It’s World Edible Insect Day. Honestly, this is a thing; I have not made it up in order to write a blog. But just how tasty and nutritious are insects and can they really find a place on our plates?
Let’s start with why we should consider insects as a food choice
By 2050 there will be about 9 billion people in the world and to feed them all current food production will need to almost double. It’s hard to see that we have that much land available to farm (I shall not delve into the discussion on climate change). So, to meet the food and nutrition requirements of the future we should think outside the box. Enter insects, stage left. Mass invertebrate rearing is most definitely a possibility. Edible insects have historically been part of human diets even though some societies are disgusted by the thought!
Is it just the tasty honeypot ant that’s worth eating?
No! More than 1,900 insect species are considered edible; most of them are from tropical countries. The most commonly eaten insect groups are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, termites, dragonflies and flies. It is estimated that 2 billion people worldwide eat insects regularly.
It’s not just about nutrition, rearing insects for food is environmentally friendly. Bear with, here is some technical stuff: the environmental benefits of rearing insects for food are based on the high feed conversion efficiency, which means insects are very efficient at converting feed into protein. Crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Insects can be reared on organic side-streams, which includes human and animal waste (sorry if you are eating right now). Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases such as less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and methane is produced by only a few insect groups, such as termites and cockroaches. Then there is the consideration that insect rearing requires significantly less land and water than conventional livestock farming.
Have I tempted you yet? Would some nutrition facts help?
Interestingly, we at Food Databanks National Capability at the Institute of Food Research have checked our databases and we don’t seem to have nutrient data on insects, shame on us (I’ll add it to the to-do list). However, it seems they are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content. See the table below where I have compared nutrition in foods in our database with that in dry insects. Other interesting facts are that the composition of unsaturated omega-3 and -6 fatty acids in mealworms is comparable with that in fish (and higher than in cattle and pigs), and the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat. It’s worth noting the nutritional value of insects is highly variable because of the wide range of insect species. Even within the same group of species, nutritional value may differ depending on the metamorphic stage of the insect, where it lives, and its diet.
*values from: http://www.eatgrub.co.uk/ (other sources of insects are available online), these are dried insects, remember that fresh or fried will have different values
Is it safe to eat the little blighters?
Yes, but perhaps no. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has written an article and decreed insects are safe. They say the possible occurrence of microbiological hazards is comparable to their occurrence in other non-processed sources of protein of animal origin but they do point out that studies on the occurrence of microbial pathogens of vertebrates as well as published data on hazardous chemicals in reared insects are scarce. So feel free to use this as an excuse to turn them down if you are offered any, citing the need for scientific work to prove they are safe before you eat them.
I hope that has whetted your appetite to give the insect a go. And if you need nutrition labelling, we are here to help.