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Why Insects Should Be in Your Diet

Because of their high protein and fat content and their reproductive efficiency, insects hold great promise for thwarting an impending global food crisis.

By | February 1, 2013

DUSAN PETRICICAs the human population grows, it is ever more important to temper our levels of consumption of the Earth’s dwindling resources. Humans currently consume at least 40 percent of potential terrestrial productivity, and some 30 percent of the land on Earth is used to pasture and feed livestock. Food reserves are the lowest they’ve been in 40 years, yet—thanks to an expanding population that the United Nations (UN) expects to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050—the demand for food will increase dramatically over the coming decades. Climate change, reduced productivity of agricultural lands, overfishing, dwindling freshwater resources, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and a host of other factors mean that this population increase will place a disproportionate burden on Earth’s ecosphere. Something has to change.

One possible solution exists literally right under our noses, as well as below our feet and all around us: insects. Though most Westerners often turn up their noses at the idea of eating the small six-legged creatures, these animals have numerous attributes that make them attractive sources of highly nutritious and sustainable food. In fact, two of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals—eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and reducing child mortality rates—can be directly addressed by expanding consumption of edible insects.

Indeed, the call for using insects to improve human food security has gotten louder in recent years. Since about 2004, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has been interested in the use of insects as alternative food sources. As a result, FAO has organized two international meetings on this topic, bringing together researchers, practitioners, and industry representatives from around the world to discuss the feasibility and benefits of insects as a food source: a 2008 workshop in Thailand, which led to the important book Forest Insects as Food: Humans Bite Back, and a technical consultation that I attended in January 2012 at FAO headquarters in Rome. While the attendees recognized that much government and industry backing will need to be garnered to support the widespread implementation of insect-based diets, there was an air of optimism that insect-based food products can realistically become an important part of our future.


Healthy food, healthy environment

Animals, including insects, are important or even sole sources of numerous necessary nutrients, such as the eight essential amino acids, vitamin B12, riboflavin, the biologically active form of vitamin A, and several minerals. (See table below.) Insects are particularly high in protein, with levels comparable to beef and milk. House crickets, for example, contain approximately 21 grams of protein per 100 grams of cricket, while ground beef contains about 26 grams per 100 grams of meat and powdered whole milk contains about 26 grams of protein per 100 grams. Insects are also particularly rich in fat, and can thus supply a high caloric contribution to the human diet, particularly in famine-stricken areas of the world.

Two of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals—eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and reducing child mortality rates—can be directly addressed by expanding consumption of edible insects.

Eating insects instead of cattle is also good for the environment. Insects can be produced more sustainably and with a much smaller ecological footprint than vertebrate livestock. They are very efficient at transforming a wide variety of organic matter into edible body mass. For example, cows consume 8 g of feed to gain 1 g in weight, whereas insects can require less than 2 g of feed for the same weight gain (Science, 327:811, 2010). This is partly due to the fact that insects are poikilothermic, or “cold-blooded,” and thus use less energy to maintain body temperature. This efficiency reduces the amount of animal feed needed to generate the same amount of “meat,” cutting the amount of water used for irrigation; the area of land dedicated to growing food for livestock; and the use of pesticides that can be expensive, harmful to the environment, and pose a risk to human health.

Additionally, many insects, such as flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles, can consume agricultural waste or plants that humans and traditional livestock cannot. By converting biomass that is not consumable by humans into edible insect mass, insects don’t compete with the human food supply, as do vertebrate livestock such as cows and chickens, which are primarily fed with grain and corn.

Insects are also easy to farm in large quantities using very little space. Compared to many other animals, insects have substantially higher fecundity—they reproduce more prolifically—and shorter life spans, so they can be grown rapidly. For example, house crickets can lay 1,200–1,500 eggs in a 3- to 4-week period, whereas beef cattle require about four breeding animals for each animal marketed. Insects also use much less water than vertebrate livestock because they obtain hydration directly from food. Finally, insects give off lower levels of greenhouse gases than cows.



NUTRITIONAL CONTENT OF INSECTS
COMPARED WITH BEEF AND MILK

  Protein (g/kg) Fat (g/kg) Calories (g/kg) Thiamin (g/kg) Riboflavin (g/mg)
Data taken from (Finke, 2012), (Finke, 2002), the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference,
and the US Dairy Export Council
Black Soldier Fly (larvae) 175 140 1,994 7.7 16.2
House Cricket (adult) 205 68 1,402 0.4 34.1
House Fly (adult) 197 19 918 11.3 77.2
Beef 256 187 2,776 0.5 1.8
Milk (whole dry) 265 268 4,982 2.6 14.8

 

An insect buffet

Insects make up the largest and most diverse group of organisms on Earth, with more than 1 million species described and 4–30 million species estimated, living in every niche inhabited by humans and beyond (Nat Prod Rep, 27:1737-57, 2010). This diversity makes them a safer bet for future food security than vertebrate animals such as cattle, fowl, or even fish, which are increasingly susceptible to disease and overharvested from the wild. Because there are insects of some sort on nearly every patch of land on Earth, chances are that some local species in every area can be caught or farmed as human food without transporting nonnative species into the area. The UN FAO estimates that there are already more than 1,400 species of edible insects currently consumed by people; other estimates put that number over 2,000.

