Bitten by the bug - should we all be eating edible insects?

They are high in fat and protein, and are less resource intensive to raise – so should we all be eating insects, asks Michelle Darmody

Eating insects. Would you? There is a word for the human consumption of insects; entomophagy. I love finding new words, interesting ones that confuse the tongue. This word was new to me, yet it describes an ancient practice.

I was in Copenhagen at a food conference named Mad (the Danish word for food) a few years ago and world renowned, Brazilian, chef Alex Atala brought Amazonian ants for the audience members to taste. As he passed around a large bowl, both intrepid and tentative hands took their ant and waited until the chef told us all to eat them at the same time.

‘Lemongrass!’ was the surprised exclamation throughout the room — a room full of expert chefs and food producers. People were very pleasantly surprised at the taste. I have since learnt that the sour, lemongrass-like flavour comes from formic acid in the ants’ defence mechanism and that many other insects have the same flavour.

There is an aversion to the very idea of eating insets in most Western countries. This arises from habits and customs and I guess from the portrayal of clawing insects in films and on television. We eat prawns, I have eaten very tasty snails, but when it comes to crickets or ants there is a gasp, a yeuch factor.

We do however, already have some insects hidden within our diet; when we eat anything processed with a red or pink hue it is most lightly made using the cochineal beetle. These tiny beetles, of Mexican origin, live on cactus plants and look a slate grey when initially dried out. Once you crush them however, an intense ruby red colour emerges. This has been utilised by food manufactures for generations.

In Thailand, people do not consider the eating of insects as bizarre or react squeamishly. Professor Yupa Hanboonsong, one of the co-authors of a book entitled Six-Legged Livestock says that, “In Thailand we don’t treat insects as rustic fare nor food for survival. We are showing the world that insects are just another gastronomic option, that are as tasty and nutritious as mainstream meat.”

She states that “the only thing that makes a grasshopper different from a shrimp is that they can fly”. In fact 112 countries other than Thailand, nations in Asia, Africa, parts of Europe and South America, have long eaten insects. Insects are not simply picked from a leaf and eaten raw, neither are dead insects ever used for human consumption. There is a meticulous process for how farmers raise and clean the edible insects.

I know it may seem unpalatable but there are many other good reasons to start thinking about the possibility of introducing insects into our diet. Insects are cold-blooded and thus require less energy to maintain their internal body temperature than other creatures. This means they are very efficient at converting feed into edible body mass, unlike cattle.

The United Nations has beed advocating for more consideration to be paid to entomophagy. In a report brought out in 2013, entitled, Edible Insects Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, the UN makes very clear statements and recommendations on how the world should increase the intake of insects as food. They list health and environmental benefits as well as economic and social ones.

However, the Food Safety Authority in Ireland still does not allow the sale of any insects for human consumption, even when very large numbers of other countries do.

Coast bar: Includes flour made from insects

Bakeries in Finland are making bread with ground crickets, granola makers in California are using dried grasshoppers, chocolate bar makers in Canada use insect meal and farmers in Asia and Africa all successfully create food products with edible insects. It may be time to start reconsidering our laws. It is estimated that two billion people eat insects regularly as part of their everyday diet and do not have any cultural resistance to the idea.

The protein provided by insects, unlike other meat substitutes, contains all of the amino acids needed for a healthy body. In short it is a full, complete, healthy way to gain protein. In many African countries, especially during the rainy season when hunting game or fish can be is difficult insects play an important role in food security.

When farming crickets, for example, just one gallon of water is needed to farm enough crickets for one pound of protein. To produce the same weight of beef, a cow and methods used to farm that cow, will use about 2,000 gallons of water. Also those animals create greenhouse gas emissions, with the livestock sector presently creating more damaging emissions than the whole of the transport sector.

Not surprisingly, research is being conducted into the use of insect farming for spaceship crews and could be the answer to providing protein in this strange, extraterrestrial environment. Insects can convert low-quality plant materials to highly palatable animal protein and, as mentioned, the fact that they are cold-blooded allows them to convert this plant matter extremely efficiently without much water or energy.

Ingesting the ground meal, or flour made from insects is a very good way to introduce them subtly into our diet. Protein bar makers, Coast, in Vancouver Canada are harnessing the potential of this high-protein food source and marketing it to avid gym users and athletes. The beautiful packaging of their bars belies that icky or yeuchy factor, and the realisation they are nutritionally beneficial as well as environmentally sustainable makes for a great sales pitch.

There is always lucrative business potential in predicting and identifying what the next big food fad will be. If this is it, and our laws are brought in line with other countries, I have no doubt many trendy companies will be marketing insect protein bars very soon. The challenge will be to get away from a feeling of gimmickry and to change the “they are not that bad” reaction to “they are actually really good”.

Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil, and the land and environment is suffering hugely because of it, forests are being felled and the soil which was once beneath the ancient trees is being eroded away. An alternative oil to palm oil can be created from insects and it is far more environmentally friendly option for cooking. BiteBack Indonesia is a small, but growing, company that is trying to tackle and curb the production of palm oil. They are producing a cooking oil extracted from insects that is the same consistency as regular cooking oil, and testers said they did not notice any taste difference. The oil is made of insects, it is high in iron, addressing what can also be a health problem in many countries. The really interesting statistic is that 150 tonnes of insect oil can be produced in one hectare of land per year, compared to just four tonnes of palm oil in the same area over the same period.

Coast bar: Includes flour made from insects

In South Africa, a company, that recently won BBC’s Food Champions award, AgriProtein is producing feed for the fish and poultry sector by farming insects. The logic behind its product is that we should not be trawling our seas or using agricultural land for ingredients for animal feed. Many animals naturally eat insects and insects multiply at a huge rate. It has created a food named MagMeal. The insect grubs used in its manufacture are fed on waste food that would otherwise have gone to landfill, alleviating another problem as it is produced.

How we create food and how we transport food will be very important as the world’s population expands. We have the ability to produce enough food for the population but we are not always successful at transporting it to those who need it; be it war, infrastructure or trade embargoes, people go hungry.

Getting our protein from cows, no matter how tasty, is not sustainable for everyday use for an increasing population. As more people in the world desire and can afford meat we can not keep expanding the land used for cattle or over-relying on water to tend them.


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