edible insects the future of food?

Krysta Levac
11 June 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/phuketisland

The roasted crickets were tasty but the feeling of tiny legs on my tongue was a bit weird. I found the roasted mealworms much more palatable, since they didn’t have legs. My brief foray into entomophagy (eating insects) happened several years ago at Science North in Sudbury, Ontario, where they were offering samples of seasoned crispy bugs to curious visitors. For most North Americans, insects are something to eat on a dare or as a novelty food. But scientists and sustainable food advocates are hoping to change this. Insects are an environmentally responsible and nutritious food… tiny legs and all.

Should we all be

eating insects?

AsapSCIENCE

Insects are already a regular part of the diet of at least 2 billion people worldwide. Around 1900 different insect species are eaten, not out of necessity, but because they taste good. The most popular are beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers, and crickets. Entomophagy is most common in tropical climates, probably because the insects there are larger and tend to swarm, making them easier to gather. Warmer regions also normally have a wider variety of insect species are available year-round. Most edible insects are harvested from the wild rather than farmed, but there are compelling reasons to turn our six-legged friends—or their larvae—into livestock.

Did you know? Even if you don’t practice entomophagy (eating insects), you unintentionally eat bug parts every day. For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows four insect fragments and 25 dead mites for every 225 grams of cheese.The world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that the current level of global food production will need to double to feed the mid-twenty-first century world. A big challenge will be providing enough protein. Demand for animal protein is growing worldwide, but raising enough cattle, pigs and chickens to meet this demand is not environmentally sustainable. A lot of land is used (and deforested) to grow the crops needed to feed livestock and a lot of water is needed for these crops and for the animals themselves.

Insects are much more environmentally friendly than traditional livestock. Take the comparison between crickets and cows made in the AsapSCIENCE video featured above. Crickets use much less land: it takes 400 square metres of land to get one kilogram of beef, but only 30 square metres of land to get one kilogram of crickets. Crickets use much less water: it takes 22,000 litres of water to get one kilogram of beef, but only one litre of water to get one kilogram of crickets.

Should we eat bugs?

Emma Bryce, TED-Ed

Insects in general also produce much less greenhouse gas, in the form of methane-tainted farts, compared to pigs or cattle. Cockroaches, termites, and scarab beetles are the only insects species that have the kind of bacteria in their guts that make methane. The flatulence of all other insects, like the mealworms and crickets I sampled, is methane-free. Another environmental advantage is that farmed insects could feed on waste products, such as vegetable peels.

Did you know? Dried, ground cochineal insects are the source of a natural red food colouring called carmine, cochineal extract, or natural red 4.Eating insects may be good for the environment, but are they good for you? The nutritional profile of insects depends on the species and the stage of life, but they are generally high in good quality protein and loaded with many vitamins and minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron. Most insects are nutritionally similar to beef, pork, or chicken. In fact, many insects pack a better protein punch and deliver more iron.

Are you ready to dive into entomophagy? If you’re looking for some homegrown bugs, Next Millennium Farms in Campbellford, Ontario can hook you up with seasoned roasted crickets and mealworms (darkling beetle larvae). The owners started their business raising insects for reptile feed, but saw an opportunity to provide nutritious, environmentally sustainable insect products for people as well. They have the only Canadian license to process insects for human consumption. If whole bugs aren’t whetting your appetite, you can start with adding cricket or mealworm flour to your next batch of cookies… no legs!

Out of the 1.7 million species of living things that have been identified on Earth, from bacteria to plants to animals, almost 1 million are insects. In a numbers game, insects definitely rule the world. Maybe they should rule our dinner plates, too.

Learn more!

Bugging You: An Ontario company puts insects on the menu (2015)
J. R. McConvey, The Walrus

Magazine article on Next Millennium Farms and its efforts to market insects as food.

Insects for food and feed (2015)
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security (2013)
A. van Huis et al., Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

UN website and report on the potential of edible insects to help meet the world’s food needs, while supporting economic development and environmental conservation.

Planet of the Insects (2013)
Ensia

Infographic highlighting the large number and diversity of insect species.

Krysta Levac

After an undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, I earned a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University in 2001. I spent 7 years as a post-doctoral fellow and research associate in stem cell biology at Robarts Research Institute at Western University in London, ON. I currently enjoy science writing, Let's Talk Science outreach, and volunteering at my son's school. I love sharing my passion for science with others, especially children and youth. I am also a bookworm, a yogi, a quilter, a Lego builder and an occasional "ninja spy" with my son.



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