By Michelle Pearson
Eating insects is nothing new. Cultures across centuries have incorporated these creatures in dishes across the globe. As evidenced by early foraging tools and in examining the chemical composition of feces, bugs contributed to improving diet quality during human evolution. Insects are staples in Asian, Australian, African, and South American cuisine. Insects can be consumed live as well as cooked, often roasted, boiled, or fried. In fact, these creatures are a rich source of nutrition. High in fiber, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals, bugs are a nutrient powerhouse, especially high in zinc and iron. In the Amazon, insects contribute as much as 70% of the population’s dietary protein needs. Perhaps bugs will be the new vegetarian alternative. There is quite a bit of buzz as to whether or not bugs will be the sustainable protein source of the future.
Of course, many Americans take issue with the idea: there certainly is an “ick” factor present in our culture. We tend to be more squeamish about foods. Just look at the way meat is prepared: prepackaged indiscernible cuts of pink flesh completely devoid of evidence from the creatures whence they came. Yet, what many people do not know is that they have already eaten insects. Being so ubiquitous, bugs are an unavoidable contaminant. The FDA has created standards: 60 insect bits for every 3.5 ounces of chocolate and 5 fruit flies for every cup of juice. Bugs are simply part of the food system. It has been estimated that Americans consume about 1 pound of insects a year! Thus, acceptability of insect protein may change with knowledge and preparation; people may be more likely to try insect protein ground up into protein bars or baked goods. Substituting whey protein for an insect version may feel just fine for some. However, reducing the “ick” factor may not be the main issue at play.
Is insect protein nutritious and sustainable?
The types of proteins found in insects are comparable to animals in nutrition quality and digestibility. Some species of bugs are more nutritious than others, such as crickets and meal worms, and, as with any food, the method of cooking will also impact nutritional content. Less known is the impact on the environment when raising mass amounts of insects. For example, insects already feed a significant population of animals, contributing 70% of food for all land birds in the world and 40% for all fish.
What would increasing insect populations do to these animals or, for that matter, to any aspect of the ecosystem? Many insects are already cultivated on a mass scale for pest control and for feeding pet birds and reptiles. It has been found that insects can be raised on waste product and other low substrates that could feed livestock or human populations. However, one study conducted by Lundy and Parrella found that crickets produced at a large scale required grain feeding to reach necessary protein yield, making them no more sustainable than chickens. When crickets are raised in their natural habitat at a small scale, protein yields are high, and the insects have a very low impact on the environment. Currently, insect diets are supported in regions of the world that are either less population dense, or more integrated, allowing insects to have a symbiotic relationship with the environment and maintaining a balanced ecosystem. In general, the nutritional content of insects is highly variable, depending on the season, population, species, and geographic area. For insects to be sustainable on a mass scale, it will be a challenge to incorporate them into a balanced environment, essentially dedicating large areas of land to creating a new ecosystem.
More research is needed to determine the environmental impact of mass produced insects, as well as ways to maximize protein content. Looking beyond bugs, other sustainable sources of protein should be considered such as red algae. Sources currently being incorporated into American diets include single cell protein, soy protein, and fish protein concentrate. As with anything else, insects cannot solve the problem alone. Sustainable protein sources may require a patchwork of various sources to provide future populations with necessary nutritional needs.
What would an insect food movement look like?
Many passionate people are utilizing insects as a way to improve issues in the food system. The FAO has reported on the future prospects of insect consumption, while independent groups of enthusiasts are promoting insect culture in hopes of a bug-friendly future. Little Herds based out of Austin, Texas is dedicated to educating communities to the benefits of eating insects, while startups like Crickers and Chirps use cricket flour to create sustainable food products. Insects are also being utilized to address malnutrition. Aspire, also from Austin, Texas, seeks to promote the farming and consumption of insects to help malnourished populations, utilizing palmweevel larvae that are naturally high in iron to reduce anemia in Ghana. Austin is even host to an annual insect eating contest, complete with cooking demonstrations and local artists.
Despite the passion of these groups, the movement is not without its challenges. Other than sustainability or novelty, there is no real intrigue or hook for consumer buy-in. Insect foods need a brand. The ick factor may be the biggest hurdle, but good research and developed methodology is another. For one, transforming bugs into generally accepted food products like chips can mess with the flavor profile. Though crickets are considered to have a mild, nutty flavor; once they are ground into a powder, the flavor becomes a potent tribute to wet dog food. Though highly innovative, the “wet dog food” flavor likely won’t win over the hearts and taste bugs of foodies. Having no clear FDA regulation also poses a challenge for developing insect supply chains. Funders are reluctant to invest in an industry without knowing the regulations that will be placed on it in the future.
Lack of corporate backing is part of what gives the insect movement its charm. It is an underdog movement (pun intended). So far, public desire rather than big business has pushed the industry. It has started on the back of crowd funding with start up companies putting out protein bars and crackers. If an insect movement is to gain momentum, it will be up to us as consumers. If you would like to see a change, vote with your dollar, support the startups, and spread the word.
Michelle Pearson is a second-year Master’s student studying Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition.