Eating Insects - Food to Feed People and Help the Environment
The Protein Solution
The idea of eating insects is repulsive to some people and mouth watering to others. Insects are an optional part of our diet at the moment, but they may be required in the future. They are actually a protein-rich and nutritious food that can be produced with far fewer resources than traditional farm animals. Farming insects is also a much more environmentally friendly method of food production than other farming methods.
Many cultures and countries already eat insects, a process known as entomophagy. Deep fried insects are a popular snack in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, for example. Almost everyone else eats insects, too, although they may not realize this. Many foods obtained from plants contain tiny bits of insect bodies. These "enriched" foods include some vegetables, fruits and grains, peanut butter, many spices and chocolate.
Many experts say that a food crisis is looming. The Earth's population is continuing to grow, but the increase in the amount of food available isn't keeping pace. We will almost certainly have to turn to non-traditional sources of food for at least some of our calories in the not too distant future. Insects are a prime candidate for one of these new foods.
Entomophagy around the World
Insects have been eaten by humans for thousands of years. It's estimated that at least 1,900 different insect species have been used as a food source. Examples include crickets, grasshoppers and locusts, cockroaches, beetles, termites, ants, bees and wasps, caterpillars and mealworms. Bugs are widely eaten, too. In North America, the word "bug" is often used by the general public to mean "insect", but bugs are actually a distinct order of the class Insecta.
Humans eat all stages of an insect's life cycle - adults, nymphs (immature stages), pupae and eggs. Today some insects are farmed, but in many countries they are caught by local people and provide an important source of income.
Insects are sometimes eaten raw but are often cooked. Preparation techniques include boiling, roasting, grilling and baking. Insects are also stir-fried, deep fried or added to porridge or rice. In many parts of the world today, insects are considered to be a delicacy.
Buying and Eating Insects at a Thailand Food Market
Feeding an Increasing Population
The world's population is currently over seven billion people. It's projected to reach eight billion people by 2025 and nine billion by 2050.
The United Nations has published some frightening statistics in relation to the production of food for humans.
- Food production must double by 2050 in order to support everybody on Earth.
- More than one billion people on Earth are hungry (as of 2009).
- The diet of two billion people is deficient in micronutrients.
At the moment, more than two thirds of the agricultural land on Earth is used for growing feed for livestock in order to supply the increasing demand for meat. Only eight percent of the land is used to grow food for humans.
Professor Arnold van Huis is an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. With reference to our increasIng desire for meat, he's been quoted as saying "If we continue like this we will need another Earth".
Environmental Problems Caused By Meat Production
Animal farming methods can cause big problems for the environment. These problems are becoming more serious because fields filled with free roaming livestock are disappearing in many parts of the world. Industrial or factory farming is taking over. In these operations, animals are crowded into enclosures and produce concentrated waste, runoff and odour.
- 18% of greenhouse gases are produced by farm animals, including 37% of the methane and 9% of the carbon dioxide.
- The huge factory farms that are becoming more and more common use large amounts of energy and fresh water.
- Runoff filled with animal waste causes soil erosion and damages the environment.
- Forests and grasslands around the world are being destroyed to make room for livestock.
- Antibiotics are given to many farm animals to keep them healthy and to enhance their growth. There are concerns that the presence of these medications in meat is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.
Economic and Environmental Benefits of Eating Insects
Insects are abundant on Earth. Of course, even abundant animals can face population problems as a result of human pressure. Insects can be farmed, however. They produce many offspring and have a high reproductive rate.
Raising insects for food has important economic advantages compared to raising traditional livestock. Unlike mammals and birds, insects don't use food to produce heat to warm their bodies. They are therefore very efficient at converting the food that they eat into tissue that can nourish humans.
According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 2 kg of feed is needed to produce 1 kg of insect meat, while 8 kg of feed is required to produce 1 kg of beef. Another common estimate states that 10 kg of feed produces 9kg of meat in insects and only 1kg of meat in cows. Although the numbers are quite different, the general results are the same in both estimates - insects produce a much larger amount of food for humans than cows when given the same amount of feed.
Farming insects also has environmental benefits compared to farming other livestock. Insects produce much less ammonia, methane and other greenhouse gases than traditional farm animals. FAO says that insects can also be used to break down waste, composting the waste as they feed.
Edible Insects in Candy - Really!
Nutritional Benefits of Eating Insects
Some people might think that farming insects is pointless because a huge number of insects are required to produce as much meat as one cow. Many nutritionists say that North Americans are eating far more meat than is necessary for their health, however. In fact, the ingestion of excessive amounts of red meat has been linked to health problems. The big, juicy steak may become a thing of the past sooner than some people would like.
Insects are a nutritious food source. An in-depth analysis of the nutrients in insects hasn't been performed, however. We can't find insects on the online nutrient databases that are available, although we may be able to one day. It is known that insects are an excellent source of protein, though, as well as a great source of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron and zinc
Marcel Dicke is another professor at Wageningen University. In the TED video below, he outlines the benefits of eating insects. He raises the point that many of us enjoy eating shrimp, which are relatives of insects. He says that we need to change our mindset to appreciate insects as food.
Why Not Eat Insects?
An Edible Insect Poll
Are you willing to eat insects?See results without voting
Insects as Food in North America
Giving people who have never eaten insects before a plate of whole animals to ingest is probably not the best strategy for encouraging entomophagy. Grinding roasted insects into a powder and mixing the powder with other foods may be. This is the strategy that some companies in the United States are using. They hope that the disguised insects will be more palatable than the intact ones.
Some examples of food producers in the United States that are adding insects to foods include the following companies. There are many more. A company called Chapul sells energy bars containing traditional ingredients plus cricket flour. Mama Bird provides granola containing insect protein on request. A company called Six Foods sells a product called chirps. Chirps are baked chips (crisps) made from roasted cricket flour and bean flour. The planned name for the chips is amusing, but I wonder if it will backfire on the producers. People may not want to be reminded of living insects as they eat a snack. Six Foods also sells chocolate chirp cookies.
Contamination of Foods With Insect Parts
People in North America already practice entomophagy to a limited extent due to the presence of insects in foods that come from plants. According to the University of California, an average American today eats an estimated two pounds of dead insects and insect parts every year.
It's sometimes said that no one is really a vegan (a person who eats no animals) because of the insect contamination of plants. Although this is true, I think that the vegan diet still has value for someone who wants to protect animals. The more animals that are protected the better, even if some animals aren't helped by a person's efforts.
Eating Insects or Entomophagy
If you want to try eating insects, it might be a good idea to try one of the insect flour products first. They are available online if you can't find them locally. You might be able to find whole insects on the menu in ethnic restaurants. Some ethnic markets may sell edible insects, too.
If you want to collect or farm your own insects, make sure that each insect that you eat is truly edible. If you read that "grasshoppers" are edible, for example, remember that there are many different species of grasshoppers. You need to discover which species in your area are safe if you plan to eat them. Some insects are edible in one stage of their life cycle but not in another, so this is another factor to consider. You also need to find out if your chosen insects are safe only when cooked. Wageningen University maintains a list of edible insects from around the world.
Edible insect cookbooks have interesting recipes for people keen to explore the world of entomophagy. It's important to remember that living insects play vital roles in our lives, however. Trapping or breeding insects for culinary use mustn't harm the populations of wild insects.
References and Further Reading
The Food Crisis
Allowable Insect Parts in Food
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has published a Defects Level Handbook which lists the permissible level of contaminants - including insects - in foods. For example, the hops used to make beer may contain no more than 2,500 aphids per 100 grams of hops. I suggest that you don't look at this document just before eating!
© 2014 Linda Crampton
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