When it comes to producing foods made from insects, the sky’s the limit. Once the technologies are developed to produce insect-based food ingredients, they can be incorporated into numerous consumer items, such as meat substitutes and protein-fortified dry products, including cereals, bars, and snack foods. There is already an increasing market for insect-based food products worldwide. Some US restaurants, particularly those serving Latin American and Asian cuisine, are increasingly offering insects on their menus. Additionally, insect biomass may hold potential for high-value products such as food additives, nutritional supplements, antimicrobials, biomaterials, and more (Nat Prod Rep, 27:1737-57, 2010). Products made of chitin from insect exoskeletons—left over after food processing—may prove to be yet another valuable resource, possibly generating enough revenue to subsidize the insect-based food industry.

In summary, insects hold great potential to contribute to global food security. They present a substantial opportunity to provide much-needed animal-sourced nutrients, particularly to the developing world. The potential for insects to contribute to human well-being and sustainability is dwarfed only by the amazing diversity and adaptability demonstrated by these magnificent creatures in nature. 

Aaron T. Dossey is a biochemist, entomologist, and founder and owner of All Things Bugs, a biotech R&D company dedicated to insect-based applications including insect-based foods.

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Comments

Avatar of: kenyb12

kenyb12

Posts: 1

February 3, 2013

The use of insects has a lot of potential as a food source as well as a beneficial resource in sustainable agriculture.
Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 22

February 4, 2013

I'm sure that I would be squeamish if I were offered insects to eat, but if an expert told me the specific insects offered me were safe (not just as a species, but as a specimen - no pesticide, etc.) I think I would be able to give it a try. That would be the hardest first step for me and, I suspect, for many individuals. 

Avatar of: Name Withheld

Name Withheld

Posts: 1

February 9, 2013

Eating insects is also more MORAL than eating cows, pigs, or chickens.

If you're not sure what I mean, visit a slaughterhouse and see for yourself where your burger comes from.  Or find some videos on the Internet showing what goes on in a slaughterhouse.  The Nazi concentration camps were less sick than slaughterhouses.  Animals raised for food would truly have been better off if they had never been born.  As Paul McCartney said "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian".

Count me in on eating insects.

Avatar of: tom.ken

tom.ken

Posts: 1

February 9, 2013

Flies collect all sorts of dease, id much prefere worms in horse manure or giant hornet larvie  or better stil honey bee larvie.

February 11, 2013

If it's for the greater good of Humanity, I'll will give bugs a try...one day.  I like talking about the future of our planets with my friends. They say "the earth is self-sustainable, we could never harm it" aye, that is possibly true, but when we have over-production of food, and constant pollution of the air and water, we are harming ourselves. The earth may live on, but our species will not. Therefore, we must create alternatives. Eating bugs is a concept that has been pushed out of the norm for many societies, but if we want to stay alive, I reccomend we should slowly start getting into again.

Avatar of: helphos

helphos

Posts: 1

February 13, 2013

"Waiter!  There'sa  fly in my soup!"

Waiter: "And your point is...?"

February 15, 2013

I do agree with most of this, but i dont agree with the argument that there isnt enought food, or similar lies:

We do have the technology to harvest clean energy, to produce healthy non-gmo food everywhere, and is way cheaper than other "clever" solutions shielded behind the political pretextes used by the UN to justify their self interests. 

In fact, America produces more food than what it consumes (and only the Vatican has twice the resources to help everyone had a decent life). Is very absurd that hunger cant be ended.

What needs to end is the indifference to the way things had been done in the last hundred years.

Avatar of: hruhs

hruhs

Posts: 2

February 27, 2013

I lived for many years in SE Asia where various insects are prized as delacacies. The best insect food I found in rural Laos.  A new ecological vacation opportunity. Very cheap place to travel and the most wonderful people imaginable.

herb

Avatar of: jmitsche

jmitsche

Posts: 1

February 27, 2013

Of course, this thought just puts off the inevitable: human population continues to increase exponentially and food supplies do not, and we should know where that leads. Collectively, humans have the intelligence of a baterial culture.

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 41

March 1, 2013

Sometime in the last 30 years -- I can't put my finger on exactly when -- I stopped regretting that I would not live to see what the future will bring, and started being thankful.  Maybe it's just a part of getting old.

Avatar of: Ladydidi

Ladydidi

Posts: 1

July 4, 2013

I just come back from South Korea, where I often go. They used to eat silk worms before the Americans came and those are still sold in traditionnal markets. Eating them is one of my pleasures: they taste a little like "langoustines" –Norway lobsters – without the salty taste, and are very filling. The little old lady who used to sale them on the way to Bulguksa Temple, in Kyeong Ju, never wanted me to pay, saying: "Do come and eat silk worms here: when they see you enjoying them, Koreans  stop being ashamed of loving them too and my business is much better."

It is interesting to know that Koreans, who "learned" from Americans that insects are disgusting to eat, live much longer than Americans while spending 4 times less for their health. 

Avatar of: schmadrian

schmadrian

Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from Name Withheld made on February 9, 2013

May 25, 2014

'Eating insects is also more MORAL than eating cows, pigs or chickens.'

Why? 

How do you differentiate?

I don't eat veal. Or lamb. or horse. Though I am a meat-eater. They're just too adorable. 

I also don't eat snails. For the same reason; have you ever spent time with a snail? Rubbing its 'foot', getting it to come out of its shell? Feeling it 'nibble' on your finger, watching its horn waggle about? I refer to them as a cross between old men and kittens. 

I don't see the difference between killing insects and killing animals. They're living things. Again; how do you differentiate?

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