Insect burgers may sound like an eccentric chef’s concoction, but they could soon be crawling on to our plates. British Nutrition Foundation dietitian Melanie Hargreaves looks at the rise of the bug diet.
Although we eat honey produced by bees and use cochineal extract from beetles as a natural food colouring, most people in the West would baulk at the idea of crunching on the insect itself. Yet for approximately a quarter of the world’s population, eating insects (entomophagy) is no big deal, dating back as far as the royal banquets of the Middle East in 8th-century BC. Indeed, around 2,000 edible species are known to exist.
As a popular tortilla filling in Mexico (caterpillars), a tasty roasted roadside snack in Thailand (crickets) and a highly prized delicacy in Japan (wasp larvae), insects are nothing if not versatile. And even though there are now UK companies selling products such as giant toasted ants, and insects are featuring on fine dining menus, consumption is more about their novelty factor than nutrition.
Why eat insects?
The world’s population is predicted to reach 9 billion people by 2050, and we urgently need a solution to the challenge of feeding everyone on declining natural resources. Current livestock and aquaculture production methods rely heavily on produce from land and sea, but livestock rearing, in particular, is a significant producer of greenhouse gases – a major contributor to climate change. So could insects provide a viable alternative?
One way to make our diets more sustainable is to cut down on the amount of meat we eat in favour of plant-based protein sources. But insects could be another, innovative part of the solution, contributing to greater food chain sustainability. After all, they take up far less space than livestock, are easy to rear and have a small environmental footprint. Being cold-blooded, insects don’t
use energy to maintain their body temperature, so they’re far more efficient at turning their feed into protein than warm-blooded animals such as cattle, sheep, chicken or pigs. Another benefit is their potential to be reared on waste or by-products of food production.
What are the nutritional benefits?
Insects are a good source of energy, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. Nutritional data is still limited, and the composition of nutrients can vary widely according to species, diet, growing conditions and life stage – larvae will have very different compositions from adults, for example. Gram for gram, however, some may contain similar energy (calories) to animal foods and can provide similar amounts of protein to meat and fish, although it may not be of the same quality. Certain species may also be a good source of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Most edible insects are a good source of iron, with dried weaver ants boasting a high iron content, although we don’t yet know how much of it can be absorbed by humans. Clearly, getting the most nutrition from eating insects will also depend on the cooking methods and what has been added to them – deep-frying, salting or coating in sugar will potentially negate the benefits.
How can we use them?
There are several ways in which insects might become part of our food supply. They could be produced for us to eat whole, or become a more widely used ingredient in food products (insect flour can be used in pasta, bread or cookies, for example). They could also become valuable feed for livestock and in aquaculture, helping to reduce the amount of land and water currently used to grow crops such as grain, corn or soya to be fed to animals. Finding new sources of animal feed, such as insects for poultry, may indeed be critical for a sustainable future.
Are they really safe to eat?
New EU regulations set to come into force this year will classify both whole and part insects as ‘novel’ foods. This means any products containing them will have to get authorisation to say they’re safe for consumption (this will include a rigorous safety assessment). Cross-reactivity to insects, for example, has been seen in people with allergies to crustaceans (such as shrimp, lobster and crab). Reassurance may also be sought on appropriate and safe feed material for insects to be reared on. The legislation around the use of animal products (which includes insects) in feed is complex, as legislation has historically prohibited the use of processed animal protein in feed. But recent EU regulations permit the use of insect proteins as fish feed, and this is seen as a significant first step towards the acceptance of the use of insects in feed for livestock.
Will it catch on?
With the growing trend towards plant-based diets – veganism in the UK has risen by over 350% in the past 10 years – will those looking for a more sustainable diet embrace insects as protein alternatives to meat and dairy? Time will tell.
Our palates are certainly changing, as globalisation makes us more willing to try new foods (think of how we now enjoy raw fish as sushi in the UK). Still, the idea of eating insects is alien to most of us and may even be scary – after all, we often associate them with germs or with being stung.
Those of us who are squeamish about eating a whole insect may find them more acceptable ground up in products such as flour, pasta, biscuits and bread. There’s a long road ahead for those promoting this alternative protein source, but as entomophagy could
offer an innovative solution to how we feed ourselves in years to come, perhaps it’s worth facing our fears and exploring the world of bugs. Who will be the first to swap their ham mayo sandwich for an insect-stuffed wrap with salad?