What Science Says About 'Edible Insects'

The global population continues to grow, and so does the demand for food. Protein alternatives, including edible insects, as a meat replacement, represent one potential solution to bridge the gap between food supply and demand. And this isn’t just some recent fad — insect eating dates back to prehistoric times.

Key takeaways:
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    Insects have been eaten since prehistoric times and are commonly consumed in 113 countries.
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    Edible insects represent one alternative food source to help bridge nutrient gaps.
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    Edible insects are a dense nutrient and highly digestible protein source comparable to common meat sources.
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    Research regarding food fortification with insects is in its infancy and has not yet been perfected.
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    Eating insects may pose some health risks. Experts recommend only eating raised-for-human-consumption insects from trusted farms.

Scientists discovered evidence of insect-eating in fossils in the USA and Mexico and prehistoric cave paintings in Spain. The practice predates the age of farming and hunting tools, as insects are a convenient and easily-accessible food source.

What are edible insects?

Edible insects are those that humans can consume — with minimal risk of poisoning or ill health effects compared to non-edible insects. They provide an alternative and high-quality protein source compared to meat. Edible insects already consumed in 113 countries include crickets, black soldier fly larvae, grasshoppers, locusts, and termites.

Insects are considered by many to be a more sustainable source of protein as they are prolific and require fewer resources. They also contain high amounts of protein and provide vitamins, minerals, and unsaturated fats. Edible insects may face many challenges before becoming fully accepted as a protein alternative in industrialized countries, but interest is growing. However, insect-based options represent environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient protein sources for a growing global population.

Why do people eat alternative proteins & insects?

According to Don Layman, Ph.D., professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a 40-year scientific researcher of dietary protein’s role in muscle protein synthesis, humans may be near capacity for animal-based protein. Therefore, the development and continued availability of alternative proteins may be a more sustainable approach to helping individuals meet protein needs — more so than carbohydrate sources.

Alternative proteins, such as edible insects, offer an opportunity to meet protein and caloric needs for those concerned with animal welfare conditions or who have limited diets, such as those in developing countries or with medical conditions. Some insects are so rich in iron that they may be a viable way to combat iron deficiency anemia common in women worldwide. Edible insects may also work well for those who have a milk allergy or don’t eat mammals and find it difficult to meet protein needs with meatless meals.

Are edible insects healthy?

Though a definitive definition of healthy food depends on the person, I believe most people would agree food can be classified as healthy if it:

  • supports a growing and aging body
  • delivers nutrient density without excess calories
  • helps to reduce chronic disease risk
  • is minimally processed

Edible insects naturally meet all of these criteria through their abundance of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, low saturated fat-high polyunsaturated fat content, and ability to enhance healthy gut bacteria. A randomized, double-blind crossover 2018 study found that just 25g of cricket powder per day for two weeks resulted in a 5.7-fold increase in a healthy probiotic bacteriumBifidobacterium animals.

If healthy means growing and maintaining muscle mass, improving body composition, and minimizing the risk of sarcopenia (accelerated muscle loss with age), then consuming adequate amounts of protein is crucial. Research shows that several edible insects provide similar complete proteins — all the essential amino acids for muscle development and growth — compared to popular livestock sources. High-protein edible insects include the yellow mealworm, locust, moths and caterpillar larvae, grasshoppers, and crickets. Not only are these insects rich in protein, one study reports their protein digestibility — the amount of protein the body can digest and use for biological purposes — is superior to most plant proteins.

Are edible insects safe to eat?

Health concerns reported by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) include heavy metal content, feeding, and processing practices, consumption of wild vs. farmed-for-human-consumption insects, and use of antimicrobials and antibiotics in farming. It is also important to note that those with a shellfish allergy are at a higher risk of experiencing an insect allergy.

To avoid choking and intestinal blockage hazards, removing the legs/wings of grasshoppers and crickets (if eating them whole) is recommended. In summary, to minimize risks, the EFSA recommends consuming only farmed-for-human-consumption insects from reputable producers who control feeding, growing, and processing conditions.

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